These days, Euro directors seem to enjoy de-glamming Marianne Faithfull and putting her in the seamiest of London settings. Following her cameo in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001), Faithfull is given a full-blown starring role in Sam Garbarski’s Irina Palm, as Maggie a dowdy widow turned sex worker. (And in between Faithfull got to play Empress Maria Theresa in Coppola’s Marie Antoinette - ah, how varied are the joys of acting.) Garbarski’s movie is the ultimate in high (low) concept, an odd mix of sentiment and smut. In order to fund an operation for her beloved grandson, Maggie takes on a job in a Soho sex club. Her task: masturbating clients through a glory hole. The club's owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic, Kusturica fave and the woodsman-ogre in Ozon's underrated Criminal Lovers) has noted her soft hands and, after some resistance, Maggie proves a natural in her new occupation, with a queue of clients and a new identity: Irina Palm.
This all sounds more salacious (and ridiculous) than it actually is: in fact, Garbarski brings some saving droll humour and surprising touches to the table. (I particularly liked Maggie “domesticating” her cubicle with flowers and a picture from home.) Faithfull’s performance itself is rather fitful; she’s more expressive in the many silent interludes when Maggie’s alone than when interacting with the other actors, whom she sometimes fails to fully make contact with. But she makes a decent fist (ho, ho) of charting the character’s journey through disgust, amusement, boredom and practical acceptance. Irina Palm is a more consistent film than was Intimacy, in which the pretentious, sometimes incoherent dialogues were no match for the wonderfully expressive sex scenes. Garbarski wittily plays off (and subverts) Faithfull’s “transgressive” star persona here: the scene in which Maggie offers her prying friends an explicit description of her activities at the club is obvious but highly entertaining in these terms. Maggie’s romance with Miki is harder to swallow, and the final scenes resolve everything far too neatly for comfort. But despite its flaws Irina Palm is to be applauded for putting “women’s different experience” on the British screen.