Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Boy Meets Cat

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 17, 1998:  The story of Passion in the Desert, Fine Line Features' exotic nature story-cum-erotic adventure tale, is actually adapted from a novella by Honoré de Balzac. Aside from a couple Beastie Boy song lyrics, though, I'm not exactly up on my Balzac, so you'll have to forgive me if I fail to comment on the film's literary merit.

The year is 1798. Augustin Robert (stoic Brit Ben Daniels) is a young captain in Napoleon's army. In the midst of his Emperor's doomed Egyptian campaign, Augustin finds himself baby-sitting a French artist-scholar, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Michel Piccoli). Venture has been sent by Napoleon to explore and record Egypt's monuments--at least before the antsy French army destroys them all for target practice. During a massive sandstorm, Augustin and Venture become separated from their regiment. This comes as a big blow to the proud army officer who frequently insists, "It's impossible to get lost in Egypt." Exhausted of options and spent on supplies, Augustin goes in search of help, leaving the heat- maddened artist behind.

On his brutal cross-desert trek, the captain is slowly stripped of his military trappings by the unforgiving elements. When he is on his last legs--uniform worn to rags, body bending to the will of the sands, mind on the edge of fever dream--Augustin serendipitously stumbles across the ruins of an ancient city. While camping out in the ruins that night, he comes face-to-face with a wild African leopard. Much to the Frenchman's amazement, the leopard does not attack him. Eventually, the beast leads Augustin to a hidden source of water. And when she actually deigns to share her kill with the suffering soldier, he realizes that she is actually protecting him.

Now here's where the "passion" part kicks in. Man and beast form an odd sort of bond. The bond becomes so close that the two actually appear to be in love. Eventually a male leopard shows his spots at the oasis, and jealousy rears its ugly head. This is a very strange tale, but it certainly racks up points for originality. Ben Daniels makes a fine romantic lead with his dashing 18th century duds and healthy Yanni hairdo. The leopard (actually three leopards raised from birth to star in this movie!) is a pretty good romantic lead herself. Although the stars don't actually get into any--how shall I say this--heavy petting, producer/director/screenwriter Lavinia Currier lenses the film with a palatable air of eros--sort of National Geographic meets The Red Shoes Diaries. The Egyptian desert (actually a seamless combo of Petra, Jordan and Moab, Utah) washes its languid heat over the film's faded color scheme. Passionate Arabic music swells. The magnificent cat poses alluringly beside a watering hole. This film has got exotica in spades. The mechanics alone of shooting a naked man cavorting with a real live giant cat are worthy of wide-eyed awe.

Bestiality angle aside, however, Passion in the Desert is a fairly simple tale of love and jealousy. Boy meets cat; boy loses cat; love is screwy. Although there are vague hints of fantasy (is the leopard actually a mystical jinn spirit in animal form?) and phantasm (is this all just a heat-induced hallucination?), Currier chooses to tell her tale in a straightforward and unsymbolic way. In the end, though, it's a little hard to judge the emotions of a love story when one of your star-crossed lovers is a big pussy cat.


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