Bright Lights Film Journal

Rousseau Redux: Regis Wargnier’s Disappointing Pygmy Tale Man to Man

These “noble savages” — and the issues they embody — deserve better

Regis Wargnier’s historical melodrama Man to Man, which opened at the Berlin Film Festival on February 10, 2005, delivers the earth-shattering news that human beings are, in fact, human beings, regardless of race, status or, in the special case of this film, stature. Man to Man opens in 1870 in an African jungle as two pygmies, Toko (Losama Beseki) and Likola (Cecile Bahiya), are literally ensnared in the Victorian scientistic conceit that the races line up in a neat flow chart from ape to man. When Jamie (Joseph Fiennes), a boyish and eager anthropologist, captures the ill-fated pygmies in nets, he whispers fervently to one of them, “You are my America.” It is Jamie’s contention that the pygmies embody the “missing link” between enterprising Scottish scientists and their simian ancestors that, like Toko and Likola, are transported to Europe in cages in the hold of a ship chartered by Elena (Kristin Scott Thomas), a procurer of African animals. The scientific paper Jamie and his colleagues Alexander (Iain Glenn) and Fraser (Hugh Bonneville) plan to deliver proposes to open a New World of anthropological knowledge — and fortunes to boot. Jamie, though, soon enough sees sparks of humanity in his diminutive captives, and a moral schism opens between him and the unscrupulous Alexander and Fraser, with Elena periodically switching sides. God knows bigotry and exploitation are still among us, but Man to Man‘s didactic and overweening storytelling will do little to dispel them. Whatever its noble intentions, the film succumbs to the very pseudo-scientific notions behind ideas of racial hierarchy it wishes to defeat in its own conviction that racial equality should be “proven.”

When Likola and Toko arrive in Scotland, they are confined to a cell in the anthropologists’ laboratory and subjected to all manner of probing and measuring. These scenes of testing supply a little history of “scientific” methods and are the most interesting in the film. The pygmies’ heads are placed into large devices and plaster molds are made of their skulls (their cranial capacity falls between the “most highly developed ape” and the lowest-functioning human — the missing link!), and their genitals are examined to confirm gender. Jamie often submits to these tests first, or pretends to, in order to secure the pygmies’ trust and compliance. He sees himself as their protector, and indeed they become this white man’s burden when they attempt to escape and arouse the fear and hostility of the local Scots. Jamie comes around to believing in the pygmies’ essential humanity, and when he refuses to concur with the “missing link” findings, the tables are literally turned on him: he is temporarily imprisoned in the pygmies’ cell. Meanwhile the pygmies, after being led in chains by Elena’s Westernized African employee and paraded before the scientific community as subhumans, are sent to be exhibits at a zoo under Elena’s care and for her profit. (We are never asked to consider what this African might think or feel about his complicity in demeaning other Africans.) Jamie stages yet another role reversal at the zoo, in which the pygmies pretend to turn violent and pursue him with a gun. There is a moment of stunned silence on the part of the audience at the zoo when they realize it is all a stunt (a hand-printed sign comes down which says that the anthropologist has been “captured by Likola and Toko”). The Berlin film audience, however, immediately erupted into spontaneous applause, proving that we 21st-century folk know what’s what. And one wonders, not for the first time, just why Wargnier made this film. The bigoted characters in the film remain unconvinced by the stunt (surely the pygmies were trained, like dogs or seals), but the film’s audience also learns nothing. Rather, it is asked only to enjoy its own moral acuity.

