THE HUMAN STAIN “…and I just had these car seats cleaned.”

The Human Stain

dir. Benton

Opens Fri Oct 31

Various Theaters

The Human Stain is based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth. It concerns the last days of a Jewish professor who teaches classics at a small New England university. The year is 1998, and a semen stain on Monica Lewinsky's dress obsesses the nation. Also obsessing the nation at this time is Political Correctness; and it is here the seemingly sturdy professor falters, for he calls two lazy African American students, who have never attended his class, "spooks." The professor is fired, and when his wife learns about what has happened to his long career, she dies on the spot. The professor is left alone to think about his life.

The professor has a dark secret, though. He is not Jewish, but African American. His family is undoubtedly black, but he turned out to be the exception. He is very light. Instead of suffering as a black man in racist America, the professor decides to pass--meaning, he dumps his past, his class, his black family (mother and siblings), and becomes officially white. But this is not the important part of the film, though it could have been; his betrayal is like a flaw deep within a diamond, a necessary defect of his near-perfect personality, rather than something that truly troubles his sleep, his peace--he had to do what he had to do. What is important in the film, what the director, Robert Benton, spends most of the time unraveling and working out, is the relationship between the professor and the last love of his life, a janitor played by a terribly thin Nicole Kidman. The janitor is attracted to the professor's prestige; the professor is attracted to the janitor's youth. They have hot sex and eventually fall in love, and it is the quality of this fall into love, its problems, its complexities, the scandal it generates, that the film revolves around. The conclusion of the affair is the substance of The Human Stain.

"For most people, sex is the ultimate act, but [the janitor] uses it as a kind of narcotic to avoid any intimacy," the veteran director Robert Benton explained to me. (Benton, who looks great for a man who has just departed his 60s, is famous for penning Bonnie and Clyde and directing Kramer vs. Kramer.) "So, the love affair between [the professor and the janitor] begins immediately with what is usually the culmination of some form of courtship. There is no courtship. They meet and have sex [in a farm house]. And so they work their way back from sex to intimacy."

This slow and difficult backward movement, from a boiling hot attraction to the cool temperatures of a stabilized relationship, produces the primary tension of the film. "These are two people who are alone, empty, no one else will touch them, and it is what they recognize in each other, that similarity, that sympathy, that brings them together. But [the janitor] can't bear intimacy. [So ultimately it is the professor], in a way, who forces her into an intimate relationship."

The moments the lovers share in the farmhouse, or in public, are seen with almost no embellishments, no impressive photography, or fancy camera work. We watch them as though through a clear window. "I said to the cinematographer [Jean-Yves Escoffier, who died earlier this year while photographing Wong Kar-Wai's new film 2046], what I want is for the film to look like a handwritten letter to a close friend. It should have the honesty of that letter. It should be clear. It should be realÉI told him he was allowed just five beautiful shots and no more. I didn't want the film to be about the cinematographer, but about the actors. I just wanted the actors to stand out, their relationship to be seen plainly and felt. So I chose a cinematographer who loves actors, who works well with actors, and who actors trust."

Nevertheless, the film manages to be lyrical, and the love affair ends, as all love affairs end, tragically. As for Sir Anthony Hopkins, a Welshman playing a Jew who is actually an African American, that is another matter altogether.