Here, kitty, kitty

If this film doesn't catch you by surprise, nothing will.

This is the kind of film you want to recommend pointblank—no explanation, no synopsis, and no apologies: "Just see it."

Because when you try to explain it, the whole thing starts to sound kind of, well, goofy.

Passion in the Desert

directed by Lavinia Currier

starring Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli

starts Friday at the Broadway Market

Here's just how goofy: Augustin (Ben Daniels), a Napoleonic soldier in the Egyptian desert, has charge of Venture (Michel Piccoli), a court painter who is sketching the sights. The two become separated from their regiment, then from each other. Venture dies. Augustin, hiding in a cave from some hostile Bedouins, discovers that he is sharing the small space with someone else: a leopard. To Augustin's surprise, the leopard protects him from the Bedouins. The cat begins to make gestures of friendship. In some of the most extraordinary man/animal scenes recorded in fiction film, the two share the meat of an ibix. They bathe together in an oasis's brown water. They roughhouse. And, as it's a lady leopard, Augustin, driven mad by the sun and the desert, falls in love with her. A tragic end ensues, as tragic as the most human love story. And here's the funny thing: I cried. (I might add that I'm a cat hater.)

I had no idea what Passion was about before I saw it. For me, all unprepared, the magic of British director Lavinia Currier's film lay in wandering along with it, unsure where we were headed. As Augustin and Venture wander through the sandy wastes, the film looks as if it could be about anything. Perhaps it will be about the Napoleonic wars, perhaps about Venture's art, perhaps it will be a Walkabout-like meditation.... But no, it's about a man's love affair with a big, spotted cat!

Viewers who know the film's "real" subject ahead of time may be impatient to get through the opening passages to the astonishing cat scenes. Some have said that these opening sequences are mere "padding" to bulk Currier's film up to feature length. But without them, Passion in the Desert would remain a trick film, free of context, weightless. The opening passage sets the film firmly in time (the late 18th century) and place (the Sahara Desert, though the film was actually shot in Jordan). And the early part of the film gives us a desert place defined by human endeavor—the Napoleonic wars. The desert is marked by man's warlike passage and is recorded by Venture's incessant sketching. It's reduced to a place on the map. "How can you get lost in Egypt?" asks Augustin more than once, stabbing at the map with his finger. "There's the sea, there's the Nile."

Of course you can get lost in Egypt, and when Augustin and Venture do, their lost-ness is all the more terrifying because we've seen the confident military society they've wandered from. With a few mischosen steps, they move from being part of a regiment to part of nothingness—dots on the desert's unforgiving landscape. Balzac wrote, "In the desert, there is anything and nothing. It is God without mankind." Balzac romanticized (or Romanticized) this empty, nature-dominant horizon, and so does Currier. As Augustin lays entwined with "his" animal (no, they don't do it), it's a Utopian tableau that's made more vivid by the wastes around it, by its utter removal from the world we know. This sense of departure is made sharper by the extraordinary look of the thing, at its best moments as brownly sandy and sere as the driest passages in Lawrence of Arabia. The desert becomes an other place, a place where this love affair could actually happen. We believe in it.

My one complaint: If you're making a film about a man's relationship with a big cat, choose an actor who doesn't look quite so much like Siegfried or Roy.

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