Friday, July 12, 2013

Passion in the Desert

This film has been sitting in front of me literally for two years.  Has anyone ever put off seeing something so relevant to their interests for so long?  Why would I do that?  Quite simply, it's because I was introduced to the film via its Wikipedia entry, and I knew, for absolute certain after reading the plot synopsis, that I would cry at the end.

SPOILER WARNING!  Because this film is so very relevant to this blog's main topic, and because of my feelings about it, I'm not going to skirt around plot events, so if you haven't seen the film, want to see the film, and want things to be a surprise, read no further.  That having been said, if you want a plot synopsis, I recommend mine over Wikipedia's, which is incorrect in several parts and, frankly, very cold in the rest.

Also, I totally did cry at the end.



Passion in the Desert opens with relative innocence, taking place in Egypt as Napoleon Bonaparte's armies march across it in an effort to wrest it from the hands of the Arabs.  The protagonist is a French soldier by the name of Augustin Robert, who seems quite unremarkable apart from his current duty, which is to escort artist Jean-Michel Venture de Paris ("Venture"), who despite his name is most definitely from the Middle East and so is very mistrusted by the other French soldiers.

When one first sees the movie, one's inclined to think that this eccentric painter may be the focal point of the film: when the two are separated from their unit during a Mamaluk attack, he drives our poor protagonist half-mad with his obsessive depiction of the desert - the natural and cultural world of Egypt alike even as they try to survive in the desolate environment, climaxing when the old idiot uses the last of their drinking water to mix his paints.  Unable to continue, Venture stays behind at a pair of dead trees and, after being assured by Augustin that he'd be picked up once the soldier had found the Nile, promptly drinks down his paints with lead-induced ecstasy.

Augustin doesn't find the Nile, and as a consequence, those who are particularly fond of horses might want to be wary of a certain scene in which he is forced to put his steed down (at the same instant a giggling Venture does himself).  It's at this point the real crawling through the desert begins, until he finds a Bedouin camp.  He steals water from a veiled and beaded woman, whom in his delirium he believes a sorceress and does what any of us would do in his shoes: he quickly takes his knife to her hair and jets with the whole tribe in pursuit behind him.

He finds an ancient temple and hides there as night falls, and his superstitious assailants leave him to be picked clean by the jinn - malevolent spirits who appear as anything, from humans to animals to wisps of sand.  The concept of the jinn is one revisited throughout the film, particularly in animal form, to, of course, foreshadow our protagonist meeting one.

That is, as he turns in for the night, he finds himself bunking in the same sandstone room as a leopardess.  She ignores him entirely as he nearly wets himself and prepares for the inevitable confrontation.

It comes, but not to him: in the morning, when one of the Bedouins comes looking for him, sling in hand, the leopardess gives the Frenchman a nuzzle and goes out to hunt his attacker.  From this point on, we have a slow but steady movement from a supposed predator-prey relationship between Augustin and the cat, to the point that, in his hunger, he steals the remnants of a kill (a deer this time, to our relief) from her - which she is more than happy to share.

Before too many more cuts, we have the absolute sweetest scene I have ever seen in a film before: he's stroking this fully-grown leopard, to rubbing her ears, caressing her chest; she washes his hair and ears, then his face, and soon enough he's tossed away his inhibition and kisses her back - on the face, the lips, until he's cuddling her passionately and licking with his own tongue her head and neck.  The scene starts at 56:00 on the nose in the video above.

At this point, I found three things: firstly, that this is beyond doubt an art film.  Secondly, that I have just witnessed the most loving and honest zoophilic scene that I ever have in my life.  Thirdly, that I just witnessed said scene on a film that is an hour and a half long, has big-name reviews, and is available on DVD.

The rest of the film - a healthy portion - is about the energetic, loving relationship between soldier and leopardess (whom he calls Simoom).  For those wondering, there is never anything explicitly sexual between them, but a turning point in the film is when Augustin discovers Simoom playing and presumably mating (in what is at once a very catlike and very playful and humanly relatable fashion) and becomes visibly jealous.  She runs off, and in an effort to win back his lover her strips what's left of his uniform to decorate himself with mud and sand to look like, of course, a leopard.  It's difficult to say this while keeping a straight face, but even this scene is in my opinion done believably.  Most certainly it depicts the soldier's madness, but it's still not a madness that's depicted as explicitly negative.  It's a desperation that comes to a head when Augustin's unit enters the area, and the lovesick, rosetted soldier has to choose between his own kind and his feline companion as the former takes aim at the latter.  The tension ends with a boulder hurled at the young soldier's terrified skull and a snarl from a half-dressed Augustin to a cheery Simoom: "Where have you been?!"

Fed up, Augustin cleans himself up and dresses for the first time in however long, and prepares a makeshift rope to tie Simoom to a pillar as he makes his departure back to civilization, protesting to her that he does not want to be a deserter.  Simoom, however, takes offence that he'd desert her for his old comrades, breaks the rope and gives chase.  In his terror, realized from all that time before when he was certain Simoom would kill him, Augustin stabs his lover in the chest as she pounces on him, and kills her.  Horrified with himself and weeping terribly, he turns blankly to the desert, cradling the corpse of the leopardess in his arms, to aimlessly walk the sands until at last he collapses, thus ending the film.

