Monday, 29 November 2010

Irina Palm (2007)

This is one very peculiar film, both for its star turn and its subject matter. I have been trying to catch up with it for a while, having missed a showing two years ago on one of the minority channels -- and it has only just resurfaced. Although something of a 'Euro-pudding' with its German-born, Belgium-based director and multinational funding, it was made in English with a largely English cast.

What makes it unusual is its strange story and its lead performance from Marianne Faithfull, once the archetypal rock-chick and groupie, who subsequently forged a singing and film career -- although mainly in minor productions -- starting with her cult performance in "Girl on a Motorcycle" (1968). While once a good-looking lass, she has not aged overly well, and here she plays a 50ish widowed grandmother without any attempt at 'glam' and with little false modesty. Her young grandson is dying of some rare disease which has cost his family all of their meagre assets and the only hope is a specialist operation in Australia. While the surgeon's fee would be pro bono, money is needed for flights, accommodation, and the hospital. Faithfull's Maggie, having already sold her house, tries desperately to get further loans or employment, but is turned down everywhere. Walking through Soho she sees a sign in the window of a club looking for a 'hostess'. Thinking that means welcoming the guests or making the tea, she soon finds that it is a euphemism for a sex worker. Too old and plain to join the ranks of the pole and lap dancers, the club's owner Miki -- a wonderful turn from Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic -- sees her soft hands as the answer. She would be perfect as the unseen presence behind a wall giving hand relief to the male organs thrust through a hole. While appalled by the prospect, Maggie is enticed by the potential earnings and reluctantly learns her trade.

There is no graphic portrayal of what she does, with carefully-framed camera shots, although there is plenty of background nudity on the club premises. For a film about 'wanking', it is done in the best possible taste, even when she develops a medical condition labelled 'penis-elbow'! In fact she is so good at her job that the punters queue up for her services and she takes the trade name Irina Palm. Unfortunately it also means that the only friend she has made at the club loses her job for not being as 'in demand' and bitterly rejects her. (I must say that this part of the story didn't ring true, as surely Irina was not available 24/7). Taking advantage of her increasing trade value, Maggie borrows £6000 from Miki, agreeing to work for nothing for the next ten weeks to pay it back. Miki, a cold-hearted businessman, reluctantly agrees to this and despite his increasingly warm feelings towards Irina, threatens to kill her should she renege.

The fly in the ointment is her weakish son who demands to know how she raised the cash. When she refuses to share her 'shameful' secret, he trails her to the club, recoils in disgust, and forces her to stop working (or else no grandson access). He even threatens to return the 'dirty' cash, making one wonder why he is so reluctant to make moral sacrifices for his son's treatment while his mother's priorities remain steadfast. Meanwhile all of the local busybodies including so-called best friend Jenny Agutter (the only other well-known name in the cast and another actress now showing time's ravages) want to know where Maggie disappears to each day and why she is being so evasive. This lends a certain underlying humour to what might be considered a basically grim tale. We don't discover how her grandson fares, but we are finally left with another, and not unexpected, happy ending.
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