Cotton Mary (1999 France/UK/USA)

greta-scacchi-cotton-mary-celebrity-posing-hot-topless-nude-4(This post is dedicated to the shamelesscelebrities website) Lead actress on display, Greta Scacchi, although an introverted performer verbally, certainly qualifies as a shameless celebrity. Not that I’m complaining, but throughout the 1980s and 90s she could usually be relied upon to “get em out.” That’s what directors demanded of her and she never let them down. Despite some of the arty productions she appeared in, her nubile body became her calling card. And fortune. Since then Kate Winslet has carried on the mantle of an actress whom we lucky viewers get to see as much of as her gynaecologist does. When these type of actresses get older they usually keep their clothes on and decry their earlier birthday suit sagas as examples of male directors “oppressing” them mixed with naiveté . Yeah, right. 

Moving on…Lily (Greta Scachi), the unhappy wife of a BBC correspondent stationed in southern India circa 1954, goes into labour unexpectedly. After the baby is born she finds she can’t nurse, dooming her newborn (what, no infant formula?). Enter Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), an ambitious Anglo-Indian hospital attendant who swoops the baby off to her sister, a wet nurse living in an alms house. Within days, Mary has snagged a a job in Lily’s palatial home, gotten an old family retainer fired for crimes he didn’t commit, and nudged Lily’s emotionally detached husband into a squalid affair with another (much better looking) sister. Surprise, surprise, Mary ultimately gets her comeuppance, going bonkers so theatrically you half-expect her to petition Mr. DeMille for her close-up. Keep the make up girl on high alert!

But before that happens, you spend too much time in the company of characters ranging from the unlikeable to the repellent; get your nose rubbed in the fact that the downtrodden can be every bit as bigoted and small-minded as their oppressors; and — oh yes I was treated to what you can safely bet are the most breast-feeding scenes per minute in the history of celluloid. As crowd-pleasing dramatic devices go, this is not exactly on par with exploding spaceships. Can you imagine sitting in a crowded theatre, both genders staring up at the screen wishing the great breast feeding extravaganza would go away? All the females wishing the males beside them would just disappear. All the males wishing they were licking at Greta’s substantially erect nipple instead of that damned baby. Maybe they wished to be an Indian nurses’s fingers at that moment. Whatever. They wouldn’t be comfortable. And I’m sure the Dolby Surround technology made sure there was nowhere to hide from all the squelching sounds too.

“Cotton Mary” features the Merchant Ivory team’s infamous undercurrent of understated emotion, feelings so modestly rendered that sometimes one is unsure if there is any emotion. It was directed by Ismail Merchant, who is generally the producing half of the team. There is more obvious symbolism here than a high school musical production of “Lord of the Flies.” (The title refers to Mary’s preference for British cotton over Indian cotton.) Poor Lily’s inability to produce milk for her child is so blatant a metaphor for England’s dying maternalism that it’s no wonder the bags under Ms. Scacchi’s eyes seem to hang down to her waist; she is shouldering a great deal of responsibility. Sanctimonious without being contemptuous, “Cotton Mary” is almost maddeningly indifferent: Tennessee Williams without the gleeful insanity. It is so unfocused that it is one of those rare films that cries out for a narrator to clarify things. “Cotton Mary” is terminally marred by good taste but people don’t want a melodrama with good taste; they want a melodrama that tastes good…Ciao.


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