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Leopard Colony

[whitespace] Passion in the Desert
M. Greenway

Spot Check: Simoom the sultry, if unfaithful, leopard takes besotted Augustin (Ben Daniels) for a stroll in the far reaches of Egypt.

Napoleonic soldier gets spots before his eyes in 'Passion in the Desert'

By Richard von Busack

THE STRANGE IMPORT Passion in the Desert was obviously enormously difficult to make. It won't be as popular as The English Patient, but it's every bit as baroque. This adaptation of a Balzac novella treats bestiality with a sort of woozy mysticism perhaps justified by the beast it celebrates. If you have to let down the side by getting romantic with an animal, by all means make that animal a leopard.

Whenever director/producer/screenwriter Lavinia Currier fills the screen with leopard, the movie is intriguing. Mowgli, a male leopard who plays the female lead in Passion in the Desert, has devilish green-jade eyes and the loping, padding walk of Mae West. The movie may be criminally silly, but it's the treatment, not the tale, that counts.

How Currier got her leopards--a notoriously touchy breed of cat--to submit to the indignity of filmmaking is a mystery. She also ventured to some very remote locations, filming most of Passion in the Desert in the ancient canyon city of Petra in Jordan, familiar as the home of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In Egypt in 1798, the Napoleonic officer Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels) is escorting an artist named Venture (Michel Piccoli) around the desert to paint the flora and fauna. After a skirmish with the native horsemen, the men are separated from the troops and soon lost in the sands. Venture, the weaker of the two, stays behind in the shade, drinking his watercolors in a delirium.

Augustin finds water in the tent of a Berber woman, but she sounds the alarm, and he hides in some cliffs believed to be haunted by an evil spirit. There he encounters a leopard, whom he names Simoom, after the desert wind. The leopard brings him meat and becomes his companion. When she goes into season, Augustin finds himself as jealous as if Simoom were a woman.

Daniels has had mostly supporting roles in British films such as Beautiful Thing (he was Ben, the potheaded boyfriend). Since he isn't a household name and is very stiff and unnatural in the part, you may think he's an animal trainer trying to be an actor.

Currier's direction establishes a tone of realism that contrasts with a fanciful, symbolist story. It's all too much, from Venture's madness to Augustin's flamboyant reaction to Simoom's catting around. Currier uses a closeup of Augustin's hands crushing a flower when the man realizes that Simoom is seeing another leopard--it doesn't bode well for a strapping 6-foot-tall actor to use the mannerisms of Lillian Gish. When Augustin greets the straying leopard with a curt "Where have you been?" it's impossible to stifle a guffaw.

I wonder how this unusual story might have been handled by a British transcendentalist like Nicolas Roeg or John Boorman, and I suspect that Currier was so busy watching the leopards that the bipedal actors ran roughshod over her. Passion in the Desert is a curiosity: too bloody for children and too peculiar for half of the adults in the audience. And yet I want to congratulate Currier for having persevered. It's always fascinating to watch a movie made by someone who could not be talked out of making this kind of movie.

Passion in the Desert (PG-13; 93 min.), directed and written by Lavinia Currier, based on the novella by Honoré de Balzac, photographed by Alexei Rodionov and starring Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli and Mowgli.

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From the July 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro.

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