Under the opening credits, scenes of New York in 1920s or ’30s. Black and white newsreels of a big celebration – the end of World War II? Anyway, it’s sometime in the first half of the 20th century. And we’re lucky it doesn’t start with scenes of Morocco, which probably looks pretty much the same now as it did then. So that would be really confusing.
A young couple, Kit and Port, travel with a friend. On their foreign-shores arrival, Port defines the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Kit tells their friend Tunner, “I’m half and half.” It’s a clue that she is already half inclined to get a new life. In her luggage we glimpse a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood – So it’s 1936 at the earliest, and the book is a nice period touch -just what this character would be reading. Did I mention that Kit is played by Debra Winger? And Port is John Malkovich. How often are two of my personal idols in one movie? Not very.
Paul Bowles, who wrote the original story, is narrator, though thank Goddess there are only a couple of lines of narration. He’s this dapper old dude hanging around the Grand Hotel and watching the couple, Porter and Kit, interact, and the third guy travelling with them, as if they were his own private soap opera. The Bowles character is interesting. If this story is anything like his real life, it exactly expresses how he would be looking back, as an old man, at his younger self. Or you could make a case that he’s the Witness, the part of one’s self that always stands back and watches.
In the café, Tunner carries on like a picky tourist just because there are “corpses” (bugs) in the soup. Kit and Port slurp their soup in unison and with enthusiasm, making their friend feel like an outsider. But when he leaves in a huff, they admit to each other how lousy the food is. Couples do this. They exclude others, but they also bring others into their relationship and use them as pawns, or retaliation tools, or jealousy goads, or whatever. This is primarily a relationship movie, and it depicts faithfully the couple dynamic, the games played, the underlying loyalty and solidarity.
In the hotel where they all stay, Kit and Port have separate rooms. But when Tunner quizzes her about it, she says it’s not good to confuse sex with sleep. This is a woman after my own heart. Later, Kit rather pointedly shuts Port out of her room. But the next day, she invites him to rub her tummy. But they don’t make love, apparently. They seem to have a complicated thing going on.
Then, she doesn’t want to go for a walk with her husband. Port goes off on his own and finds beautiful scenery, overlooking a lower place. You can tell he’s bitter that Kit is not there to share it. He lets a man lead him to a courtesan. To reach her, they have to climb down a ladder to a valley where the fires of many encampments burn. It’s like descending into hell, in a symbolic kind of way. Port learns from experience that, unlike his native land, in this country the courtesans kiss. A lot. At least, this one does. She also steals his wallet, but he knows, and gets it back. Instead of just leaving quietly, he flaunts the fact that she didn’t succeed in ripping him off. To her way of thinking, however, it’s the foreign visitor who stole something from her, by daring to recover his own property. She ululates an alarm, the men come running, and there is a desperate pursuit.
Tunner peeks into Kit’s room, and into Port’s room. He knows Port hasn’t been back all night, but Kit rumples up his bed and tells a lie, she says Port already got up and went out. But then Port returns from his wild adventure, and there’s his wife and their friend, in his room, with the bed messed up. Naturally, he suspects a dalliance. Kit takes out her bad temper on Tunner. “Stop trying to be interesting. On you it looks terrible”
Kit and Port go off on long bike ride, and end up on vertiginous overlook. They make love, but then he starts talking while they’re doing it, and apparently they talk too much, I think we’re supposed to conclude that he loses his erection, and Kit is obviously frustrated.
In town, a funeral procession goes by, with the deceased carried on a litter at shoulder height by several people in a way that is businesslike, not at all dignified or stately. They move so briskly, the corpse bounces around.
Port asks Kit “Could you be happy here?” Talk about foreshadowing! They talk about the fact that they’ve been married seven years, which Port doesn’t think is a long time. “We will stay in El Gaa” is another prophetic utterance.
Tunner intends to follow them to El Gaa but actually, he and Kit have gotten together by now, and Port wants to keep them apart, so he and his wife move on to another town. Port is desperate to find transportation, but a clerk tells him it’s impossible. From a handful of currency, he flings bill after bill at the man in negligent flicking way, then grabs the front of the guy’s clothes. Having seen the money and the violence, the clerk asks “American?”
Port falls ill, and Kit goes off to look for the hotel, probably hoping someone will come back and help her carry him. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who play their curative music over him. He intuits that the music is beneficial, and beckons them closer. Kit comes back, finds Port on the ground in the midst of all this, and tells the shamans/musicians to stop. But Port flings more money, and they start playing again.
After some horrible days in a bare room, Port dies. Kit flags down a passing caravan, and is appropriated by a desert sheik who takes her home to be one of his paramours, and there’s a very exotic love scene. But then the other wives and the rest of the people in the settlement drive her away.
Tunner is still hanging around in the couple’s last known location, where he’s been waiting for three months to hear something. He seems to have gone somewhat native. He’s wearing baggy pants, anyway.
Rejected by the locals, Kit tries to steal or buy some soup in the marketplace, but she’s not allowed to do either. The people set upon her. Next, we see her in a hospital. Her hands and feet are covered with either henna designs or tattoos. A Red Cross woman takes her away in a car. They arrive at Tunner’s hotel, and the Red Cross woman leaves Kit alone while she goes to find him, but when they come back Kit is gone. She wanders around and winds up back up in the same place where the Paul Bowles character is still hanging out in the dining room. Then he does some voiceover philosophizing about how we think we have forever, but we don’t, and how the number of times when we will do the things we love are finite.
This movie has a great look, especially the window treatments in that part of the world. I forgot to check the credits to see who was the fly wrangler. A lot of flies were around when Port was deathly sick. Are they real flies? Or added by digital magic? Here’s my last question. If black absorbs heat, and the body loses 80 percent of its heat through the scalp, why in this scorching desert climate do people enclose their heads in cloth that appears to be treated with tar? Is it tar? Don’t their brains bake? Why not, at least, wrap up in white cloth, to reflect some of the heat? Or why not just go bare-headed, and take advantage of the natural air-conditioning properties of hair? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these people know what they’re doing. They’ve had centuries in which to perfect their ergonomic relationship with the climate. I’m just wondering how this seemingly counter-intuitive solution works in practical terms, that’s all.
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
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