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Chan-wook Park, director of Stoker, is ‘a master with the camera,’ says actor Matthew Goode. (Macall Polay/Everett Collection)
Chan-wook Park, director of Stoker, is ‘a master with the camera,’ says actor Matthew Goode. (Macall Polay/Everett Collection)

Some naked truths about film nudity: Are you listening, Seth MacFarlane? Add to ...

Commentators have been weighing in about why Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s song We Saw Your Boobs, which poked fun at actresses who’ve done nude scenes, offended them, and I’d like to add my thoughts. The bit might have worked in a different venue, a comedy club or frat house. But in a ceremony that honours artistic excellence, it was wrong in every way. Many have noted that the name-checked actresses – among them, Naomi Watts, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet – are high calibre, and the films in which they did nudity are serious, and that’s true. A-list actresses don’t doff their clothes on camera unless they believe it serves the story, which means that the scenes MacFarlane sang about were likely significant ones, trying to express something meaningful about beauty, sexuality or vulnerability. No one does these scenes carelessly; everyone’s worst fear is that they will catapult the viewer out of a film and into the realm of peeping Toms. This makes MacFarlane’s mockery not only puerile but demeaning. Would it be funny to mock, say, the models for Botticelli?

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To take this one step further, I believe that even if MacFarlane had sung about D-list actresses in moronic comedies, the number still would have been offensive. Not just because chortling about “boobs” reduces all women to mere vehicles for their sexual organs; that’s obvious. (And personally, I think the only appropriate use of the word “boob” is to mean “buffoon.”) But also because it’s insanely hard for actresses to find film work, period. Too often, stupid movies that exploit them are the only roles available.

It’s been true for decades, and it’s still true – three-fourths of the speaking parts in movies and television go to men. To pigeonhole any actress for doing her job perpetuates the idea that titillation is all women are “good for,” which in turn perpetuates the scarcity of other kinds of roles. Honestly, watching half of humankind suffer from incessant marginalization and denigration is dispiriting and exhausting.

 

In the new thriller Stoker, which opened yesterday, Mia Wasikowska pulls off precisely the kind of nuanced, emotionally significant nude scene that I’m talking about. To explain further would spoil it, so I’ll say only that it takes place in a shower – and that in a phone interview this week, director Chan-wook Park said (via interpreter) it was this scene that convinced him to make Stoker his first English-language film. (One of South Korea’s masters of the genre, he’s best known in North America for the films Thirst and Oldboy.)

Wasikowska plays India Stoker, an unsettling girl whose adored father dies on her 18th birthday, leaving her alone with her needy mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she’s never met before, but who seems to understand her better than anyone else. “He is the external influence that stimulates the evil in her to bloom,” Park says – the “stoker” of it. Park skillfully grounds the resulting horror in reality (liberally spiced with literary and Freudian references), and unwinds it at a stately pace, the better to engage viewers’ minds while fraying our nerves.

Park believes in evil, he says: “It is very much a part of human beings. It is a human weakness, inside each and every one of us.” Teenagers are the ideal subjects to express this, he continued, because “they are in an emotionally confused state, prone to seduction by evil.” And teenage girls, he added, are the most ideal subjects for horror films – think The Ring, The Exorcist, The Bad Seed – because we expect them to be vulnerable and sweet.

“Young women react very sensitively to the world that surrounds them, be it evil or beauty,” Park says, “and once they are attracted to a notion, they get deeply engrossed and affected. So using a young woman to convey the idea of evil is shocking and frightening.” Park courted Wasikowska because, “she already has a sense of mysteriousness about her.”

“I think we all have good and bad angels inside us, our wants and jealousies,” Goode agreed in a separate phone interview. “You’re only three bad mistakes away from going to jail, that’s how I think about life. This is a story of India’s coming of age and her sexual empowerment, and as we know, sex and violence are [psychically] closely linked. To see someone who seems virginal, and therefore passive, become violent, that’s disturbing.”

To maintain the aura of dread, Park asked his actors to be perpetually in a state of unease. “Any moments that were contrary to this notion were cut out during the editing phase,” he says. “The audience needs to see that their facial expressions may say one thing, but what goes on underneath is always different.” He also asked them to express their emotions – even the biggest, most shocking swings – “not in any big way, but only through subtle performance,” he says. “To only use small expressions, so the audience feels compelled to pay closer attention, in order not to miss any of them.”

“Director Park is incredibly fastidious,” Goode says. “I’ve never seen anyone storyboard something to the nth degree as he does. Almost in a worrying way, because we were delivered a folder with every frame of the film exactly how he was going to shoot it. You think, ‘Does that give me much room to discover and explore?’ But any idea you had, if he liked, it he would try and implement it. That’s a real joy. He’s a master with the camera, and there’s so much symbolism and thought gone into every single moment that you start to think all the other films you’ve been on were lazy.”

In other words, Park and his cast shot everything, including the shower scene, with genuine artistic intention. Boobs need not apply.

Matthew Goode: ‘I fractured the occasional law’

Matthew Goode, 34, is so fiendishly charming that his playing a handsome Devil in Stoker is practically typecasting. He’s one of a coterie of up-and-coming Brits that includes Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch (now on HBO in Parade’s End), Ben Whishaw (Bond’s newest Q) and Laurence Fox (son of actor James Fox), friends who are often up for the same role. “There have been times we’ve almost literally been in the pub together waiting to see who’s getting the job,” Goode says. “You end up feeling like you’ve grown up together.” He laughs. “It’s hardly difficult to envision, actors meeting in a bar and getting on. I’m not saying we’re Harris and Burton, but we’ve had our moments.” In fact, Goode ended up in Stoker only after his friend Colin Firth dropped out because “his schedule became too mental,” Goode says.

Born in Devon, schooled at Exeter and London’s Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, and possessed of the poshest accent in England’s green and pleasant land, Goode excels at playing louche lovelies (an aristocrat in Brideshead Revisited, Firth’s lover in A Single Man). “I used to be more mischievous,” he says merrily. “I fractured the occasional law. Now that I’m a dad, I don’t have time.” (His daughter with long-time partner Sophie Dymoke, Matilda Eve, just turned 4.) “I suffer from general exhaustion, so I’m pretty well behaved. Really, I’m a wonderfully conservative Englishman; I won’t even go to a naked beach, let alone stab someone.”

His family accompanied him to Nashville, where Stoker was filmed. Nicole Kidman, who lives there, showed them around, and they went two-stepping at honky-tonks with Mia Wasikowska. “I’m quite hard on myself as an actor,” Goode says. “Some days I think I didn’t get where I needed to be. It’s easier if you have your family around you, because when you come home, you can recover: ‘I’ll put Moo to bed.’ That’s why I like working in England. I like to hang up my suit at the end of the day and be dad and hubby.”

His next project, the pilot for a TV series called The Vatican, will take him to Rome. Will he play the Pope? “I’m the papal secretary, darling,” he says. “Kyle Chandler is playing a cardinal, and Sebastian Koch, an amazing actor from The Lives of Others, is one of the leads. Ridley Scott is directing the pilot, so it bodes well.” I suspect Goode’s days of waiting in pubs are over.

 

 

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