M-SPIFF ’08 – ‘Irina Palm’

In a little single from the singing and rap trio City High, the perspective on a prostitute is turned on its head.

‘Irina Palm’

A&E Rating: 4/5 stars
Director: Sam Gabarski
Screenings: April 21, 7:10 p.m., April 25, 9:25 p.m., St. Anthony Theater, 115 Main St. N.E., Minneapolis, www.mspfilmfest.org

“What would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor cuz he’s hungry, and the only way to feed him is to sleep with a man for a little bit of money Ö for you this is just a good time, but for me, this is what I call life.”

Now translate that story to London’s Soho area, and make the young prostitute a grandmother who becomes the “wanking widow” under the ingenious stage name Irina Palm in order to earn money for her sick grandchild’s medication, and you have one of the films slated to run at this year’s Minneapolis- St. Paul International Film Festival.

The film opens in a gray London suburb, where we quickly find out that Maggie’s grandchild is sick, she doesn’t get along with her daughter-in-law, and all of the adults are completely strapped for cash as they’ve been caring for this dying child. Unable to get a loan or a “respectable” job because she has no previous experience, Maggie (Marianne Faithful) innocently wanders into “Sexy World,” to inquire about a sign announcing “Hostess Required, Excellent Rates.” The average college student would put two and two together, but it takes the kindness of the nonnative, English-speaking club owner Miki (Miki Manojlovic) to explain what a euphemism is.

“Do you know what a euphemism is?” he asks.

“No.”

“I didn’t either. My lawyer explained it to me,” he said. “When you use one word for another Ö where, in this case, hostess means whore.”

Miki, who in certain lights looks like a skinny Walter Matthau, decides she’s too old, but he does notice her hands which are not pretty, “but smooth, very smooth,” perfect for, shall we say, charming the one-eyed trouser snake.

“Hands like yours are made for those sorts of things,” Miki said.

At first shocked, Maggie quickly settles into life on the job, which results in the audience seeing the sex club from an entirely new perspective, as she calmly walks past the topless strippers in her proper suburban jacket and scarf, to go sit in a room with two holes and very thin walls.

The vending-machine style, anonymous wank this club provides is too easily seen as a metaphor for sex in our society, yet it forces you to notice what goes on behind the scenes – the picture Maggie hangs up underneath the red button that tells the “customer” when she’s ready or when she gets so good at her job that she wanks while reading a magazine. There’s Luisa, her colleague who shows her the ropes, who took this job to get away from an abusive husband. And then there’s penis elbow. Tennis players get tennis elbow, Luisa explains, we get penis elbow.

It’s not all sex, but real consequences when her suburban world collides with her new job, and as friendships form and dissolve. But in the end, she’s a better person for it. For the first time in her life, Maggie is good at something, and she sheds her submissive attitude with every snake she coaxes.