“Smile,” Alan Funt used to say on his TV show, “you’re on Candid Camera.”

“Gotcha!” Sacha Baron Cohen might say, “you’re in my movie, Borat, and you’ve signed the release forms, and so you will continue to make an ass of yourself from here to digital eternity.” For what is Borat if not a Candid Camera for our bumptious times? Well...isn’t it a satire of racist, homophobic America? Doesn’t Borat, Cohen’s pseudo-Kazakhstanian concoction, tour America to make a documentary (a mission soon superceded by the much nobler quest to meet and woo the voluptuous actress Pamela Anderson), along the way encountering several real, presumably uncoached Americans and, through his inimitable interviewing (“Will you have sex with me?” “May I make filth in your sink?”), doesn’t he puncture our pretensions, reveal our hypocrisies, and chastise our bigotries?

Certainly, Borat does elicit some homophobic, racist, and sexist reactions from the likes of drunken frat boys and leathery rodeo managers, but please tell me the satiric intent of the following episode. Our hero, indicating that he needs to use the bathroom, excuses himself from a dinner party given by well-heeled Southerners and, moments later, returns to ask his alarmed hostess where he should deposit a bundle improvised out of toilet paper supposedly containing his fresh excrement. Cut to the bathroom where the lady patiently explains what the toilet is for. Is the satire here directed against stupid foreigners? Or against uptight society matrons? But how uptight could she have been to display such patience and kindness? Shouldn’t satire be deployed against the powerful and the wicked? Or are we to laugh at the matron for being too stupid to realize she’s been sucked into a hoax?

No, Borat is not satiric but it is satyric. That is, like the short satyr plays that followed Greek tragedies, this film both mocks and revels in the absurdities of the human body, its sexual and excretory functions, and how those functions embarrass and disgust us, yet amuse us precisely because they embarrass and disgust us. This is the hilarity of shock, not the hilarity of moral criticism that satirists such as Aristophanes and Swift employ.

Our best satyric comedians—from the Marx Brothers to Richard Pryor—set up fictional, overstuffed targets (think of Margaret Dumont) and then destroy them with liberating frankness. But don’t Borat’s victims—ambushed hotel clerks, befuddled TV weathermen, and the like—seem a little too vulnerable to need puncturing? Granted, some of the put-ons are harmless, some of the dupes react graciously (that weatherman was genuinely amused), and I suspect a couple of them were in on the joke. But the truly vivid scenes, the ones I would guess Cohen counts as truly successful, are the ones that either gave real offense to the participants or caused actual havoc (Borat chasing Pamela Anderson out of her book signing amid the screams of onlookers and the onrush of bodyguards). There is no denying the fascination of embarrassment, the Candid Camera factor. But while Alan Funt merely wanted to “catch us in the act of being ourselves,” Cohen wants to catch us in the act of enduring Borat.

But, if you’re willing to put up with the rest of the movie, you’ll be rewarded with one extraordinary scene. Borat goes to a fundamentalist revival meeting in Texas and attempts to be his usual obnoxious self, but how can one be merely obnoxious when dozens of Jesus votaries are hanging over you, massaging your shoulders, grabbing your head, speaking in tongues, falling backwards, embracing you physically and emotionally, and roaring in your ears that YOU MUST LOVE THE LORD! In this context, the nonsense that comes out of Borat’s mouth begins to sound like the ravings of someone who really wants to be saved, and, to the testifying worshipers, it all seems yanked out of him by their fervor. He ceases to be a provocateur and becomes foam on the evangelical ocean. The groundswell of their emotions undercuts his mischief, so he must react to them instead of, as usual, the other way round. At this point, the real and the factitious, the snarky and the sincere, sneaky malice and suffocating benevolence, jostle one another so chaotically that this film slides right out of its already unstable genre and into a category all its own. Overwhelmed by the dancing, the flailing, the shouting, the wailing of the God-possessed, Borat begins to look almost poignant.

The movies used to treat our leaders as divinities. FDR in Yankee Doodle Dandy was photographed only from behind his left shoulder as if the luster of his countenance would strike us senseless (the same treatment accorded Christ in Ben-Hur). But nowadays, TV satire gives us a drooling idiot named Bush, a frigid sociopathic Cheney, a gluttonous conman version of Clinton. Satire never pretends to be fair and it’s a lot more fun than the old piety, yet a surfeit of it reinforces the all-pervading nastiness of the way we live now.

So The Queen registers as something of a shock. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that treats current heads of state in such a manner. The protagonists Elizabeth II and her Prime Minister Tony Blair are seen without reverence, yet also without a trace of derision. These creatures of recent headlines are portrayed with the mellow candor of Chekhov. Screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears are too intelligent to pretend that the Queen and Blair are, at heart, just plain folks: he is hopped up on ambition and she almost mildewed by her consciousness of herself as the embodiment of British majesty. But the PM is also an intelligent politician trying to direct modern moods into fruitful channels. When Princess Diana dies, Blair rightly senses that the public outpouring of grief includes a certain animosity towards the royals, so he wants the Queen to allay it by mourning openly with the nation. However, the measures he considers condignly popular Elizabeth disdains as trendy obeisance. Since she thinks of Blair as a slave of fads while he sees her as a woman trying to turn herself into a mummy, they make each other’s gorge rise. Morgan and Frears probe these antagonists with the very empathy neither can feel for the other during the crisis.

Appropriately, the essence of the movie is conveyed by the three scenes in which Elizabeth and Blair literally can’t see one another: three phone conversations that chart the battle of wills as to whether there should be a state funeral for Diana. The struggle is conveyed by their tones of voice, their inflections, pockets of silence, hesitations, elongations of vowels, his occasional stutter, her sudden snubs. It is a struggle that, of course, we know he will win, but these conversations lay bare not only Blair’s shrewdness, but his decency, not only her stubbornness, but her dignity.

Interspersing these duologues are the scenes of the royal family members comforting and irritating each other at the Balmoral estate, and these are paralleled by the scenes of Blair and his staff scrambling after polls and monitoring the press. The Balmoral moments are shot with 35 mm. pictorial luxuriousness, while the Downing Street maneuvers are captured with hand-held cameras and lots of panning shots: visual steadiness for royalty and visual jitteriness for the politicians tracking the zeitgeist. Perfect.

Perfect, too, are all the performances, led by Helen Mirren’s granitic but touching Elizabeth and Michael Sheen’s Blair, looking like a kinder version of Batman’s Joker. They both have their bad angels. Prince Philip (an excellent comic performance by James Cromwell) embodies total reactionary recalcitrance, which Elizabeth finally avoids, while Alistair Campbell, the PM’s press secretary, conveys sleazy cynicism, which Blair finally denounces. (Many people have wondered what the Queen will think of this movie if she ever sees it. I’m more curious about Campbell’s reaction.) At the fade-out, the erstwhile antagonists walk through the royal gardens discussing the welfare of the people. Two winners. And this movie is a winner, too.

Published in the 2006-12-15 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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