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Honoring Balzac

It was once said of Honore de Balzac: "Next to God and Shakespeare, he is the greatest creator of human beings." In his time, which was the first half of the nineteenth century, this driven Frenchman wrote more than sixty novels and countless shorter tales--passionate, sprawling, obsessively detailed. Each was marked by his dual nature: The realist and the romantic were forever at war within him.

Capturing the great, prolix Balzac on the screen is no easy task, but first-time filmmaker Lavinia Currier has made a canny choice. The author's late-career story Passion in the Desert, which tells of a Napoleonic captain's spiritual transformation while cut adrift in the Sahara, is uncharacteristically compact and relatively subdued. From it, Currier has fashioned a philosophical parable both beautiful and pointed--even if it verges on silliness here and there.

The lost soldier, Augustin Robert, is portrayed by a young British actor named Ben Daniels, whose untamed blond locks, lean torso and blazing blue eyes give him the contemporary look of a rock star. Alas, the story is set in 1798, the hour of Napoleon's ill-fated campaign in Egypt, and Augustin is a child of what his countrymen called Le Siecle des Lumieres--The Enlightenment--in which the belief in pure reason was applied to religion, politics, morality, even (if such a thing is possible) war. So Augustin sees Egypt not as the mystical land of the Pharaohs but as a finite chunk of territory. "You cannot be lost in Egypt," he declares. "On one side is the Nile, on the other, the sea."

Little does he know. One disastrous sandstorm later, Augustin finds himself separated from the dreamy artist Venture (Michel Piccoli), who has been charged by Bonaparte with capturing the country's splendid antiquities in his sketchbook and who clearly represents Balzac's inner romantic. Venture is, after all, a man who, though starving, would rather paint a lizard than eat it.

Stranded and alone, with little use now for his compass or his rifle, Augustin struggles to survive. The Bedouin are in hot pursuit, and the desert is even hotter. Soon he is drawn back into his animal nature, the rational man returned to the beast.

He has help. Dazed by heat, thirst and silence, Augustin wanders into an ancient ruin, and there he encounters the ultimate primal force--a fierce, beautiful African leopard. After his initial fear has passed, he slowly changes into a kind of cat-man. From our perch at the end of the twentieth century, this collision of Born Free and Voltaire has its ludicrous moments. As the soldier sheds his tattered blue coat, vest and knickers, smears his face with improvised leopard spots and begins growling and hissing, Currier's film sometimes looks and feels like the story of a proto-hippie taking an acid trip at the beach. But Balzac's essential idea has stood the test of time. As Enlightenment man rediscovers the noble savage inside him through a symbiotic (and symbolic) relationship with an animal, we discover something, too: In the wilderness, high thought is no match for nature, bloody in fang and claw.

As a purely practical matter (that's one of the things we're talking about, isn't it?), the scenes in which Daniels nuzzles and purrs and plays with the big, sleek beast he calls Simoom (the Bedouin name for the Sahara wind) are amazing. The filmmakers used three leopards, actually, and the trainers tell us there was no certainty that any of them would prefer movie acting to eating Daniels for lunch. His brave ease with the gorgeous cats gives Passion in the Desert a rare verisimilitude and just the sheer wildness that's called for. Meanwhile, the director and cinematographer Alexei Rodionov have captured the dangerous beauties of the desert in all its moods so profoundly that even the makers of Lawrence of Arabia and The English Patient would likely smile in admiration.

Producer/director/co-writer Currier, a Harvard-educated student of poetry, is also an environmentalist and a savior of Tibetan refugees (who isn't these days?). And she clearly has a gift for poetic, highly metaphorical filmmaking. But she's not such a blind-eyed mystic that she doesn't recognize the necessity of a twist, of an ironic ending. True to M. Balzac, whose greater subject was, of course, la comedie humaine itself, Currier shows us that rational man cannot completely change his spots--despite loving big cats or ingesting industrial-strength hallucinogens. The quest for the true self, even if imposed, must often end in betrayal and tragedy. Two centuries after getting lost on the sands of time, Captain Augustin and Balzac still have something vital to say about the way we live now. And this lovely, quiet, sumptuous film does honor to their best instincts.

Passion in the Desert.
Produced, written and directed by Lavinia Currier, from a novella by Honore de Balzac. Co-written by Martin Edmunds. With Ben Daniels and Michel Piccoli.

 
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