One also wonders why, if he wanted to depict the science-sponsored racism of the 19th century, Wargnier turned to a story of pygmies set in 1870, as if all the good slavery stories were used up. Since we never see their world, what can the depiction of pygmies add to our engagement with the past? For what is most troubling in Man to Man is the film’s marginalization of the pygmies themselves, who embody little more than an unironic idea of Rousseau’s noble savage. We may accept that they’re fully human whereas the Victorian knaves do not, and yet we never know the pygmies as characters. The film continually feels compelled to attest to their humanity by showing their cunning, their sorrow, their vulnerability. All human characteristics, certainly, and yet the pygmies are never allowed to escape from the confines of an essentialized, mythic identity into the nuances of individuality. Likola is gentle, doe-like, and Toko is a classic trickster. Camera angles exaggerate their small stature and have the unintended effect of rendering them relentlessly cute. Likola and Toko are almost always mute, only occasionally using the handful of English words they’ve learned. They seem entirely pure, motivated only — like animals, in fact — by the exigencies of survival, or else they behave, not like humans exactly, but like tragic heroes. It would seem pygmies do not have the range of emotions ordinary humans have, like jealousy, spite, ambition, or even curiosity. It would have been a far more interesting film had we been able to see the film’s world through the pygmies’ eyes and not just their predictable reactions to its predictable violence. It would have been interesting to see the pygmies as they see themselves. But such self-consciousness has no place in the film’s agenda, which is concerned almost exclusively with Fiennes’s earnest and tedious portrayal of enlightened heroism. There is no real interaction between the world of 19th-century Europeans and the world of the pygmies, which remains unknown and untouched at the film’s end. This might be seen as a sign of respect, or perhaps just tactfulness, but it also betrays a desire to preserve the mystery of otherness which, in never speaking for itself, becomes a convenient sounding board for Western revelations.

It might also have been interesting had the film used the mess it creates with Elena’s character. Elena is knowing and ambitious, usually successful in negotiating her way in a man’s world. Scott Thomas alone manages to escape a cliché role, but her character is asked to make so many apparently unmotivated about-faces that her wry self-possession is lost. Elena is a businesswoman first and foremost, but she often supplies important anthropological knowledge for the clueless “professionals.” It seems at first she might be more inclined than anyone else to stand up for the pygmies, but she easily chooses to herd them around like animals. She is the first to begin clapping after Jamie’s stunt at the zoo, and yet her “conversion” is never clear. During a tragic scene toward the end, she is overcome with emotion, but we haven’t witnessed her emotional investment in the plight of the pygmies before. In Wargnier’s Indochine, which also examined issues of race and power, Catherine Deneuve’s frosty portrayal of Eliane generated productive contradictions. Eliane, a plantation owner, could consider herself “mother” to both a Vietnamese girl she has adopted and a worker she beats for disobedience. Insensible to such ironies, Eliane nevertheless testifies to the violence they wreak upon herself and others. She doesn’t quite elicit our sympathy, but rather invites an uncomfortable identification with her entanglement in normalized relations of power. In Man to Man, there is a potentially interesting scene in which Elena addresses exploitation and hypocrisy, both hers and the anthropologists’, but it is not developed in any cogent or consistent way. Had the film foregrounded the inconsistencies in her behavior, we might have gotten closer to something like the moral ambiguity of a three-dimensional character. As it is, Elena remains out of focus and almost irrelevant, and so it is disconcerting when, at the end of the film, we are supposed to be moved (or perhaps educated) as she thinks wistfully of her imminent return to Africa, which is where she feels she belongs. Why? Because Africa is where the heart is?

In 1870, African Americans were no longer slaves, although the pseudo-science that legitimated their inferior status was alive and kicking; it would find its most fatal expression seventy years later. But while racism certainly persists in the Western world, it is more likely to draw on entrenched cultural biases and economic factors than on scientific evidence. Surely it’s more relevant and urgent to address the ways in which we take for granted the idea that we’ve entirely gotten over the singularly ridiculous and repellent racism of the 19th century than to invite us to make facile comparisons between ourselves and unambiguous examples of bigotry through which we might feel superior. What ought to be taken for granted now, one hopes, is the basic humanity of people like the pygmies; there’s no need to prove it. The film’s second half takes on the air of a caper, with Jamie and the gang outwitting the mad scientists and saving the day. There has been loss, however, and while it is worked up for all the tears it can wring, the film doesn’t take advantage of the fact that something has been left behind to be sacrificed for “science.” It would give away too much to be more precise, but suffice it to say that the film might have tempered its self-congratulatory tone had it ended with such an image. Instead, we are left with Jamie’s exultant voice-over and Patrick Doyle’s grandiose score, secure in the bonhomie of our 21st-century intercultural relations.