Desert Island Movie #2
Irrational desire (lust) is an emotion difficult if not impossible to explain in life. It’s something so powerful and mysterious that takes place under the skin and inside the loins that defies reason or common sense. We stumble around and fall into traps trying to make sense out of something so mysterious and inexplicable. Consider now the problem of trying to coherently dramatize it in theatrical/cinematic terms. But that is exactly what Louis Malle and his talented cast and crew challenged themselves to do when they decided to make a movie out of Josephine Hart’s slim bestselling novel. The screen adaptation was done by the talented British playwright David Hare. That they got as close as they do to capturing what seems like an impossible circumstance without wandering into pornography is remarkable to me. Because for one thing pornography wouldn’t have solved the psychological dilemma of the two main characters. It would’ve only made it more explicit. Still the film goes pretty far as far as mainstream movies go in attempting to depict an attraction based solely on carnal desire.
The story is about Dr. Stephen Fleming, a respected Member of Parliament with an attractive wife, two children and a promising career ahead of him. One day he is introduced to Anna Barton, an attractive young French woman who is romantically involved with his son. They shake hands and a spark is struck. He recognizes it and so does she. Then almost immediately they succumb to the force of lustful desire that seems to be taking them over. From there we watch as they circle and connect with each other in a frenzy of sexual passion that they’re helpless to control.
This is not a sexy or erotic film but one that is fascinating in the way that it plumbs or rather attempts to plumb the sometimes frightening depths of human obsession and how helpless we can be in its onslaught. One of the reasons the film works so well, for me at least, is due to the nature of the leading performances by Jeremy Irons (Dr. Fleming) and Juliette Binoche (Anne Barton). They both surrender to the physical and emotional demands of the roles and present them naked and unguarded in a way that is both bracing and refreshing. They give performances that sometimes takes us (the audience) out of our comfort zone leaving us troubled and embarrassed. But like the proverbial tragic auto accident at the side of the road we don’t want to watch but can’t look away.
The term ‘a terrible beauty” is to me an apt way to describe this film because the way it is presented and the emotional consequences it exacts are both terrible and beautiful. I look at it and I’m fascinated and repelled, but more the former than the latter. And every time I look at it I hope it will end differently although I know it can’t.
I’ve always liked Louis Malle’s film but this one occupies a special corner in my motion pictures treasure house. And that’s the reason I would want it on that desert island paradise I’ve created for myself.