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“You don’t know how to love. You’re nothing but waste and disappointment. A bitter old virgin! No one told me you were a fucking vampire!” Cate Blanchett hisses at a cowering Judi Dench, pressed up against an armoire. And that, folks, is about all you need to know that Richard Eyre’s 2006 twisted riot “Notes on a Scandal” is the stuff of gay camp.
This epic teardown comes near the end of the film, after Blanchett’s Sheba has been outed to the world and reduced to nothing by Dench’s Barbara for having an affair with one of her 15-year-old male students. It’s a hoot to watch two of the world’s greatest actresses of all time go at it with such ferocious, hate-spewing abandon. “Notes on a Scandal” is highbrow trash, a rollick in the filth, gilded debauchery set to the orchestral bravado of Phillip Glass. But it also tells a story of abuse from a necessary and often unseen perspective: that of the abuser, here a woman caught up in the whirl of an illicit romance in flight from humdrum reality.
Adapted from the 2003 novel by Zoe Heller by playwright Patrick Marber, the writer of the similarly tart and talky film “Closer,” “Notes on a Scandal” rightly earned Oscar nominations for Dench, Blanchett, Marber, and Glass in 2007. Overlooked at the time as a tawdry slice of Oscar bait (and it is that), it’s a shot to the heart of cinematic propriety, submerging the audience into the jagged mind of a broken woman who essentially preys on a young boy.
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If you have the stomach for it, it’s high time to revisit the sordid tale alongside the publication of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s controversial new novel “My Dark Vanessa,” about a 15-year-old girl pulled into an affair by her male boarding-school teacher three times her age, who tells her that her hair is the color of maple leaves. Like Benedict Andrews’ underseen 2016 film “Una,” lifted from the shocking play “Blackbird” about a woman with Stockholm syndrome toward her predator, “My Dark Vanessa” tells the story through the eyes of a young woman manipulated into thinking what she’s experiencing is actually love.
In “Notes on a Scandal,” however, we see this narrative play out on the other side, and through the eyes of those inevitably complicit in the crime they’ve witnessed because they choose not to say anything. Barbara, the matron of the prep school Sheba’s recently been hired by, instead uses her inside knowledge to manipulate her colleague, fueling a feverish obsession that almost tips into the “lesbian vampire” trope.
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Barbara is a perennial spinster and cat lady, but Dench’s wounded portrayal makes this crazy dame sympathetic, and not just some stereotype torn from a gay man’s fever dream (though such a fever dream, this movie certainly is). Both actresses have a hell of a time with the screenplay, which serves them plenty of spicy banter within a brisk, under-90-minute running that doesn’t waste a frame in barreling toward lurid spectacle.
“Notes on a Scandal” belongs in a familiar world of manmade woman-on-woman melodramas: Robert Aldrich’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” in which Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as dueling faded stars shred each other to bits; basically Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s entire filmography; and even the more recent “The Favourite,” where Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, and Emma Stone burn down the house in a royal lesbian folie à trois.
What’s missing from “Notes on a Scandal,” which might make it a harder swallow in this spring of 2020, is any testimony from the abused boy, a window into his obvious trauma. He seems to enjoy taunting Sheba, showing up unexpectedly at her house, where her husband and two children also live, during the holidays, and barraging her with lewd text messages. He’s certainly not innocent either, and the movie understands that a teenage boy’s mind isn’t exactly formed enough to filter an experience like this through an adult lens. The film ultimately punishes Sheba and once her life is destroyed, the real, um, fun of this movie begins. It’s a bizarre superimposition, a tale of sexual predation on top of a soapy bitch-fest of female rivalry, that would never fly today. As it turns out, Barbara and Sheba are both sickos who deserve each other.
“Notes on a Scandal” is now available to stream on Hulu.