There are some neat literary things done in this film.  The very veiled foreshadowing of the artist Venture's mania, love of the desert, and self-imposed death against Augustin's own madness, infatuation and (near) death in the end.  The dead pair of trees that they come to a second time, the use of jinn as a metaphor all lend themselves well to an art film.  And like its source, its finale very nicely symbolizes one of the most prominent tragedies: that of the conflict between love and mistrust.

I also appreciate the story itself, of course.  Some critics have rated it low because, as I've found in my life people are wont to do, they can't stand the idea that a human and a wild animal can get along.  From both personal experience and from stories like that of Kamunyak, I know that animals can have compassion for other creatures, sometimes without any clear reason, and sometimes even for animals they would normally be the enemy of.  I know at least someone is going to laugh at me for this, but I find the story to be wholly believable. (And it should be: the original short story was written by Balzac, who championed naturalism in writing).

The reason I want to talk about this here, though, is because of all the films, short and long, about zoophilia and zoosexuality that I've reviewed: A Tale of Forbidden Love, COMING SOON, and others that I haven't like Equus and Animal Passions, despite not even being a documentary it paints the most accurate portrait of zoophilia.  It doesn't play it for laughs like so many do, or demonize it like Equus does, or represent it as a cold sexual fetish as do COMING SOON and Animal Passions: it's a romance, and a beautiful one.  It doesn't anthropomorphize the animal but depicts the relationship in all its beauty as well as all its strangeness. Indeed, I also found it nearly unique in realistic animal films (Old Yeller, etc.) in how little it anthropomorphizes the actions of the central non-human: there's never even the classic confused head-cock.  Also interesting is that the animal (and the actor) are never computer-generated (though Simoom is played by two different cats, one of whom is actually male), so there's an earthy realism there even in production that's missing from so many modern films.

What all this means to me is that it's entirely possible for one to successfully depict zoophilia for the masses and do so successfully artistically while actually being fair to individuals like us who might just fall in love ourselves with the creature on-screen.  I'd highly recommend this film for any zoos or zoo-sympathizers out there; although an art film and a little slow at times, it was made with a lot of love (the director put $5 million in from her own pocket) and is truly a diamond in the rough.

And with that, here's hoping that we can find more beautiful depictions of interspecies romance out there, and that more will continue to be made.  Though I'm not sure if she will or won't appreciate the sentiment, Zoopoint salutes director/producer/writer Lavinia Currier for this lovely film.

9 comments:

  1. So, are you planning to put flowers on Balzac's grave in the forseeable future?

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  2. I just saw the film and I have to say its different and I liked it too, the end was sad but overall this is a rare film, that depicts a zoosexual relationship without saying how evil it is or how funny it is as you said, but yeah I give this film a thumbs up.

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    1. From the looks of the comments, it's touched quite a good percentage of the people who see it too, zoophilic or not.

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  3. I must say that I found your blog very recently and I'm really glad I did.

    About the film - I was expecting something much worse, but in the end it's okay. The scene you were writing about is cute indeed.

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  4. Thank you! I enjoyed this film very much-Except for the heartbreaking ending! It was as if Mr Balzac intended to create the romance between man and animal, just so he could then destroy it. That he invented a private fantasy for Zoophiles, just to end with blood and tears. I could be wrong, but it seems that way to me.
    I had not heard of Kamunyak. That is an interesting story of the lioness that did not behave as a normal predator would. Posing the question about was she actually showing compassion for helpless animals, or was she sick in some way. That she likely starved to death trying to save what normally would be food makes me wonder.

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    1. I disagree, partly because to be frank, people just don't think of zoophiles that much unless they ARE one, particularly in Balzac's time. I think he wrote a tragic love story with a moral. What that moral is is up for grabs, but it starts and ends with the assertion that animals have souls and are capable of love, and in the end, the the animal's understanding surpassed that of her human lover.

      Kamunyak lost her cubs and her pride, and after that started adopting oryx calves. She doubtless was reacting to some trauma, but that in itself says a lot about her capacity for compassion.

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  5. A tragic love story indeed! Too tragic for my tastes. Too bad we can't ask Balzac what moral, or message he was thinking of when he wrote the book.
    Has anyone has read the book and compared to the movie?

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    1. As a writer myself, I fully admit that sometimes I have the urge to just churn out a story that is bizarre and apparently meaningful, with lots of twists and turns and hidden contexts when in reality I have no real intended meaning to it at all. This may have been the case with Balzac, who championed naturalism.

      I have read the short story (it is a short story, not a book; you can find it online). In it, the relationship between the man and the leopard is less physical and more a love of admiration than the cuddling, dancing, etc. you see in the film. What I particularly like about the short story, though, is that the leopard's motive in the end for attacking was not, as it was in the film, a refusal to let the soldier leave. She actually never attacks him at all: the soldier kills her out of a fleeting second of fear while they are playing, and realizes his error as he looks into her dying eyes.

      I highly recommend reading it.

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