Paul Schrader's Master Gardener is a film that tears itself apart (2023)

Paul Schrader has described his new film, "Master Gardener," as the third in his "Man in a Room" trilogy. The first two entries, "first reform" y "the card counter”, focuses on men who embark on a path of public virtue (the clergy, military service) and discover a hypocritical swamp of villainy beneath their honorable uniforms. Both films are characterized by a solid and powerful unity, in which the guilty and self-flagellating devotion of the leads is combined with the almost apocalyptic rejections of the world as it progresses. The director's austere and compressed style follows the course of his escalating sentences. These are movies of radical politics, radical solutions.

But "master gardener” is a film that tears itself apart. Here, Schrader tells a different kind of story, with a different kind of dramatic scheme and approach, and the result is a jarring, ironic separation of style and substance. The film leaves their resignations and disappointments in the background, long before the action of the present begins. The protagonist is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who manages the luxurious gardens of the venerable property of the imperious Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). He works with a group of young assistants, whom he teaches the art of gardening and the science of botany, while he teaches them life lessons by instilling firm order with gentle discipline.

Narvel has a dark past: he was raised as a proud white, neo-Nazi, and has a chest full of tattoos, including swastikas, SS insignia. and the phrase "White Pride" - to prove it. Bred to hate, he hated. he rose to kill, he killed. But he had a crisis of conscience, he handed over state evidence to his group and entered a witness protection program. His manager, Deputy US Marshal Neruda (Esay Morales), arranged for him to work with Norma, who knows his background. Narvel is reformed, shamed, repentant, and square in the eyes of the law. But he owes a huge intellectual and moral debt that he deals with in his obsessive journal and that he hopes to recognize with his good deeds in maintaining the garden (and the charities he benefits) and in youth orientation. His demeanor is strictly formal: his hair is swept back in a disciplined part and, when he's not wearing work clothes, he dresses austerely and displays a slender form to match. It is as if his rigid command and his reserve sealed any cracks through which his inner life might be in danger of being exposed.

But Narvel has no secrets from Norma. She is not only her benefactor, but also her lover, or rather, she is something like her gigolo. She lives in a country house on her farm, a few steps from her "big house" that looks like a mansion. when she invites him to dinner, he also dresses up and the night ends when she takes him to her room to have sex. There, she insists that Narvel, whom she calls a "sweet pea", strip naked so she can see his gruesome tattoos. the implication is that they turn it on. It is never made clear how Narvel feels about this bond. Although her journal entries are spoken aloud as he writes them, none of them address this relationship. However, the film offers a glimpse of where it stands in relation to the course of events that gives the drama its main source.

Norma learns that her granddaughter Maya Core (Quintessa Swindell), who is in her twenties, is in trouble and stuck. To get her out of trouble and improve her behavior, Norma asks Narvel to take Maya as her apprentice. Norma calls Maya "mixed blood" and goes through the family history of mistrust and alienation. Narvel welcomes her but finds her irritable and wary. Norma keeps her at arm's length and a conflict quickly arises between them. Spoilers ahead, Narvel gets Maya out of trouble with a combination of peer pressure, tough love, and physical violence. He also falls in love with her. (Norma calls him Humbert Humbert, who lives a fantasy similar to "Lolita"). He feels that Maya loves him too. when complications arise, they separate and become lovers.

The irony of the film lies in the false unity of background and style. Schrader's direction, with its repertoire of images shot by cinematographer Alexander Dynan, is as strict, stern and understated as his star's strictly disciplined manner. Despite its starkly light surfaces, the film is elusive, strange, practically iridescent. Schrader does not seem to be more interested in the neo-Nazi mentality than in the political and social ideals that Narvel now holds. My impression is that the choice of Narvel's sinister story is symbolic. The concept of racial hatred itself is presented without a larger context or explicit discussion, unrelated to a broader range of experiences or personal history. Instead, Schrader seems to have chosen it as the worst possible characteristic, in light of the progressive art audience, in order to claim for his viewers the possibility of redemption from such utter evil, through a change of heart, of good works. , and a sense of self-punishing submission to the terms and conditions of his new life. Furthermore, Narvel's sexual relationship with Norma seems purely mechanical, a scripted device among the submissive escapades he endures on his way to repentance. (He never utters a word or a sneer or a hint of self-contempt; the intuition is left to the viewer.) Similarly, Narvel's turn to violence in the name of Maya, a one-way violence that, in contrast to the scenes of brutality in "First Reformed" and "The Card Counter", there is no danger and no honor for the protagonist; seems to be just a plot point.

During my first viewing of Master Gardener (when it screened at the New York Film Festival last fall), the relationship between Narvel and Maya struck me as a superficial and almost contentless relationship that bluntly and condescendingly underscored the bias of absence. of Narvel, even if he saw Maya. as a mere two-dimensional symbol of her supreme moral well-being. Rewatching Master Gardener, now in theaters, this relationship emerges as the focus of the film, with Maya emerging as its late lead. The review emphasizes the issue of who takes the initiative in mating, how, and under what conditions. Far from a political drama or the redemption of a political villain, "Master Gardener" is more of a love thriller, in which Narvel is a mere pawn in a grudge power struggle between Norma and Maya, with the characteristics of women. and Narvel. The background serves solely as a formally constructed, neutral game board on which bold tactics and subtle strategies are played out. The film's politics is, above all, sexual, and its moral stakes have nothing to do with Narvel's extrication from a swamp of hate.

Although billed as the third entry in Schrader's "man in a room" cycle, "Master Gardener" is completely different from the other two: it's a "man and woman in a room" movie. Rather than follow the style of his immediate predecessors, it echoes one of Schrader's much earlier masterpieces: here, four decades after it was built."american gigolo”, the director responds to his own work. In that earlier film, a male sex worker learns not to do for money what should only be done for love. Now Schrader puts other terms in place of money, revealing modes of supposed repentance and moral redemption that are just as mercenary and selfish. And, as in "American Gigolo", the protagonist of "Master Gardener" learns the lesson of love from him mainly as the passive subject of the coin of fate. For the rest, the themes of history and race, tutoring and gardening are, for better or worse, just as decorative and useful as the Armani clothes and electro-disco soundtrack from the previous film: spectacular, forward-looking icons. the outside of the time. ♦

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