Saturday 3 February 2007

The Garden of Allah (1936) Richard Boleslawski

I watched this film intently but I still have no clue what I saw. It's a gorgeous slice of early Technicolor, set in the deserts of the east and populated by visions like Marlene Dietrich who is like a magnet for the eyes, all of which make it truly stunning. Yet I don't know what else is here. Romance? Adventure? Mystery? All the above, but not in any standard way. To a large degree, precisely nothing happens, because everything is really inside the mental struggle of Charles Boyer. How a film in which we don't actually see anything can be so stunningly visual I don't understand.

Dietrich plays Domini Enfilden, a young lady brought up in a convent who has dedicated her life to caring for her sick father. Finally he dies and she has no clue what life is about, so on the advice of her former mother superior she heads out into the desert to find herself. Boyer is Boris Androvsky, a Trappist monk entrusted with a great honour who flees his monastery to do precisely the same thing, disregarding his vows and his responsibilities. Enfilden is open and seeking, while Androvsky is so tortured he seems often to be insane. So naturally they find and are drawn to each other and are married. Yet there's still Androvsky's past to haunt him.

I'm not sure I've seen Dietrich look better than this. She's a vision, with all her exotic beauty, sultry power and finesse of facial motion. It's never easy to look at something else when she is on the screen, from the days of the silents through early sound films like Morocco and Shanghai Express to the era of say, Touch of Evil or Witness for the Prosecution, but somehow it seems even harder now. She wears her emotions well but she just exudes presence and somehow she can hide those emotions just as she's hitting us right between the eyes with them. No, this doesn't make sense, but the whole film doesn't make much sense.

Charles Boyer is superb too, mostly because in a romantic and sensual drama, he plays a character who is almost entirely not romantic or sensual. Most of the time he's nervous and freaky like someone seriously suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. He hardly even speaks until the later scenes but by then he's hardly a hero, standard or otherwise. Basil Rathbone turns up for a few scenes, and he's as good as you'd expect, but he doesn't really do anything other than tell us how romantic the desert is. There's even good old C Aubrey Smith, playing a missionary priest.

I don't know what this is but I enjoyed it and felt drawn to it. I'm sure that given the chance I'd happily watch it again and still have no clue what it is. Very strange.

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