Letting go of Pity

Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig

 A bit of synchronicity and chance today. About half way through Zweig’s excellent Beware of Pity, I decided to take a break and watch The Cake Eaters, primarily because Kristen Stewart is in it. Almost right from the start, I could see her role echoed Zweig’s story in some important ways. Stefan Zweig’s novel centers on a young woman who is paralyzed, and befriended by a young lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army. Befriended, at first, because of his sense of pity, duty, honor, guilt. Because he had asked her to dance at a lavish party, not knowing she was too crippled to. She goes into hysterics and he flees from the house in shame. But comes back out of guilt. The book travels through the Hungarian countryside as well as the country of the mind, our phobias, our fears, our strange sense of debt and the psychology of pity.

In The Cake Eaters, Stewart plays Georgia, a young girl suffering from Friedreich’s ataxia, a degenerative disease that afflicts the nervous system, impacts speech and coordination, and has no cure. Stewart is befriended by Beagle (Aaron Stanford), a young man who works at her school in the cafeteria. There are some issues regarding class here, but the gap is much, much smaller than it is in Zweig’s novel. In Beware of Pity, the financial distance between Edith and Anton is immense, though we learn that her father didn’t come from money, but schemed for it on a grand scale.

The movie, however, presents quite a different rationale for the main characters seeking each other out. Pity doesn’t seem to be a factor. Like Edith, Kristen Stewart’s character is on a mission. And though she has a great deal of difficulty getting around, and some trouble even talking, she knows what she wants. Knowing she doesn’t have a lot of time to live, or to live with even a modicum of control of her body, she is determined to find out what sex is like, and Beagle is in the right place at the right time.

 In the novel, at least at the halfway point, there is no sexual tension between Edith and Anton. He likes her cousin, Llona, more. Times have changed, of course. The movie is set nearly a century after the main action of the novel, and class differences between the two exist in obvious form. There is no financial aristocracy in The Cake Eaters. It’s small town, upstate New York. But the physical debilitation of both female leads evens much of the playing field. Tragedy can strike anyone, anywhere.

Interesting note about the movie: It’s directed (first time) by Mary Stuart Masterson (Benny and Joon). She does a good job with, I’m guessing, some Indy-film obstacles. The story seems bigger than the presentation. Sometimes, a “small movie” works and seems to fit the frame. The story coincides with its form. In this case, I think it needed more time, more development of the characters, especially the relationship between Georgia and her mother, Violet (Talia Balsam). Her eccentricities, her photography of her daughter, could have used some further explication. The subplot with Beagle’s brother, Guy (Jayce Bartok, the screenwriter), also could have been developed more. All in all, a good film. Not great. But good. And Kristen Stewart continues to grow. There is something inexpressible about what lies behind her eyes. Depths to be explored. Wisdom to be revealed. She seems obviously on her way to genuine, deserved stardom.


Letting go of Pity
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