There are two reasons to think that Passion in the Desert might be an art-house hitThe English Patient and the photogenic gracefulness of large catsbut many more reasons to be skeptical.
Like The English Patient, the film involves a badly injured man being discovered by Bedouins in the Egyptian desert during wartime. It’s 1798, and the mystery man is French officer Augustin (Ben Daniels). After quick cuts of a gruesome medical procedure and an essential flashback, however, the narrative becomes straightforward: Augustin and a small squad are accompanying artist Venture (Michel Piccoli) on a sketching trip into the desert, far from the bulk of Napoleon’s forces. The soldiers’ revolutionary-era class resentment of Venture ceases to be an issue when Augustin and his charge are separated from the other Frenchmen. The artist soon descends, perhaps a little too poetically, into madness, and Augustin is alone with the lizards and scorpions, who are given fleeting closeups reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Famished and parched, Augustin eventually finds his way to an abandoned ancient city carved into a desert outcropping. (These scenes were shot at Petra, the Jordanian site that inspired the much more conventional final setting of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) The ruin is blessed with a water hole, but the goatherding local nomads think the place is guarded by a djinn, a malevolent desert spirit. In fact, the custodian is more ferocious but less supernatural: a leopard.
Augustin and the cat forge a truce that soon becomes something more intense. After a few wary encounters, the leopard allows the man access to the water hole and begins sharing her kills with him. As the cat turns sociable, Augustin experiments with being catlike, stripping naked and daubing himself with spots. This amour félin has an erotic charge, although the physical contact between man and leopard never progresses beyond, well, heavy petting. Still, Augustin is plainly jealous when his new companion, whom he’s named Simoom after the Bedouin word for the Saharan wind, takes off for a dalliance with a male leopard. (Simoom was actually played by three leopards, which are notoriously untrainable animals; the most cooperative was a male.) That man and beast will not live happily ever after, of course, has already been revealed by the opening scene.
Adapting a Balzac story, first-time writer-director (and Washington-area resident) Lavinia Currier has crafted a visually compelling mood piece. The striking locations, Alexei Rodionov’s cinematography, a suitably sinuous score (by José Nieto and featuring the music of Hamza El Din), and above all the unusually intimate footage of the lithe leopards combine to create something as elegantly exotic as the movements of a great cat.
Still, feline beauty is not the same thing as intelligence, and Passion in the Desert is finally as blank as the visage of a sleeping house cat. Despite the film’s visual appeal, Currier’s treatment of the material seems too literal, reducing an enigmatic desert fable into a routine failed romance between civilization and nature. Maybe the problem is the Anglo-American sensibility Currier and Daniels bring to this French parable. The premise is undeniably offbeat, but it’s hard to shake the sense that the film really needs to be a whole lot weirder than it is.
Buffalo ’66 is a smart, interesting film about a dumb, tiresome man. Unfortunately, they’re both the work of the same guy, co-writer-director-composer-star Vincent Gallo, which makes you wonder: If Gallo the director were really so sharp, would he have bothered to immortalize this constricted, provincial alter ego?
This tale of an uptight ex-con is not so much an ego trip as it is a suicide-mission assault on Gallo’s hometown, Buffalo, and parents, here impersonated with earnest hideousness by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston. Gallo’s character has a name so blank it seems like a spur-of-the-moment pseudonym, but the rest of Billy Brown’s existence is remarkably specific. Billy is the son of an emotionally distant, potentially violent father and a mother who’s so obsessed with Buffalo’s hapless football team that she still can’t forgive her son for having been born on the day the Bills won the 1966 conference championship. Despite his hostility toward his parents, Billy has replicated them as best he can: He too is a macho powder keg with an unhealthy Bills fixation. In fact, Billy went to jail because he couldn’t pay an absurdly large Super Bowl bet he placed (with a bookie played by an impressively sleazy Mickey Rourke) on the Bills.
In the opening scene, Billy leaves prison with a full bladder, which emphasizes his twitchy discomfort in the outside world. His quest for relief is interrupted by a bus ride, a men’s-room encounter with a guy he’s sure is a “faggot,” and an impulsive kidnapping. Never admitting that he’s gone to prison, Billy has instead told his parents that he’s a well-paid professional with a mysterious job and an attractive young wife. Spotting a terrible tap dancer who’s dressed like Courtney Love’s circa-1991 understudy in a shiny baby-blue minidress and matching eye makeup, Billy grabs her. This is Layla (Christina Ricci), who finds herself on her way to Billy’s parents’ house as she gets a quick lesson in how to act as Billy’s adoring wife, Wendy. (The significance of the name is revealed later by a Rosanna Arquette cameo.)
In her quest to impress the Browns, Layla goes too far, but then so does Gallo’s script. As Layla blabbers that Billy is a top CIA agent who plucked her from the agency typing pool, Dad refuses to speak to his son and Mom can’t remember his name or his deadly allergy to chocolate. Mom laments of her son, “I wish I’d never had him,” while Dad tries to paw Layla and impress her by pretending to sing “Fools Rush In” while transparently lip-synching. Nothing that happens in this scene is as strange, though, as the revelation in the final credits that the real singer is Vincent Gallo Sr. The Oedipal struggle unfolding here is barely grazed by the film’s narrative.
After this sitcom horror show, Gallo can go in one of two directions: Billy craves revenge on the Bills player he believes threw the game on which he placed his life-changing bet, and his confrontation with the guywho now runs a strip club that looks curiously glamorous in Gallo’s economically, emotionally, and visually depressed Buffalocould turn bloody. Or, in a development that would be utterly Hollywood despite the low-rent surroundings, Layla and Billy could find the true love they’ve just been feigning in order to impress his uninterested parents. Let’s just say that, while Ricci’s whacked-out good girl is more intriguing than her hard-headed bad girl in The Opposite of Sex, both films end on a less than audacious note.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its distinctive touches. Gallo plays with jump cuts and multiple images, at one point piling up views of prison life until the screen looks like an elaborate, mobile magazine photo spread. (Less successfully, he stages a series of mock freeze-frames at the strip club.) These moments are subordinated, however, to a wish-fulfillment fantasy whose banality ultimately overshadows the story’s grotesqueries. Buffalo ’66 has Vincent Gallo’s art but Billy Brown’s soul.CP