Passion in the Desert
Director: Lavinia Currier. Cast: Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli, Paul Meston, Nadi Odeh. Screenplay: Lavinia Currier (based on the novella "A Passion in the Desert" by Honoré de Balzac).

Lavinia Currier's Passion in the Desert begins as a historical chronicle of the late 18th-century Napoleonic wars in Africa, but soon reveals more central concerns as a meditation on the ties between man and beast. The central conceit of the picture is a love affair, not as platonic or intellecutal as you might think, that springs up between a soldier and a leopard. Yes, that is what I said, and it's a lot of ground for one picture to cover, especially since typical conventions of visual storytelling cannot easily accommodate such philosophical ambitions. It's hard enough to stage this cross-species romance, much less unpack what it could possibly mean.

Thankfully, Currier has a unique director's eye, and her film clearly demonstrates a deep and committed interest in the issues it raises. On the other hand, Passion in the Desert is at times too earnest for its own good, presenting its unlikely blend of Dances With Wolves and Quest for Fire with so little humor that both the movie itself and our capacity to buy into it are seriously wobbling by the last act. An admirably spare approach and a bold confrontation with heady material save Passion in the Desert, but just barely, from being as arid and unfriendly as the landscape it inhabits.

The arc of the story, adapted from a short novel by Honoré de Balzac, follows a soldier named Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels) who is sent to Egypt in 1798 as the guide and protector of Jean-Michel (Michel Piccoli) an important artist/historiographer. Jean-Michel is on an official mission to draw, measure, and document the cultural landmarks of the Egyptian dunes. Of course, the military party with whom he travels are little concerned with monuments or cave-drawings. They have been yanked from their homes and families to conduct a miserable campaign against the Mameluke Dynasty, marching around the desert with their camels and cannons, blowing the face off an ancient sphinx when there's nothing else to do. (And you thought modern-day French were rude?)

Soon after that touchingly enlightened gesture, a medium-sized horde of Mameluke warriors stages a surprise attack on the French camp, and Currier orchestrates a battle scene that measures favorably against the fur-flying in Braveheart. As in that film, the fighting here is vicious, bloody, and decidedly unromantic. The Mamelukes eventually retreat, their scimitars proving rather ill-matched to rifles and artillery, but the Frenchmen are sufficiently rattled to move quickly on to another campsite. Jean-Michel, however, has not finished his drawings, and he and Augustin lag a bit behind. Inevitably, the two are separated from their unit, whom Augustin decides to hunt down so that he and Jean-Michel may be collected. "I'll come back for you," he assures the artist, who squats beneath a desert sage mixing his canisters of paint.

Anyone who saw The English Patient knows that return trips aren't always easy in the desert, and Augustin soon discovers that he has no more idea how to return to Jean-Michel than he does how to find the lost regiment. His heat-stroked, knock-kneed peregrinations around the desert land him into new trouble, especially when he steals water from a Bedouin maiden. The resultant manhunt sends Augustin hiding in a deep crevasse in a large, barren plateau, but no sooner has he escaped their swords than he runs into a whole new set of daggers, this time in the mouth of the leopard who has claimed the cave as his own. The Frenchman thinks his luck has, like everything else in the desert, finally evaporated, but the leopard merely sniffs him, paces around, and performs instead a nasty little fast-food job on the Bedouin hitman still on Augustin's tail.

The duet that ensues between the cat and the cavalier is well beyond what I can describe without inciting unintentional giggles. Unfortunately, Currier has the same problem, though her deadpan close-ups and unrelieved seriousness work hard to wipe those smirks off our faces. In fairness, much of what happens in this central chapter of Passion in the Desert is tense and engaging. Augustin must fight the leopard for water, food, and freedom to move, all of which the leopard jealously guards, though it otherwise remains far more docile and generous than Augustin has any reason to expect. When the soldier discovers a gigantic facade of columns and stairs within the mountain (an identical twin to the Grail-house in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), we expect the film's early fascination with archaeology to return; Augustin, however, only has eyes for the cat, all the more beautiful and fascinating to him for not being man-made.

Balzac wrote A Passion in the Desert in an era where Rousseau and other philosophers spent gallons of ink wrestling with the essence of man, the core identity that, depending on one's persuasion, either differentiated him from or linked him ineluctably with the animal kingdom. Augustin, well-played for most of the picture by the leonine Daniels, seems intrigued by these same questions, even overwhelmed by them. Having eventually lost hope of any rediscovery, he gives himself over entirely to the cat's way of life: lapping water, shedding his clothes, etc. Dementia and self-abandonment are, however, notorious invitations to over-acting and under-directing, and Daniels' savagery grows almost as histrionic as Nicholson's in The Shining, Currier's loss of control with the picture almost as total as Kubrick's.

In the end, the matter-of-factness of Passion in the Desert is both its supreme virtue and its most precarious pitfall. After all the resplendence of Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient, Currier's image of the desert as an inhospitable realm, physically and psychically rocky for those unused to its contours, is a welcome inclusion to the motion picture atlas. Currier's distaste for dramatics, however, is somewhat crippling to her narrative, which so carefully withdraws from any hint of comedy or irony that it inches closer and closer to forsaking emotion altogether. Currier is clearly an artist of proficience and discipline, but the solemn mood she so carefully constructs does not seem ideal for the project at hand. "Passion" is a messy, extravagant phenomenon, and a hard one to characterize from behind a poker face. Grade: B–

National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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