Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)
There is absolutely nothing sexual about Barbara Covett (played marvelously by Judi Dench), the ancient history teacher whose acerbic and cynical diary entries become the narrative force of Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal. In one scene, we see her lying submerged in her bathtub; not a tinge of passion revolves around her naked aging body. She manifests a tainting or destructive acidity to this world's boring normalcy. Her driving force is not a need for passion or sex (although she convinces herself that it is companionship that she longs for) but a disdain for the fertile, an outward manifestation of her frustration on her sterility.
She describes Sheba Hart (a wonderful Cate Blanchett), the new art instructor, as fay, accurately so. Marching along with the numerous students Barbara scoffs at, Sheba, at first, doesn't seem very interesting although Blanchett carefully constructs her character as explicitly plain yet mysterious. Her unraveling to Barbara's eyes draws an uncharacteristic excitement for the spinster, as she writes in her diary with the same heavy-handed contempt for the youthful world but with a certain fanciful ease and curiosity towards her newfound friend.
The disappointment she discovers upon knowing that her fay new friend is married to a middle-aged man (played by Bill Nighy) and is mother to two children, a daughter who represents the troubling sensibilities that Barbara hates so much in her age's youth and a son afflicted with Down's Syndrome. The disappointment however does not surpass her animalistic clamor for an emotional prey, and the circumstances (Sheba's surprising sexual affair with one of her art students) significantly raises her success rate. Her weapon is that superiority, that semblance of moral ascendancy she has over Sheba.
It's a very entertaining film. It delights in its own inhumanity; the way these characters are molded, destroyed, and revived by something other than the common virtues of humankind. Notes on a Scandal is watchable in the same way a National Geographic documentary about the vicious hunting instincts of an African lion (complete with their jealous mating rituals and the bloody and messy eating habits) is so weirdly enjoyable. Barbara's suffocating grasp on Sheba, Sheba's inexplicable attraction to her minor ward, Barbara's mostly utilitarian value for the face-saving Sheba as opposed by Barbara's need in Sheba as replacement for that other prey who got away --- the film showcases a series of relationships founded on Machiavellian principles, or worse, instinctual urges that oil the predator-prey machinery in the wild.
Notes on a Scandal has really nothing to say on the state of homosexual relationships, destructive or whatnot, and to devote that sub-theme further analysis would be utterly futile. Barbara's attraction for Sheba is baser than sexual, and very far from amorous. Those momentary touches she steals from her captive are showcases of her longstanding sterility (that is all she really can do --- a pat on the back, a gentle rub of comfort); her real love affair is with herself and her private diaries where she is ultimately the protagonist, the savior of those trapped in the dullness of the contemporary world, where everything is amplified to appear bigger, greater and more important than what it really is.