Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.
United Kingdom/Italy, 1990. Recorded Picture Company, Warner Bros., , Film Trustees Ltd., , Screenplay by Bernardo Bertolucci, Mark Peploe, based on the book by Paul Bowles. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. Produced by Jeremy Thomas. Music by Ryûichi Sakamoto. Production Design by Ferdinando Scarfiotti, Gianni Silvestri. Costume Design by James Acheson. Film Editing by Gabriella Cristiani.
Bernardo Bertolucci follows his multi-Oscar awarded The Last Emperor with an adaptation of Paul Bowles’ marvelous novel, injecting his own familiar brand of sensual detail to the tale of travellers crossing Algeria in the 1930s. John Malkovich and Debra Winger are the married couple voyaging with an often unwelcome guest Campbell Scott, beleaguered by hiccups in transit and obnoxious fellow tourists in their attempt to find in this exotic landscape the passion that has been siphoned out of their marriage by familiarity and habit. What they get instead is a journey that takes them into ever-increasing discomfort before utter disaster. As visual experiences go, the film is probably the best looking movie set in a desert since Lawrence of Arabia: Vittorio Storaro is at the top of a game he has been at the top of for decades, making even interiors as ravishing and glinty as the exteriors are mesmerizing and atmospheric. Getting through the dull movements of the plot, however, is a different story, as this film is the very best example of both Bertolucci’s exquisite skill with framing and his complete lack of ability to ever find the dramatic centre of any given situation. Malkovich’s impenetrably passive personality has never been more irritating, while Winger is, unique for her, impossible to read as the at first optimistic and later desperate member of the couple who is determined to find the answers she is looking for in the sands of North Africa. Add to that the ridiculous inclusion of Bowles himself, who incongruously appears a handful of times to read portions of his magnificent book on screen, and you have a classic example of a story being given to the wrong storyteller (Bowles himself agreed, and his comments on the film adaptation are actually quite humorous). For all the sex that Bertolucci adds to the text (often in place of the novel’s more interesting and haunting cultural exploration), he manages to get no passion out of absolutely anything in this leaden bore; audiences would have to wait six years for The English Patient to show just how much heat the desert can radiate.
Golden Globe Award: Best Original Score
Nomination: Best Director (Bernardo Bertolucci)