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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
An Ill Wind Blows Some Good
by Donald Levit

These are not the Romantic poet’s boundless and bare sands that mock man’s pride, or those of scores of Foreign Legion or spy-intrigue adventures. Nor, despite one of Denis Jutzeler’s two camera’s concentrating on “the men . . . against a hostile . . . majestic desert environment,” is Desert Wind/Le souffle du désert remotely a Disney catalogue-travelogue of stark beauties. In fact, this fifteen-day odyssey documented by prolific veteran Swiss director-writer François Kohler is actually headed inward and could equally have been undertaken in the Andes or Yukon.

Four years ago, a baker’s dozen of “regular guys” was recruited and flown to Tunisia for what will strike some as a male-temperament dream trek into the Saharan Grand Erg Oriental desert. Narrator Nicolas Charbonneau-Collombet’s “without any destination, for we are not going anywhere” is geographically correct but belies the disturbing and liberating trip they undertake into the fragility of egos. Shepherded and nursemaided by an indispensable team of guides, equipment men and camel drivers, they are mothered and guided on the other, parallel voyage by Swiss psychotherapist Alexis Burger.

It would have been useful had the film revealed the selection process -- why, precisely, these thirteen, and why did they volunteer? -- but it does come out that, though not flabby for Westerners from thirty-two on up to a seventy-year-old grandfather, they are not impressive outdoorsmen: responsible for their laundry, tents and personal effects, some load themselves down with the most absurd useless items. And, although characterized as “normal [and of] different social origins,” these Belgian, Swiss, French and Quebecois French-speakers are white and white-collar.

A pregnant lady at the screening wondered what might have changed if the subjects had been American. Skin color and ethnicity aside, probably not much, for they are not along to banter over beer about soccer or baseball, Le Pen or Bush, Le Mans or Daytona -- you know, male things -- but to peel away protective skins hiding the desires and anxieties that men hold in common but are taught to repress.

The journey as both physical and emotional is almost too pat, but in any case this particular metaphor-reality does not uncover any fearful heart of darkness. Though one or another may momentarily acknowledge a nickname like “Bulldozer” as token of professional pushiness, these men do not at all arrive at the cruel, brutal, reptilian side. What emerges, rather, is their weakness, a vulnerability they can finally admit to others and to themselves.

Freudians will see vindication in patterns that develop with increasing insistence. So much of what these thirteen are, of what makes them tick, goes back to childhood, to sex and women, lovers, wives and exes and, paramount, to mothers (fathers get little play). Doing his stage-manager job effectively, Burger necessarily seems a cold fish, but it is painful as well as a joy to observe the subjects strip physically and emotionally to then, one hopes, reassemble their pieces and their lives. Some of them emerge more clearly, though names are hard (and irrelevant) to keep straight, but here is overused “bonding” in its true sense for once: unabashedly healthy homoerotic hints in wrestling one another or linking arms or dancing with the Arab helpers, or, most moving, a breakdown into primal, animal howling.

In this age where gender fulfillment, rôles, stereotypes and discrimination are such hot topics, arguably most often from the female side, it is important that the “typical” male (if there is such an animal) also stand revealed. However, while the theme of Desert Wind is germane to today’s concerns, the vehicle itself cannot properly be considered film. In the end, unusual setting and all, it boils down to recorded group therapy, maybe necessary but awfully awkward to watch. 

(Released by National Film Board of Canada; not rated by MPAA.)

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