Out of the Past

Gillies MacKinnon's robustly directed, fiercely pictorial, drastically sanitized, and ultimately bungled adaptation of Esther Freud's 1992 novel, Hideous Kinky, is not what it might have been. Still, thanks in part to Kate Winslet's adventurous performance, it's a more vivid and even affecting movie than it deserves to be.

The tale of a London flower child wandering through the teeming souks, hash dens, and crash pads of late-'60s North Africa with two small daughters in tow, Freud's novel was most striking for being told, semiautobiographically, from the perspective of the younger child and, hence, with a child's acceptance of adult antics. Gillies MacKinnon's movie, directed from his brother Billy's screenplay, is considerably less focused. The first scene is a vision of an English girl lost in the Marrakech medina's maze of narrow alleys. This anxiety dream may be appropriate (Esther Freud is the great-granddaughter of Sigmund himself), but, as attributed to the child's mother, Julia (Winslet), it has the effect of immediately confusing the movie's point of view.

Actually, it is Julia who is lost in the labyrinth. Hideous Kinky is purposefully elliptical in its narrative development and deliberately incoherent in its spatial geography. Waiting in vain for her feckless poet-husband to send her a check from London, free-spirited Julia moves from one dump to another, dreaming of Sufis, ineptly trying to hustle wealthier tourists, and taking up with the marketplace acrobat Bilal, a sweet-tempered vagabond played by Saïd Taghmaoui (the fastest talking of the three banlieuards in Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate).

Souking up the atmosphere: Winslet in Hideous Kinky
Stratosphere
Souking up the atmosphere: Winslet in Hideous Kinky

Details

Hideous Kinky
Directed by Gillies MacKinnon
Written by Billy MacKinnon from
the novel by Esther Freud
A Stratosphere Entertainment release
Opens April 16

Photographer
Directed by Dariusz Jablonski
Written by Jablonski, Andrzej Bodek, and Arnold Mostowicz
A Seventh Art release
At Film Forum through April 27

Flushed with excitement and damp with sweat, Winslet throws herself into the role of Julia the way Julia hurls herself at Morocco. As her performance has a disarming absence of vanity, so the character reveals a complete lack of self-awareness. Here, even more than in the novel, where Julia can be quite resourceful, five-year-old Lucy (Carrie Mullan) and seven-year-old Bea (Bella Riza) are pointedly less childlike than their impulsive, unrealistic 25-year-old mother.

Perhaps attempting to protect Julia from further viewer disapproval, the filmmakers downplay her casual kef smoking and eliminate the kids' fondness for the local hashish fudge, majoun. Still, Hideous Kinky promotes an atmosphere of clamorous sensory overload. MacKinnon favors a moving camera and is fond of shock-cut disorientation. When the whores next door steal Julia's clothes, the ensuing courtyard squabble is staged like a high-velocity squash match. Such mad chaos is scarcely inappropriate to the milieu, although one suspects that, for those under the influence, such scenes would have unfolded in slow motion. Parachuting into Marrakech for the Christmas 1968 "love-in," British alternative journalist Richard Neville found an international freak show populated by all manner of "mystics, Maoists [and] stray Living Theatre members" and confessed that "all attempts to retrieve a few unstoned moments" from his sojourn would prove "fruitless."

Although the novel takes place around 1968, the filmmakers push the time frame forward a few years—perhaps to squeeze more early-'70s Richie Havens onto the soundtrack (but not, perversely, the Crosby, Stills and Nash choo-choo chestnut that likely drove the stake through the heart of romantic Marrakech and would seem perfect for the dippy closing moments). In any case, if the movie's most far-out musical touch is the brief shot of a banjo-playing hippie in the souk, the weirdest bit of period resonance is the appearance of Pierre Clementi—a French high-'60s icon long gone MIA—as a continental bon vivant who briefly looks after Julia.

It's being promoted as a love story, but Hideous Kinky (which takes its title from a pet phrase invented by Bea and Lucy) is basically the story of a heroically self-indulgent single mom. With its murky blend of perspectives, however, the movie doesn't sufficiently draw out the family relations—nor, pace Freud, does it illuminate Julia's psychology. When, at one point, she parks disapproving Bea with an expat couple and takes off with compliant Lucy, her giddy lack of responsibility is mirrored by the inarticulate ecstasy of the acid-ripped European hippie they encounter on the road. Just before Julia's nightmares come true, she tells Lucy that what she is seeking is "pure joy, blissful emptiness, no pain"—what Freud somewhat disapprovingly described as the oceanic feeling.

Hideous Kinky's perfunctory happy ending is unfortunate, and it only highlights the movie's deficiencies. Canned Heat and sun-dazed local color are not enough to conjure the cracked cosmology and cannabis-fueled exaltation that could send a woman like Julia heedless into the Sahara, searching for the "annihilation" of her ego.

Photographer, by Krysztof Kieslowski's onetime assistant director Dariusz Jablonski, is a taut and expressionistic evocation of the giant slave-labor sewing factory that was the wartime Jewish ghetto of Lodz.

The first ghetto established in occupied Poland (and the last liquidated), Lodz was administered by the Nazis through their appointed "Jewish elder," a failed textile magnate named Chaim Rumkowski, who, placed in a terrifying and untenable moral position, bought time for many Jews by feeding Nazi deportation quotas with those too sick, too old, or too young to work— including, inevitably, the parents and children of his captive subjects. Before he was gassed at Auschwitz, Rumkowski ran the Lodz ghetto as a personal kingdom, complete with social welfare programs, security police, and a bureau of statistics that chronicled every aspect of Jewish communal life.

The 1982 Swedish documentary The Story of Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz—one of the simplest, least sentimental, and most devastating accounts of the Holocaust—is almost entirely based on the photographs Rumkowski commissioned. Photographer draws on a trove of 400 color slides made by SS accountant and photo- hobbyist Walter Genewein (discovered 40-odd years later in a Vienna secondhand bookstore) and, less austere than the Swedish film, involves two witnesses. Genewein's slides—which he described as images of "subhumans in the process of being civilized by the German culture of work and organization"—are juxtaposed with the recollections of Arnold Mostowicz, a now elderly Lodz ghetto survivor who had worked, under Rumkowski, as a young doctor.

Jablonski repeatedly dissolves the underpopulated streets of present-day Lodz into the wartime ghetto—an eerie juxtaposition of a ghostly, slow-motion, black-and-white present and the frozen Agfachrome past (displays of store mannequins in SS uniforms, piles of confiscated clothing, transports leaving for the east). The oddly posed photos of Jewish work-details are the most compelling—grim, hopeful, curious faces with haunted eyes and hunger-sharpened features. Interrogating these images, Jablonski often brings his camera so close that resolution breaks down. These traces can't speak, but Genewein's smug self-portraits are underscored by Mostowicz's mournful recollections of his own coldness and cowardice in the struggle to survive.

The images are further accompanied by a collage of bureaucratic reports—including Genewein's letters to the Agfa company and memos to Adolf Eichmann, as well as Rumkowski's official missives (read in the original Yiddish). Photographer may strike some as overly baroque. But its initially distracting clutter of staged photos, stark statistics, and angst-producing drone-music coalesces into an unsettling miasma and then a vortex into Europe's heart of darkness.

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