If there is one emotional state that almost always resists coming to life on film, it is alienation — the modern malaise. Certainly, you can have characters toss out listless bits of dialogue or fall into languidly indifferent erotic encounters. You can place them in spectacularly barren settings — like, say, the desert — and suggest that the scenery is a metaphorical expression of their spiritual lassitude. Yet for any moviemaker, an overpowering challenge remains: Can this elusive, inside-the-soul material be made dramatically compelling?
In The Sheltering Sky, Bernardo Bertolucci’s forbidding and visually hypnotic adaptation of Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel, two restless, globe-trotting American intellectuals, Port and Kit Moresby (John Malkovich and Debra Winger), journey into post-World War II North Africa, moving through a series of increasingly primitive and dilapidated cities. As the movie opens, it’s clear that the Moresbys’ 10-year marriage has reached a state of creeping stagnation and despair. The two are both lured into casual infidelities — Port with an Arab prostitute, Kit with Tunner (Campbell Scott), the callow, rakish New York friend who has accompanied them on their journey. In a way, the adulterous encounters don’t mean all that much. Though the Moresbys still share a kind of love, it’s obvious their feelings are no longer strong enough to sustain the marriage. They have come to see each other’s flaws too harshly and too well, and in that sense they are very much an archetypal modern couple.
Yet even as the union is dissolving out of sheer apathy, the two are being engulfed by a daily physical nightmare. Bad food, flies, duplicitous natives, disease — as they move deeper into the Sahara, and as the conditions become more unpleasant and more sheerly foreign, they find themselves stumbling into a Third World heart of darkness.
In some mysterious and fateful way, the imposing disorder of their surroundings has merged with their corroded spirits. Gradually, the Morsebys are escaping everything that is Western and familiar — not simply the safety of middle-class life but the bonds of their marriage, the possibility of companionship, maybe even consciousness itself. The voyage finally sucks Port under. And that’s when Kit, who has always lived with an undercurrent of dread (this is a woman who is petrified of getting on trains), suddenly finds herself free. Cut loose from all ties, she drifts into the caravan of a seductive young bedouin noble and — without any inhibition — allows herself to become his love slave. The movie turns into an ironic version of The Sheik, with sensual liberation and madness remaining, for Kit, a hair’s breadth apart.
The Sheltering Sky is one of the most elusive of all modern novels. Bowles writes like a darker, more mystical version of Hemingway. At the same time, his style has an undertow of druggy existentialism that links him to the early work of the Beats. The book isn’t simply about modern despair; it’s a rite of exorcism, with Bowles out to cleanse his characters, even if that means they have to die or go mad. In the four decades since The Sheltering Sky was written, this singularly bleak and poetic work has attained a fanatic cult following and has cast its shadow over artists as diverse as William Burroughs and Michelangelo Antonioni. It’s a novel many have dreamed of filming. Yet I’m not sure it actually is filmable.
Bertolucci makes a heroic attempt. Exchanging his usual operatic lushness for a visual style that is raw, vibrant, and intimate (once again he is working with the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro), he brings the stark beauty and squalor of the North African cities directly to your senses. Still, that may not be enough. Bowles’ novel, written just after the world had been ravaged by war, wasn’t just a mesmerizingly lurid travelogue — or, for that matter, the story of a disintegrating marriage. It was a metaphysical nightmare about two lost souls who fall into oblivion because, on some level, that’s what they’re seeking. It was about people collapsing into the abyss of their own minds.
That’s the aspect of the story that eludes Bertolucci. And without it, much of what happens feels wan and meaningless. In a way, Bertolucci is defeated by the objectivity of the film medium. He wants his dazzling surfaces — such as the crumbling labyrinthine passageways of the North African cities — to express hidden meanings, to reveal his characters’ angst. Yet when Port lies wracked with pain from typhoid, we’re simply watching a man getting sick. It’s horrifying, yes, but what’s missing are the surreal writhings of his mind.
There’s a subtle new gravity to Malkovich’s acting. With a minimum of dialogue, he shows us that Port seeks out the most exotic places he can because he feels his own life is a failure. But the movie is finally Kit’s story. Winger gives an immensely accomplished performance, throwing off glints of awareness, fear, and avid curiosity. In the end, though, she may simply be too strong and erotic an actress to play a woman who undergoes this kind of sensual awakening. There’s nothing in Debra Winger that needs to be awakened; she’s already tingling. Her very presence cancels out the insular bleakness of Paul Bowles. B