A Strange Love Story
Both bizarre and beautiful, Passion in the Desert comes across as a very strange love story indeed. In this stunning adaptation of Honore de Balzac’s short story, a French army captain becomes infatuated with a wild leopard. The deranged soldier even tries to look like a leopard by walking on all fours and smearing mud over his entire body. Clearly, Dr. Dolittle’s “talking with the animals” seems extremely tame by comparison.
Set in 1798, this handsomely photographed film depicts Captain Augustin’s descent into madness while lost in the Sahara desert. Augustin, played to perfection by Ben Daniels (Doom), is saved by a female leopard who shares food and shelter with him. The young captain names the animal Simoon and gradually develops romantic feelings for her. When she returns from a lengthy romp with a male leopard, Augustin demands jealously, “Where have you been?” (Thinking about that line still makes me laugh nervously.) Simoon may be one gorgeous member of the cat family; she and Augustin obviously make a very attractive couple. But their strange relationship can’t last.
What will last is viewer admiration for the brilliant direction of Lavinia Currier (Oka), who also co-wrote the haunting screenplay. A former production assistant for James Ivory (Remains of the Day; Howard’s End), Currier made an impressive feature film debut with this unusual adventure drama. With the exception of one questionable petting scene that crosses the line, her work shows great intelligence, sensitivity, artistry, and courage.
Just how did she manage to film those dangerous leopard scenes? Because these animals are extremely difficult to train, three cubs were purchased six years before filming began. They started their training for the movie during that same year. Although the leopards were raised among humans, film crew members worked with them from inside closed cages most of the time.
Passion in the Desert contains nudity as well as bloody scenes of an arm amputation and a man being eaten by a leopard. Even so, one critic gave this movie a “family safe” seal of approval right after its release back in the late 1990s. Hmm. Wonder what family he had in mind? It must be the Addams Family.
(Released by Fine Line Features and rated “PG-13” for violence including some depictions of barbarism and for nudity.)
For more information about Passion in the Desert, go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.