Paedophilia, or pedophilia if you prefer the spelling that’s probably going to win out, is not a pretty thing. In the media and in culture more widely it’s usually portrayed as a case of a rogue male preying on unknown children. In truth it’s much more likely to be about dad having sex with his little princess. For years. However, let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a decent bogeyman. Or boogeyman if you prefer the spelling that’s probably going to win out.
The Woodsman (2004, dir: Nicole Kassell)
Kevin Bacon plays the sex offender, fresh out of prison, whose temporary lodgings are right across the road from a school. Playing it as if everything in his life is tinder and could all catch flame at any minute Bacon gives one of those performances that mark him out as something special. Not many films ask us to feel sympathy for the child molester but in this muted, minor key almost-masterpiece we’re shown a man who craves normality, but is driven by uncontrollable urges, and we feel for him.
L.I.E. (2001, dir: Michael Cuesta)
The acronym of the Long Island Expressway provides the title for Michael Cuesta’s debut, a film that patrols the line between “normal” and “abnormal” urges, focusing first on Paul Dano as a wastrel teenager whose agenda of light burglary brings him into contact with Big John Harrigan, played by Brian Cox with all the menace of Hannibal Lecter but loads more nuance. Does Big John want sex with the young man? We’re not entirely sure. Cuesta is dealing with the relationships that older men have with younger men, a territory society hasn’t been entirely sure about since the ancient Greeks.
Lolita (1962, dir: Stanley Kubrick)
This is not an unproblematic film but Kubrick’s Lolita does present a great opportunity to take a look at what happens when Hollywood gets cute. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the script but presumably had no choice in the casting – Sue Lyons plays Lolita as a young woman, not a young girl, and so the whole discussion about the appropriateness of a middle-aged professor (James Mason) lusting after a 12-year-old is all dissipated. Even so, how often have you seen this on TV, late night or otherwise, or even mentioned whenever Kubrick is discussed? Dangerous stuff, even on the back burner.
Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)
No, incest and paedophilia are not the themes of Chinatown, but the corrupting effect of power, the problems that arise when things that should be in the public domain but aren’t, they both are. So when Faye Dunaway delivers her “She’s my sister AND my daughter” line to Jack Nicholson’s detective Jake Gittes, and points the accusing finger at her dad, (played by John Huston), it’s a metaphor (he’s the man stealing the pure water from the good folk of LA, after all) and, let’s face it, the point where the film tips over into melodrama.
Precious (2009, dir: Lee Daniels)
Rape is not the theme of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) either. But it is just another sign that the life of our central heroine (Gabourey Sidibe) has hit special lows. Does this illiterate New York teen eat so much to make herself unattractive so dad won’t rape her again? The genre is misery memoir, the treatment almost 1950s in its “ripped from the headlines” megaphone approach. But some scenes are so potent – Precious’s mother trying to kill her daughter’s child because she’s jealous of it, and her daughter’s relationship with her man – that carping has to take a back seat.
Hard Candy (2005, dir: David Slade)
A revenge movie in which our heroine – her online name was Thonggrrl14 when paedo Lensman319 (Patrick Wilson) first got in touch – gets payback for “every little girl you ever watched, touched, screwed, killed.” Things do get a bit overblown, it’s true. And the film struggles to keep us from actually feeling sorry for poor Wilson as he’s put through the wringer by a young woman who’s much smarter, tougher, and possibly even nastier than he is. She’s played by Ellen Page, brilliantly. Wilson is unmissable too.
Happiness (1998, dir: Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz’s modern classic of discontent and perversity contains one of the creepiest father/son scenes ever committed to film (hats off to Dylan Baker), so shocking in fact that the film’s original distributor refused to handle it. And it’s the payoff to a film whose subject matter – what limit to the individual right to self-expression and happiness, as guaranteed in the American Constitution – is really tested to the limit. Even the title can be spoken as “A penis”. It’s a comedy. A funny, frightening, squirm-inducing one .
Michael (2011, dir: Markus Schleinzer)
“This is my knife and this is my cock, which shall I stick in you?” the abductor asks the (roughly) ten-year-old boy he’s had locked in his basement for who knows how long. “The knife,” replies the boy. And he means it. Any Austrian film that is about a child being locked up in a basement by a paedophile is obviously going to bring to mind the Josef Fritzl case. The brilliance of Markus Schleinzer’s creepfest with the matter-of-factness of Let the Right One In is that he keeps us rooting for the young boy even as we slightly sympathise for the damaged older male.
Festen (1998, dir: Thomas Vinterberg)
Having announced the Dogme manifesto alongside Lars Von Trier in 1995, Thomas Vinterberg made the first film that stuck to its puritanical precepts (no music, no lighting, no budget, basically). His Festen (aka The Celebration) takes place at a gathering in honour of a family’s patriarch, now celebrating his 60th birthday, at which dark secrets from the past start to knock at the door and then break right through it. It’s a farce done straight, pretty much, Vinterberg forcing his family of shocked and shocking drunks to remain at an event when no real person in their right mind would .
The War Zone (1999, dir: Tim Roth)
Tim Roth’s only directorial effort so far is a tough watch – even the normally beautiful Devon countryside looks brutal through his eyes. Peeking into a dysfunctional family’s inner workings, it paints a more nuanced picture of incest than is usually the case, watching as the power relations between a brother and sister are pathologically distorted by the fact of their moody dad (Ray Winstone) secretly tupping the daughter. Why is she the favourite? That’s the unspoken question written on the sullen face of Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), while his sister (Lara Belmont, in a performance that seemed to promise a great career) uses her brother’s hurt as a “because I’m worth it” salve.
Plus one documentary:
Are All Men Pedophiles? (2012, dir: Jan-Willem Breure)
Netherlander Jan-Willem Breure’s documentary is more about how society deliberately conflates hebophilia (the love of the teenager) with paedophilia and why this has become more problematic in recent years. As a work of academic research it’s not perfect by any means – there are contradictory statements at every turn. But it is more thoughtful than its critics would have us believe, Breure isn’t just a guy who “thinks teenage girls are hot” as the blog Jezebel put it. Its talking heads do know what they’re talking about and at least the film does usefully start the process of unpacking what exactly we mean by such an inflammatory term and why we’re currently obsessed with it.
© Steve Morrissey 2013