This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
I awaited the closing scenes of "Disgrace" with a special urgency, because the story had gripped me deeply but left me with no idea how it would end. None -- and I really cared. This is such a rare movie. Its characters are uncompromisingly themselves, flawed, stubborn, vulnerable. We feel we know them pretty well, but then they face a situation of such pain and moral ambiguity that they're forced to make impossible decisions. It's easy to ask them to do the right thing. But what is the right thing?
David Lurie (John Malkovich) teaches the Romantic poets at the University of Cape Town. He lingers over Wordsworth's word choices before a classroom of distracted students. One seems to care: Melanie (Antoinette Engel). He offers her a ride home in the rain. She accepts. (I spent a year in that university on the slopes of Table Mountain. When someone offers you a ride home in the rain, you accept.)
This is South Africa in the years soon after the fall of apartheid. Sexual contact between the races is no longer forbidden by law, and indeed "Disgrace" opens with a liaison between David and a black prostitute. Melanie is Indian. David is white, at least 35 years older, very confident, sardonic, determined. They have sex. We don't see exactly how they get to that point, but it is clear afterward that Melanie is very unhappy. It was probably not literal rape, we're thinking, but it was a psychological assault.
David should be content with his conquest, but he's a cocky and deeply selfish man, and Malkovich, in one of his best performances, shows him acting entirely on his desires. There's a scene where he faces a university disciplinary board; the board obviously hopes to avoid scandal and offers him a graceful exit. He cheekily tells them he is guilty, accepts blame, requests punishment.