"Passion in the Desert" is an odd and beautiful little film, a largely effective poetic meditation on the emotional connection between a soldier and a leopard that feels very much like love.
"Passion" is based on an atypical novella by the great 19th century French writer Honore de Balzac. While a good deal of Balzac's fiction is set among Paris' teeming boulevards, "Passion" takes us to Egypt in 1798 and the fortunes of a young French officer in Napoleon's invading force.
Augustin Robert (British actor Ben Daniels) is a handsome, even arrogant young captain with a dashing uniform and hair done up in fashionable braids. The trackless desert, he feels, holds no particular mystery. Between the Nile and Red Sea, he says, "You can't get lost in Egypt."
An artist whom Robert is escorting, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (veteran French actor Michel Piccoli), feels differently. Assigned by Napoleon to record the timeless glories of the desert and its monuments, Venture has a passion for the unknown and the unseen. He calls the wind "the breath of the desert" and talks about jinns, mysterious spirits that control the night.
As directed by Lavinia Currier (who also produced and wrote the script with assistance from Martin Edmunds), "Passion" is, even in its early stages, notable more for its look than its dialogue. Words are kept to a minimum, and those that are used tend to be awkward and unsatisfying as often as not.
While the money available for costumes was likely minimal, production designer Amanda McArthur and costume designer Shuna Harwood (Oscar-nominated for the stylish, modern-dress "Richard III" starring Ian McKellen) have combined to create a world that feels believably foreign, period and exotic.
And cinematographer Alexei Rodionov (who shot Sally Potter's great-looking "Orlando") has created visuals so bright and vivid that it's possible to simply ignore the moments when the words aren't up to the standard set by the images.
In the aftermath of an attack by Mameluke fighters and a sandstorm that erases everyone's tracks, Robert and his artist get separated from the French troops they're traveling with and, after getting irredeemably lost, from each other as well.
Stumbling onto mysterious stone ruins (these parts of the film were shot in Petra, Jordan), Robert thinks he's by himself. A pair of bright eyes glowing in the dark tells him otherwise: A wild African leopard considers the ruins home as well.
The heart of "Passion in the Desert," structurally as well as metaphorically, is the almost wordless relationship that develops between the soldier and the leopard. Against all logic, the animal seems to take a liking to Robert. Alone amid the silent stones, the two of them play out an elaborate relationship that blurs the line between man and beast, hunter and hunted.
All this sounds a bit dicey, but the largely silent interaction between these two is convincing to a considerable extent--even though the leopard is, as director Currier put it in an interview, "the most dangerous, idiosyncratic and unmanageable of the great cats." Currier hired animal trainer Rick Glassey, who raised from birth the leopards used in the film. Even so, it took considerable nerve on the part of actor Daniels to appear in the same frame with an animal that was likely as not thinking of ways to eat him. With Rodionov behind the camera, their scenes together have a kind of tense poetry that is unlikely to be forgotten.
Passion in the Desert, 1998. PG-13, for violence, including some depictions of barbarism, and for nudity. Released by Fine Line Features. Director Lavinia Currier. Producer Lavinia Currier. Executive producers Joel McCleary, Stephen Dembitzer. Screenplay Lavinia Currier, adapted from the novella by Honore de Balzac. Additional script Martin Edmunds. Cinematographer Alexei Rodionov. Editor Nicolas Gastner. Costumes Shuna Harwood. Music Jose Nieto, Hamza El Din. Production design Amanda McArthur. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Ben Daniels as Augustin Robert. Michel Piccoli as Venture. Paul Meston as Grognard. Kenneth Collard as Officer.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times