Die Unerzogenen / The Unpolished (2007)

9 05 2014

Within the first five minutes of Pia Marais’ debut, young Stevie is told by her mother, Lily, that they need to mentally prepare for the return of her father, Axel. While this suggests we might need to be afraid of Axel (his name is menacing enough, if not comically overzealous), Lily herself quickly finds herself back in his arm. Stevie is unimpressed, though, and she’s rather break away from the control of her parents. Marais’ debut is one of the all-time great films about being a teenager, it seems very much in step with The State I Am In, directed by Marais’ fellow countrymen, Christian Petzold. Marais might have more in common with Maurice Pialat, though oddly enough her debut seems like the antithesis of his most celebrated work, A nos amours. The problem here is not teenagers having the freedom to confront their approaching adult and being alienated by it, but instead one who is trapped in that tragically liminal state, but willing to do everything to break out of it.

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With Axel back in the family picture, Lily and Stevie move into his deserted house. There’s two other men there, and it would be presumptuous and unfair to label them as drug addicts, but they are there because they’ve been weathered down by the conditions of conventional society, and the living plans that go with that. One of them, Ingmar, shows an interest in Stevie. She is repulsed by the men around her, and instead their constant references to her budding sexuality. She teases him, but the only attention she is able to receive from anyone comes from his gaze. Stevie makes some friends her age, but they are still cold around her, perhaps simply having her around to benefit from her drug-dealing parents. Even with some companionship, she struggles to shake the feeling that she’s alone.

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There’s an uncomfortable feeling one gets in watching Stevie do pretty much anything in this film. Perhaps that’s because everything she does involves her in close physical proximity to her parents. One wouldn’t describe them as “helicopter parents” in fact they are the parents that such individuals who fit the label fear. They’re irresponsible, care-free, and financially dependent on Axel dealing drugs. This might seem overwhelmingly bleak, perhaps approaching the fatalism of someone like Lars Von Trier, but Marais’ eye observes everything as if under the control of the bewildered fourteen year old girl who is experiencing all of this. Sure, it’s bad to be hanging around exclusively with junkies, but it is the only existence she knows. Instead of overwhelming the audience with how terrible and miserable Stevie’s family life is, Marais’ camera almost suggests we get comfortable with the reality, just as Stevie herself has had to do. So many of us are fascinated by the “transgressive” nature of poverty, especially in film (see GummoLos Olvidados, Pixote – all films I would consider favorites, by the way) but Stevie herself is bored with it. She is constantly looking for what she finds fascinating, but what many of us would call banal: the well-dressed family staying in same hotel, a group of girls her age gossiping about boys, and so on.

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More important than this idea of “normalcy” which is obviously a construct. As a teenager, the rest of the world seems normal because we see only the performance of others in the public sphere. I hesitate to say “everyone is fucked up” because it sounds both trite and reductive, but it might be wise to express such a sentiment to Stevie. She doesn’t realize the idea of normal is completely false. Her more tragic learning moment comes in her interaction with men. She wakes up one day to find Ingmar in the kitchen. His body language, how he positions himself in the physical space of the kitchen is already sexual and intended to discourage to Stevie. To her credit, she beats him at his own game. She promises to perform fellatio on him, before recanting and adding “you could never afford me anyway.” It’s a powerful moment for Stevie because she’s won this sort of game, but alas, she’s going to spend the rest of her life dealing with similar bullshit from men.

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She warms to the idea of Ingmar as a potential sexual partner, though and eventually throws herself at him. It’s easy to read all of this as the actions of a sad girl trying to communicate something with the rest of the world, but again, that’s too simplistic. As much as Stevie is repulsed by the sexuality that men around her impose on her body, she is fascinated with the idea of sexuality to herself. She sees a romantic relationship to achieve some agency, and distance herself from her parents. Throughout the film, Lily and Axel wield her around like carry-on luggage. Children can be a burden, sure, but they almost accept her as only this possibility. Not as a person worthy of their love and care. That’s why she seeks something else. The heartbreaking irony is that a romantic relationship will, in all likelihood, lead her down a similar path. As Hong Song-Soo has showed us, a patriarchal society limits a woman’s agency when she’s in a heterosexual relationship. This is not her fault, of course, but Stevie’s craving to be her own person is not likely to be fulfilled with the route she’s taking.

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The beauty of the situation, if there is any to be found, is that Stevie does indeed have the time to fuck up and learn. So many of us do, whether it be with sex or the countless other exciting yet emotionally exhausting things we do as teenagers. I come back around to Pialat’s A nos amours. The anxiety felt in this film is the pressures of being your own person, and the struggle happens within an environment that is much less imposing than the one in Marais’ film. Suzanne’s situation seems brighter, she would be the type of girl that Stevie gazes at in jealousy. The experiences are always different, but if there is something universal in the teen condition, it’s the idea of being counted as a person. Both films are beautiful and bittersweet depictions of this struggle. It’s one we should all remember and be sympathetic towards.

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