Belgium / Luxembourg / UK / Germany / France, 2007
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 04 March 2008
Source 35mm print
If you’re so frumpy, how come I call you Irina?
Olaf Moller’s critical summary of the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival for Film Comment contains the following review of Sam Garbarski’s Irina Palm: “preposterous one-joker.” The implication of this terse three-word digest is that any film about an older English woman giving hand-jobs to save her grandson is inherently funny. Which is, in essence, what Irina Palm is about: a lonely, conservative woman undertaking an undeniably filthy career – albeit, she thinks, a short one – for the sake of family. But Moller’s pseudo-review isn’t misguided or wrong; instead, its author seems caught in the mindset of a cold subgenre that will never really go away, despite having its heyday in the early 1990s: the story of the compassionate, well-intentioned sex-worker, made popular by Striptease, Showgirls, and Pretty Woman.
Maggie, Garbarski’s heroine, is not a woman of the streets. She is a dour, retired housewife, a widow whose only friends mock her incessantly. She lives in a small, one-story apartment only yards away from her son Tom, whose marriage has begun to buckle under the demands of his own child’s illness; Olly, Maggie’s grandson, needs emergency treatment available only in Australia, where a doctor has agreed to take his case pro bono. Their expenses, though – travel, food, hotels – need to be paid: almost six thousand pounds, far from any amount they have. Unable to find decent, well-paying work on her meager qualification, and having little to borrow against, she interviews for a “hostess” job at Sexy World, where the sight of naked women and racks of hardcore videos sends her fleeing back into the street. When she returns, desperate, head bowed and voice near indecipherable with embarrassment, she is pointed to an office at the end of a long hall, where a gruff, middle-aged businessman named Miki seems unimpressed to see her. After discovering with little reaction that she doesn’t understand the job as advertised – hostess, she thinks, means serving and cleaning – he inspects her hands, remarking how smooth and utterly perfect they are. She flees for a second time, once he’s revealed the work in blunt detail, but the pay is too promising, and she returns the following afternoon to accept.
If Irina Palm contains any humor at all, it’s derived from the discomfort felt at seeing such a peaceable woman degrade herself for something so personal. Our first look at her is obscured by the large teddy bear she’s purchased for Olly, which she squeezes between herself and the dashboard of Tom’s car as they drive to the hospital; her future is literally obscured by the love she has for her grandson, manifested in a large present. When Miki details the responsibilities of a Sexy World hostess with graphic nonchalance, followed by a cut to a stunned and silent Maggie, we laugh because of the contrast—a man who sees what he does as causal business against a woman who sees what he does as an unconscionable perversion. When Maggie, finally worn down by the sarcastic personal attacks made against her by her friends, a group of unattached spinsters, she casually answers their goading questions with “I wank men off,” followed by a subdued declaration: “I’m Irina Palm.” Unlike Showgirls or Striptease, both of which are weighed down by levels of camp – the waterfall sex scene, Burt Reynolds as a lust-hungry congressman – and Pretty Woman, Garry Marshall’s idealistic Cinderella story wrapped in the cloak of a romantic comedy, Irina Palm takes its subject matter seriously. Maggie is not a young woman trapped in the rusty joints of a pipe dream, a prostitute looking for her Prince Charming, or a divorcee looking to get custody of her daughter.
Instead, she belongs to a resurging cinematic trend that has slowly begun moving into the mainstream. Pedro Almodovar’s Volver, Lajos Koltai’s Evening, and especially Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: Land of My Dreams, share a commonality in subject with Irina Palm in that all four concern solitary mothers who are liberated by the revealing of secrets. (You could even make a case for Chan-Wook Park’s Lady Vengeance, in which the heroine remains cold and indifferent towards both her estranged daughter and young lover by an endless desire for retribution; her epiphanic self-offering at the film’s close, in which she buries her face in a plain white cake while snow falls around her, is beautiful in its heartbreak.) In the case of Irina Palm and Grbavica, both Maggie and Zbanic’s Esma are older, frumpish women who are liberated by dangerous men – Miki in Irina Palm and Pelda in Grbavica – at sordid places of work. The secrets both women reveal – Maggie about her profession and Esma about her daughter’s father – accompany an awareness on our part that both women are not the greatest of caregivers. Trying hard to raise their children (and, in Maggie’s case, grandchild), both admit to their shortcomings as parents, with Maggie begging for understanding and Esma erupting in a fit of anger and exhaustion.
Yet their limitations as mothers add a sense of realism to both films, and at times they seem like heirs to the great cinematic matriarchs of the last half-century: Cesira from De Sica’s Two Women, Helen from A Taste of Honey, Moshe Mizrahi’s Madame Rosa. They are women not without their flaws who, by each film’s close, have solidified their reputations as strong, caring, and repentant, their eyes set on the days to come rather than the years that have gone. For all three, resolution comes with a sense of finality: there is an unspoken reconciliation, there is togetherness, there is a plea for forgiveness, there is death. In Irina Palm, the conclusion feels just as assured. We understand that Maggie’s family will continue for the better, even with her profession now lurid local gossip and her life left in a deep, resounding intermission. There is a sudden, wordless exposure of emotion that threatens to change her for the better, and it leaves her once directionless life facing an unexpected road. Just as Esma leaves Zbanic’s film waving goodbye to her daughter, Almodovar’s Irene leaves as a living ghost to comfort a dying friend, or Koltai’s Ann finds her desired reunion at the cliffs, Maggie leaves the screen with a look of freedom.