I decided to abuse my power as not only the week’s presenter but also benevolent dictator of Cinema 1544 to show not one but two, Two, TWO short films before my feature.  (The decision was in no small part made due to the tardiness of a promised attendee, successfully pushing back the start of the feature until everybody had arrived.)  Anyhow, both shorts were taken from 2006’s Paris, Je T’aime, a film that is essentially a collection of 18 shorts by different directors taking place in the different arrondissements (pronounced “municipal districts”) of Paris.  For any trivial sticklers, there are in fact 20 arrondissements of Paris, but two films didn’t make the cut for whatever reason.

The first I showed takes place in the subway of the Tuileries district and was directed by the Coen brothers.

Sorry, I was looking for "The City of Abject Fear"

It features Steve Buscemi as a twitchy tourist with a treasure trove of Mona Lisa postcards poring through a Paris guidebook while ostensibly waiting for a train.  Among other things, the guidebook warns him not to make eye contact with others in the subway.  Naturally, he looks across the tracks and begins to awkwardly stare at a couple in the midst of a passionate kiss (or deux, or trois).  L’homme in question notices this and has a wee bit of a freak out.  Like he goes ballistic, leaving our poor tourist befuddled, and frightened, and finally relieved when a train comes into the station to separate him from the onslaught of “pardon my” French.  When the train clears the platform, the woman is gone, leaving the man alone and calling out to her -for she has appeared next to our tourist on the bench, fed up with her boyfriend’s behavior.

But what if we're cousins?!?

The predictable happens, and she forcefully begins to make out with our hapless tourist.  Then the somewhat less predictable happens, as the boyfriend makes his way across the tracks, beats the snot out of the tourist, and the couple heads off, the girl really impressed by how well they pulled off the joke.  Francophobia abounds.

The second short, Faubourg Saint-Denis by Tom Tykwer, paints the Parisian natives in a kinder light.

Neat, a Braille phone!

A young blind man answers the telephone and is greeted by an American voice: “Thomas, listen” she says, and then goes off on in florid terms about how she’s breaking their relationship off.  He hangs up the phone silently and begins to reminisce about their relationship, which began when he was walking down the street and heard her screaming from her hotel room.  As it turns out, she was rehearsing a scene for an audition at the conservatory, and when she realizes she’s late for that very audition he leads her along a shortcut, running with his cane out front.

Smurfette in Dogville

Then the film moves into rapid-fire mode.  We learn that she passes the audition, is admitted to the conservatory, and befriends and eventually becomes intimate with Thomas.  We see them together among the sights of Paris, we see her screaming in ecstasy, we see them apart among the sights of Paris, we see her screaming for no reason, we see the sights of Paris without them, we see her screaming in frustration at Thomas, we see him alone in an empty cinema blindly watching her single pre-conservatory film, and we hear the phone ring.  She has called back, wondering why the phone went dead, and now convinced that her delivery of the lines she was reading him was unconvincingly poor.  “Thomas, are you listening to me?” she asks as he silently realizes his error.  “No,” he says with a gesture, “I see you.”

What is most extraordinary about this short to me is the fact that for the majority of the film we are watching a very visually-driven recollection through the eyes of a blind man.  The entire reconstruction is only what he can imagine – which may be what leads to such interesting elements as the actress wearing an identifying blue wig during all (both) of her performances, and most of all, why she looks like Natalie Portman.  I mean, when you’re blind, every girlfriend gets to be totally hot.

Then we moved on to the feature presentation, Passion In The Desert by Lavinia Currier.  Based on an Honore de Balzac novella, around the time of its release it garnered the (I believe undeserved) reputation as the “feel-good bestiality movie of the year”.  It’s an interesting psychological profile, to be sure, but bestiality is a step too far in my opinion.

Anyhow, it starts at the end, with Napoleonic-era French officer Augustin, dying in the sands of Egypt, being picked up by a Bedouin and returned to a French Army hospital (tent) where a terrible wound on his arms leads to its amputation while the man is yet delirious from dehydration.

Hey, I got my arm back!

It then skips to the beginning, where we find that Augustin has been placed in charge of chaperoning an artist, whose sole task is to sketch the desolate beauty of the desert, especially its artifacts, before the French Army blows it all up.  Seriously, they cannonball an impressive mockup of a Sphinx.  Well, Augustin’s flippant observation that “you can’t get lost in Egypt; there’s the Nile, and there’s the sea” comes back to haunt him after he and his artist are separated from the army following a Bedouin raid, and they get lost in a sandstorm.  Finally after they have exhausted their water and the artist comes to realize that they’re traveling in circles by pulling out a prior sketch of the thorny tree they’ve just come upon, Augustin abandons the wasting artist, promising to return.

