Passion in the Desert
1998, PG-13, 102 min. Directed by Lavinia Currier. Starring Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 24, 1998
In Passion in the Desert the love that dare not speak its name is the love that passes between man and beast. Interspecies love is the dubious topic of this unusual and, indeed, tantalizing film. Between man and leopard, who's to say? Certainly not the makers of Passion in the Desert, which, of all things, is based on a novella by Honoré de Balzac. It takes place in Egypt in 1798 and depicts the story of a young captain in Bonaparte's army who becomes lost in the Sahara. Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels, who is also currently onscreen in Madeline) is a product of the Age of Enlightenment, a logical chap who seems a bit peeved by his assignment to escort an artist/scholar (Piccoli) whom Bonaparte has sent to paint and record the land's monuments and antiquities. The two become lost in a sandstorm, and face doom once the artist uses the last of their water to mix his paints. Augustin sets off alone. Taking flight after an aborted attempt at molesting a Bedouin woman, Augustin finds refuge in the cavernous ruins of an ancient city. He awakes to the sight of two amber cat's eyes gleaming at him in the dark, the eyes of a predatory leopard. But rather than eat him alive, the leopard leads Augustin to water, then shares with him her fresh kill. Time passes and the two bond and romp and purr in the desert sun. Augustin gives her the name Simoom, and they lie entwined, side by side. As the story pushes the envelope of plausibility, it's good to remember that this is no doubt some kind of fable about the abdication of reason and the domestication of violence. It's not the kind of tale one might customarily expect from the pen of the great social realist Balzac, and being unfamiliar with the novella I wonder whether the “passion” Balzac described was meant to be this earthy and sexual or more inclined toward the religious/spiritual sense of the word. And even though the movie encourages us to understand that the desert is a place of jinns and hallucinations, by the time Augustin, in a jealous fit, strips naked and covers himself with spots, the metaphor has become far too bestial for comfort. Augustin howls for Simoom with all the primordial passion of a sunstruck Stanley Kowalski. Still, for all its strained improbability, the mostly wordless Passion in the Desert must be lauded for carrying out its difficult vision. Beautiful to look at and deeply disturbing, it's almost enough to blind us to its willfully ludicrous inversion of nature.