Dear Passion in the Desert,
You are a rare one, and a rather difficult one to explain. How does one synopsize a film about a man who falls in love with an animal? Oh, wait… I just did… sort of. Truthfully, a synopsis rarely scratches the surface as to what a story is actually about; the topics and themes explored in the narrative are usually presented in such an oblique fashion that even when the details are simple and the themes easily derived, they are often of a much broader scope.
Take, for instance, Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. On its surface, it is a retelling of “King Lear” set in feudal Japan about a warlord abdicating his domain to his sons and the political power plays that occur between them as a result. With overt themes of family politics and revenge, underscored by a much more encompassing nihilism that touched on man’s race toward its own self-made apocalypse, Ran was not simply about the severing of family ties between a father and his children. In the same way, you, Passion in the Desert, are not simply about a man falling in love with a leopard.
Inspired by a short story by Honoré de Balzac, your story seems simple enough: Augustin Robert, a French soldier during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, gets lost in the desert after being separated from his regiment, encountering a female leopard and engaging in an oddly romantic relationship with the magnificent beast. To clarify though, this romance is not sexual in nature, so none need worry that you would include depictions of animal husbandry. No, this relationship is much more enigmatic in nature, first personified by the initial fear and mistrust between the two. Upon his first meeting with the creature, he certainly expects to be devoured easily, especially considering his weakened state of thirst and heat exhaustion from having traversed the desert unaided.
Why the animal spares him initially, who can say? It is often stated that animals possess senses beyond man’s reckoning – a conveniently benign statement, yet applicable all the same. Soon, she offers him food and leads him to an oasis of water; she even goes so far as to kill a hostile Bedouin that had been tracking him, effectively saving his life. Time passes, and Robert gives her the name of Simoom, subsequently “dancing” and laying with her. It’s his pets and strokes of her fur along with the serene look in his eyes (and seemingly in hers) that makes for a touching if uncomfortably romantic scene.
So, wait… what else are you about if you’re not just about a guy falling in love with an animal? It may sound trite and contrived to say that you are about man’s connection with nature, but to dismiss it as such would be to disregard your first half hour of setup. Robert’s whole purpose on the campaign in the first place is to protect the artist Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis from the gibes and jests of the other soldiers due mainly to his better understanding of the Egyptian culture. Indeed, de Paradis’ speaks mysteriously by campfire of the Jinn, the spirit of the desert wind, invoking the scorns of another soldier who states it as merely “lies and superstitions corrupting the people.” Of course, de Paradis speaks in a tone that not only forewarns of the disaster soon to befall the regiment as they are attacked the next morning by Egyptian Mamluks, but also offers emphasis to the soldiers’ arrogance and ignorance. Robert himself even is subject to this, stating at first very confidently, “You can’t get lost in Egypt; there’s the Nile, and there’s the sea,” only to repeat the statement later as he forlornly realizes that he and de Paradis have traveled in circles, rendering them quite lost. Before Simoom is even a thought in the story, you’ve already given us a small but piercing commentary on the modern man’s relationship with nature, often defeated in spite of supposed advancement and superior technology, unable to adapt to the world in which he is born. Even in your first act, this dichotomy of man vs. nature is given an appropriately hefty close in de Paradis’ parting words to Robert: “In the desert, a man forgets he has a name.”
But let’s not forget that the bulk of your story and appeal is the interplay between our young French protagonist and his companion. Credit should go to your director, Lavinia Currier, for approaching so audacious and difficult a project as you and for at the very least offering a visual feast. Ben Daniels is perfectly cast as Robert, his facial features and his thin physique given weight by his graceful movements, granting him a rather photogenic and even somewhat feline quality that complements the leopard quite well.
Against the backdrop of the Jordan desert amid the ruins of Petra where you were mostly filmed, nearly every shot would make a stunning painting. And on the subject of paintings, two of your most haunting images involve paint: 1) As de Paradis succumbs to madness instigated by heat exhaustion, he drinks his paints, the mélange of colors trickling along his face and beard to make for a disturbingly ghostly sight; 2) As Robert adorns himself in brown spots and yellow streaks, darkening his eyes, and writhing around like an animal in heat, striving to regain the attentions of Simoon after she cavorts with a visiting male leopard. Once again, we are given analogies to man’s place in nature, the one image indicative of man’s defeat, the other of man’s desperate and doomed to fail attempts to obtain dominion over his surroundings. Of the latter, it must be stated that your conclusion – not to be revealed here – is rather saddening in spite of the admitted absurdity of the entire situation.
You are no simple art house film, though one would be hard pressed to assume any modicum of mainstream appeal. Comparisons have been made to The English Patient, though such notions are peripheral at best given your uniquely classical approach more on par with Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” or Edgar Rice Burroughs’” Tarzan.” In many ways, your protagonist is an analog for Mowgli or Tarzan if supplanted with the sensibilities of a grown man whose connection to nature and his environment is rediscovered but ultimately misunderstood.
You, Passion in the Desert are an easy film to mock given the melodrama that surrounds your principal narrative, with the conclusion – saddening it may be – coming off as just a tad ridiculous given Robert’s final desperate attempt to exert some influence on a world that he has ultimately chosen to forsake despite himself. And yet, there’s a tenderness and an unflinching sense of honesty that enables at least this viewer to suspend disbelief and enjoy you as an unusually striking and heartfelt tale.