10/40/70 #19: Notes on a Scandal


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Notes on a Scandal, directed by Richard Eyre and based on a novel by Zoë Heller.

Notes on a Scandal (2006, dir. Richard Eyre; based on a novel by Zoë Heller)

10 minutes:

Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) targets Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) as her next prey, although at this point in the film we have no idea of the sociopathic heartbeat that propels Barbara. She is a heat-seeking missile disguised as a human being. In this frame, Sheba and Barbara eat lunch together with Sue (Joanna Scanlan) at the school cafeteria. The film uses Barbara’s voice-over to great effect, weaving it in and out of the “real time” of the film, blurring past and present. Has what is happening already happened?

“Her voice was pure,” Barbara says, during the scene that includes this frame at 10 minutes. “As if her mouth were empty and clean. As if she’d never had a filling. The complexion of a white peach. One could almost see her veins. Her trendy politics were similarly transparent. I can see why others are beguiled by her, but I wondered if she possesses the requisite heft…” Only as the film unfolds do we realize the loaded meaning of that phrase, “requisite heft.” At the moment it’s spoken it seems to refer to Sheba’s abilities as a teacher: is the young, idealistic, fresh new face up to the challenge of handling these students? But later we realize that Barbara has been sizing up her prey: is Sheba, she wonders, worthy and substantial enough to merit the chase? Is she worth Barbara’s time and energy? Is she a challenging enough sort of victim?

“Her trendy politics were similarly transparent,” Barbara says. The truth of this statement is uncomfortable, perhaps, to viewers who identify with Sheba’s confessionalist idealism, her carefully cultivated shabby-chic disorder that she deploys to take the edge off her fierce beauty. Barbara, on the other hand, is a rigid enforcer of the Old Order (“teaching is crime control … we’re a branch of the social services,” she tells Sheba) meting out quick and harsh Hobbesian judgments about the weak and the strong, the talented and talentless.

But it is the fact of Sheba’s face which dominates the frame. She is looking at nothing, thinking. Perhaps she is thinking of Steven (Andrew Simpson), the student with whom she is having sex, although we don’t know this yet. [NOTE: The remainder of this paragraph violates, in extremis, the principles of the 10/40/70 project. Like my Danish brothers and sisters, I hereby confess that I am in breach of 10/40/70 for the next 138 words.]  More likely, Sheba is looking back into Inland Empire, which was released three months prior to Notes on a Scandal. Sheba gazes at her double, Nikki (Laura Dern). The alarmism today is that images speak so freely to each other across boundaries. In China Miéville’s novel The City and The City, the narrator says “As if that were not mystery enough and as if two crosshatched countries were insufficient, bards invented that third, the pretend-existing Orciny.” Notes on a Scandal and Inland Empire are similarly crosshatched films. Their obvious differences make the connection all the more secret. The face of Cate Blanchett and the face of Laura Dern are crosshatched signals. Both movies depend so much upon the faces of their stars. Here are two faces of Nikki from More Things That Happened (Inland Empire, disc two):

40 minutes:

Sheba has yet again been accused of shallowness during a Norman Rockwell gone sour Christmas party at her home, this time by her mother, whom Sheba overhears: “She’s [Sheba] beautiful, thank God, and it’s got her through, but it’s not quite the same as possessing substance.” We witness the flicker of pain that passes through Sheba’s face. We want to sympathize with Sheba, and yet the film does not make this so easy. Although the line is spoken by a minor, icy character, we begin to wonder: might Sheba’s mother—and Barbara—be right? Is Sheba just a homewrecking (we learn that her husband Richard abandoned his wife and children for Sheba), talentless, shallow, narcissistic seductress of immature teenage kids, unfulfilled because there is nothing inside her to fill? Who is more of a monster, Barbara or Sheba?

At the 40-minute frame, Sheba’s loverboy Steven (Andrew Simpson) waits outside Sheba’s home with a gift. He messages her to meet him.  She takes out the trash and there he is:

Steven: Happy Christmas.

Sheba: What are you doing here? Everyone’s inside.

Steven: (Hands her a small, wrapped gift.) Aren’t you going to open it?

Sheba opens it, taking out a gold necklace.

Steven: It’s made of real fake gold.

The shot captures them at twilight, sneaking around beneath the bourgeois radar, pathetic in their attempts to think they can simply seize happiness. This moment—when it all begins to unravel—is an antidote to the culture-industry falsity that life is full of choices and options and is subject to the simple exertion of free will that suggests, want to be happy, then simply make yourself happy! Instead, Sheba and Barbara and Richard and Steven and the others are cogs performing specific and delineated social functions, which the movie references in its casual and quick references to class and taste and talent. That the outcome of the affair will be predictably nasty is not simply the film’s conservative judgment of the characters, but equally a judgment against a social system whose rules and taboos and codes are rooted in the most arbitrary patriarchal of traditions. Sheba is “a slut.” The boy is not. Sheba will bear the “moral” burden and blame as she is devoured by the media sharks.

The movie’s complexity lies in this contradiction. On the one hand, Notes on a Scandal is relentlessly conservative, illustrating what happens when social norms are transgressed. In this light, the movie suggests, step out of line and the culturally sanctioned policers of the breach (the law, institutions such as schools and churches, the media, and more importantly “everyday people”) will bring you down, teaching a lesson to all. On the other hand, however, by detailing the particularities of Sheba’s transgression and her human frailties, we come to see her as a flawed human being, like ourselves. From this angle it is not Sheba or Steven who are morally compromised, but an entire ideological system which does not recognize or sanction the complexities of human desire.

70 minutes:

The scandal has broken, although at this point Sheba mistakenly believes that Steven confessed it to his mother, when it was Barbara who spread the information. In this frame, Barbara is at home, watching the news. The light from the television illuminates her face, as a reporter says that “Today St. George’s school is a solemn place. A source close to the school has indicated that another member of staff may have known of the relationship.” Barbara, Sheba, Steven, Richard, all of them, their lives are beyond their lives now. They have entered a realm where their magnified lives assume greater density than their real lives. They collapse in upon themselves, these characters. They no longer cast shadows. They are the shadows. They have become emblematic of various types. Their lives, in the presumed future narrative of the movie, will be used as lessons. Their desires—deeply felt—seem tawdry now.

Barbara, watching news of herself. Her fist. Her watch. The blue of her eyes and her blouse. The magnificence of her forehead and eyebrows. Staring, as if into a cauldron. She stares into the cauldron of herself.


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →