Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not Really Hemingway

Hemingway's Garden of Eden
Directed by John Irvin

With Mena Suvari, Jack Huston, Caterina Murino, Carmen Maura, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Modine

Opens December 17, 2010

In his posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway created an erotic story about a young couple’s games-playing that, while not on the level of such novels as The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea, is still worthwhile reading, with one caveat. That Eden was never published during his lifetime—and finally came out in drastically shortened form—could mean that the author didn’t want this very personal book to ever see the light of day.

Hemingway’s attractive characters—expatriate writer David Bourne, lovely new wife Catherine and Marita, an Italian beauty whom they bring into their midst—play out their games among the European jet set (before there was a jet set) in the anything-goes Jazz Age of the mid-1920s. However, though John Irvin’s cumbersomely titled Hemingway’s Garden of Eden has lots of sex and nudity, there’s very little heat—sexual or otherwise—in this dutiful but rarely inspired adaptation.

As the movie begins, David is a struggling writer and Catherine an heiress who has no compunctions about buying him a brand-new automobile, which they hop in to leave Paris after their whirlwind romance and marriage and honeymoon in the south of France. Although their lovemaking is mutually satisfying, Catherine needs to play little games to keep from boring herself. David initially goes along what she wants, exchanging male and female roles in bed, but soon she keeps getting shorter and shorter haircuts, culminating in a boyish pixie cut, and they begin dressing alike in matching male sweaters and trousers and having their hair bleached white.

Catherine remains annoyed with her husband’s lengthy writing sessions (his obsession with the positive newspaper clippings about his recent book are especially irritating), which precipitates her own absinthe-induced stupor. After the couple meets dark-haired beauty Karita at an outdoor café, Catherine brings the newcomer into the fold, and the ensuing ménage a trois has repercussions for David and Catherine’s relationship along with the direction of David’s writing career.

James Scott Linville’s script ticks off Hemingway’s themes of androgyny and gender reversal, which Irvin has conscientiously transferred to film; but the peregrinations of these self-satisfied people lack any emotional connection. When Irvin suddenly cuts to flashbacks from David’s childhood, showing his egotistical father hunting elephants in Africa—which David has turned into his latest story—the effect is startling in its immediacy, rendering the bulk of the movie even more remote in its treatment of these characters.

The dialogue spouted by the bickering threesome before, during and after sex becomes especially arch as Catherine’s pouty, unhappy rich girl can’t handle David’s growing attraction to the earthy, sensual Marita. That these relationships are mapped out ploddingly and monotonously onscreen is partly unavoidable, since Hemingway’s understated novel—at least as published—is a patchwork, but that’s no excuse for seeping the drama out of what should be an intriguing warts-and-wall character study.

The acting is frustratingly uneven. Though Jack Huston’s rugged, clench-jawed handsomeness is perfect for David, he’s too much of a blank slate, even for a struggling writer. Mena Suvari seems far too modern in her bearing for even a forward-looking woman like Catherine, and her petulance—when she should be smolderingly angry—is woefully unconvincing. Caterina Murino’s darkly Mediterranean beauty and exotic, heavily-accented English threaten to overwhelm the others, making for quite a lopsided trio, especially since Marita is not the lynchpin of the story.

The trappings make Hemingway’s Garden of Eden palatable. Cinematographer Ashley Rowe squeezes every drop of natural beauty out of the various Spanish locations that stand in for Cannes, Paris, Nice, and even Madrid; the gorgeous locations emphasize the emptiness of this ménage a trois, whether intentional or not.

And Roger Julia’s modest music—often simply piano, clarinet and a few other instruments—is favorably reminiscent of the irreverent but elegant music of Les Six, a group of French and Swiss composers active during the film’s setting. That the first Gymnopédie of Erik Satie, a forerunner of Les Six, fits snugly on the soundtrack is the highest compliment to Julia’s inventive score for an otherwise disappointingly routine drama.

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