“Cracks” (2009)

25 July 2011

Thank you, thank you to Madeline for recommending I see Cracks, the debut feature by Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley Scott) based on the novel by Sheila Kohler. If you took an unholy group of other films — say, Heavenly Creatures (1994), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), An Education (2009) and maybe even Fatal Attraction (1987) and Clueless (1995) and mixed them all in a salad bowl — you might have an inkling of what this psychological thriller seeks to achieve. Set in a gloomy, isolated English girls’ boarding school in the interwar years, this film thinks about what happens when a new student arrives cracks the surface calm. Old hierarchies are dislodged, and a teacher’s privileged position teeters to the point that she starts to crack. Do those cracks bring structures to the ground? Or do they, in Doris Lessing’s words, make “cracks where light could shine through at last”?

When we first meet anti-hero Di Radfield (Juno Temple), we know immediately from her piercing eyes that she’s fiercely competitive and intelligent and possessive. We also know that despite her lingering baby fat and unmanageable frizzy hair, she’s possessed of powerful desires — the “lustful thoughts” she admits to during confession. No wonder: she’s in a small rowboat, doing all the work with the oars while her languid teacher, Miss G (Eva Green) shows off that neat mannish outfit and models how one smokes a cigarette to sultry effect. Who wouldn’t desire such a woman? We quickly learn that although Di is the school’s master Mean Girl, the true Queen Bee is Miss G.

Of course she is. All her students are at “that awkward stage” and in various stages of clueless dumpiness, while Miss G waltzes in late to chapel, wears the best clothes, and spins tales of her exotic travels. Miss G has chosen a select group of Di and her friends to join the diving club, where she delivers her self-consciously provocative philosophies to those girls alone. “What is the most important thing in life?” she asks them. After several lame answers like “God” and “death” Di offers up “desire,” with her eyes burning for her luscious teacher. “Yes! You can achieve any thing you want,” Miss G pronounces, with approval to Di. “All you need is to desire it.” From statements like this one gets the sense that, well, Miss G is not altogether sane. Yet her madness appears in keeping with single-sex boarding school life where everyone knows their rank, their place, their scripts. It’s as if there’s no world beyond the walls of the school.

Until Fiamma (María Valverde) arrives, that is, possessed of an orange velvet coat, a pink swimsuit, an array of lovely trinkets and baubles for her bedside, and more worldliness than all the English schoolgirls put together. She’s a Spanish aristocrat, trundled off to this godforsaken school for vague reasons. She receives magical boxes full of strange cookies and wears a satin gown to bed. The headmistress (Sinéad Cusack) instructs Di to welcome Fiamma, but maddeningly the Spanish girl will not bow to Di’s social order. Suddenly, cracks appear in Di’s version of normal. Worst of all, Miss G falls under Fiamma’s spell, and suddenly Di is no longer her teacher’s favorite pupil. Fiamma even has more diving skill than everyone else.Turns out that Fiamma achieves that distance from the awful hothouse of the school because she’s actually traveled widely, read widely, and known interesting people. When Miss G sneaks in to read her confidential file, she learns that Fiamma earned her banishment to England because she nearly succumbed to a scandalous elopement with a commoner. In fact, the more this teacher pries open Fiamma’s glamor, the more we realize that Miss G has been Queen Bee at the school all her life — and that she has lied pathologically to the students about her travels and love affairs and adventures, lifting those tales from books. Who would know better how to impress a set of 15-year-olds than a woman who is still temperamentally 15? And what will such a woman do to win over that girl?

Cracks deals with power, sex, and same-sex desire in a school setting in a way that captures the bizarre dynamics of sex and learning better than any other film I’ve seen. We’ve seen girls falling for their male teachers and older men; this story, which focuses solely on women, seems fresh. Is it overheated? Well, of course. (Overheated is a primary mode of existence for 15-yr-old girls, after all.) The leads are terrific in their roles; and even if the story seems to barrel toward an inevitable conclusion, you’ll still be surprised by how it gets there.

I’m surprised this film got such limited release. I wouldn’t have known of it except for Madeline’s recommendation, and it took two years to get it on DVD in the US and available via Netflix. And this from a director who (presumably) has the power of the Ridley Scott family to help propel the film. What does a girl have to do to get a film into release?