We always welcome new blood at Picturenose – our good friend Marc Bacon casts his eye over Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Sheltering Sky (1990). Take it away, Marc!
Bernardo Bertolucci’s noble effort to preserve in celluloid the fantasia of what was in Paul Bowles’s mind was always going to be an ambitious project. The base story, however, is as old as the hills. Guy likes girl, girl not sure. Hmmm – we are living in an age of tragedy, but we refuse to recognize it.
The book was written in a period (1949) where divorce was first becoming commonplace without any tragic consequences, and was a precursor to what has become a modern-day contagion. The main character Port, like Tony as in E.M. Forster’s Hard Cheese on Tony (A Handful of Dust), finds this turn of events a bitter pill to swallow. The book reads a little like E.M. Forster in terms of lightness, neutrality and mindfulness, which makes putting it on the silver screen rather difficult.
Enter Mark Peploe, who transforms what was a bleak and depressing tale into a kind of desert love story with a dash of Lawrencian (D.H.) style, passion and sensuality. So, Berty finds himself having to harness two worlds; the mental and the emotional. It’s Forster versus Lawrence. A delicate balancing act, if ever there was one.
Bored with western life, two artists, Kit and Port Moresby, embark on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ to Northern Africa, in a bid to save their marriage. To do justice to Bowles’ book, the film had to deliver more than a portrait of a couple in disarray – it also had to explore the profundity of the female psyche and of the turmoil that is male desperation. A woman over 35 who knows exactly what she wants is as rare as rocking-horse shit, and this film bears witness to that with style and ease. Port is a man who has become too dependant on his lythe, lissom spouse, and a sense of tragedy is deftly engineered from the start.
The lythe lissom spouse feels like a change but is held back. Indecision sets in, and then all hell breaks lose involving customs officers, prostitutes, petty English criminals, a camel train and sexual captivity, all set against a dark, sensual and sumptuous North African burning backdrop.
Those familiar with the works of Bowles and the book might find the choice of Debra Winger as Kit a curious one; too much empathy, no jagged edge of existential angst and selfishness. In short, too homely and too damn nice for Paul Bowles’ Kit but perfect for Mark Peploe’s screenplay. The casting of Port to the terminally gloomy John Malkovich was, on the other hand, a no-brainer. He makes Jack Dee look sunny and cheerful. Whacked on the head by the misery stick at birth, the man oozes quiet disharmony and unquiet dissatisfaction in equal measure.
He plays the role of Port with aplomb. His love for, dependence on and despair with Kit is clear from the start; a life without her unthinkable. The film takes us on a terrible journey where this ‘life-without-her’ scenario moves from an increasing possibility to a foregone conclusion, with tragic consequences. The story is neatly punctuated by Tunner (Campbell Scott), a friend of both Kit and Port, providing the tension of temptation and enticing Kit’s prolonged fall into treachery. The casting of Timothy Spall as petty criminal Eric Lyle and Jill Bennett his mum Mrs Lyle, a perspicuous travel writer, only adds to film’s period and place authenticity.
The judicious casting and well-executed performances combine with the stunning imagery, hypnotic score, haunting narrative by Bowles and evocative cinematography, to make this film a powerful, thought-provoking masterpiece. My only word of caution would be to be careful who you watch this film with; taking your partner to see this film could have dangerous consequences. It could cast an unwelcome seed of doubt as to your compatibility, which could throw your own life into a “Portesque” nightmare.
My advice would be to go on your own, or with a friend, or someone you’re trying to impress who is seeing somebody else, where these seeds of doubt can grow in your favour. Yes, this film really is that potent.
Does it in some way undermine the author’s original ideas? Possibly, but ultimately it leaves you with a positive impression, despite the uncomfortable excursion into the mystery and misery of the human condition, and even provides hope for the human race.
138 mins. In English, French and Arabic.