Passion In The Desert

The second attempt in as many months to adapt Honoré de Balzac for the screen, Passion In The Desert deserves credit for being far more audacious than the hopelessly strained Cousin Bette. Unfortunately, it's even less successful. A feverish, exotic account of a French Provençal's encounter with a panther in the Sahara, Balzac's novella hints at a possible romance, but it's as brief and hallucinatory as a mirage. In expanding this virtually untranslatable story into a full feature, writer-director Livinia Currier goes beyond the mere suggestion of an affair, and the results are literal to the point of embarrassment. Ben Daniels (Beautiful Thing) plays the soldier, one of a small regiment assigned to protect a commissioned artist, Michel Piccoli, during Napoleon's campaign through Egypt in 1798. When a sand storm separates the two from the rest of the group, leaving them with no food or water, Piccoli soon poisons himself by drinking his paints and Daniels wanders the desert alone. Close to death, the soldier stumbles upon an oasis, where he's entranced by a strikingly beautiful leopard. The most peculiar thing about Passion In The Desert, and what often elevates it to high camp, is how conventional the romance plays out between man and beast. Tenuous at first, the relationship begins with a few meaningful stares and some dancing, moves quickly into the heavy petting stage, and ends when one of the partners loses interest and starts seeing another animal. Currier finds the desert as photogenic as ever, but the gorgeous photography only compounds the silliness, lending this would-be Walkabout all the naturalism of The Blue Lagoon.

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