At least it's tempura

The artist, dehydrated and in despair, eventually drinks his paints and subsequently shoots himself as Augustin is similarly forced to shoot his dying horse.  On foot, Augustin carries on, eventually finding a Bedouin camp.  He recklessly enters a tent and finds a waterskin, voraciously drinking from it until he realizes he is not alone – there is a veiled woman in the tent.

Quit staring at my spots, creep!

Its the desert – the thirst, the alienness of it all, the abject loneliness – that I believe causes Augustin to take most of his (from this point out, many) questionable actions in the film.  For instance, tearing the veil off of the woman was probably a bad call.  She immediately sounds the alarm, and with maybe five gulps of water to show for it Augustin is now being pursued by her angry tribesmen, bent on death.  He finds shelter in the ruins of an ancient city (we’ll let slide the fact that much of the city, if not all, was filmed at Petra, which is in Jordan, not Egypt) and the Bedouins give up the chase as night falls, afraid of the jinn that lives in the city.  Before the night is through, Augustin meets the jinn face to face.

Tell me about my eyes...

The jinn is a she-leopard whose lair he has accidentally sheltered in.  She sniffs at a terrified Augustin curiously at first light, then heads out to viciously maul and kill a Bedouin who had returned to resume the hunt.  Augustin uses the chance to escape, but she seems to haunt his footsteps.

ROAR! I mean, "meow, meow!"

Finally he stumbles upon a lush watering hole…that also happens to be the territory of the leopard.  I should note that after you’ve watched this film a few times, it’s pretty obvious that there are different leopards (three, in fact) playing in the starring role.  The one above kind of has dangly bits in the posterior region, but we’ll ignore that.  She eventually leaves and watches Augustin drink from a distance, then leaves a fresh antelope kill where he can find it.  He begins to eat, she joins him, and to make a long story short, they strike up a dangerous relationship.  Dangerous because at first, Augustin is unsure whether the leopard will strike at any time.  Dangerous because soon he begins treating her like a tamed pet.  Dangerous because he then tries to think up a name for her, seemingly going through every old girlfriend he’s ever known before settling on “Simoom”, an African wind.  Soon, they’re playing, and wrestling, and…cuddling…and…

Silly me, lost in the desert without my kitty brush!

grooming?

Let me just step aside to say this: In this crazy, mixed-up world where a woman can marry a tree, why, oh why, can’t a man lick a leopard?  He’s been so lonely, he’s finally found a friend, and to be fair, she started it!

Mercifully, this is as far as their relationship (and the film) goes, because soon Simoom has caught the scent of a dangly-bits variety of leopard and heads off to do what comes natural.

Oh, jealousy!

Maybe it's Maybelline!

In the movie’s most evocative scene, Augustin smashes up various rocks at the edge of the watering hole to muddy himself up in a tawny and yellow, charcoal-spotted version of what he thinks Simoom might want in him.  Yeah, that’s kind of creepy, but it’s a hell of daring piece of filmmaking, and it underscores just how out of it the desert and isolation has made him.  He seems later to realize that he’s gone a bit off the deep end (there’s no internal monologue in the film, which is a thankful departure from what Hollywood would have done with it, but leaves the acting to speak much of the plot, sometimes a bit ambiguously), and is heartened to hear his fellow soldiers, decimated themselves by the desert, traveling through Simoom’s canyon.  He grabs up his clothes and makes to join them, only to find the Sphinx-destroyer, lagging behind the group, drawing a beat on Simoom and ready to fire.

He does the only sensible thing to do, which is crush the jerk’s head with a rock.

Still, he decides he must try to join his mates, so he manufactures a reedy rope with which to tie Simoom – perhaps because as a devoted familiar she won’t let him leave peacefully.  Well, the rope breaks, and she chases him down.  Whether she’s angry because of the leashing or the abandonment, she comes at Augustin hard.

Wow, Timothy Leary was RIGHT!

He is forced to draw his knife to defend himself, and though he comes out of it with a mauled arm, Simoom comes out dead.  In the movie’s final shot we see Augustin carrying her body out across the desert sands until he collapses, then pan up to find the hopelessness of nothing but desert to the horizon.

It’s really a very interesting character study in the depths of madness, sort of a King Lear for the Furries.  Yeah, I’m being flippant about it, but I really do love the film.  It’s impeccably shot, it has incredible imagery throughout, and the acting, both human and animal (some of which was clearly done under various doses of tranquilizer, to be sure), is fantastic.  And there’s no bestiality.  Can’t a man lick a leopard?!?

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