It was hot as Trump yesterday so i decided i needed to buy desert explorer garb and one thing led to another and i ended up watching The English Patient again. Here are my notes.

1. Juliette Binoche was 32 in 1996, here playing Hana, a 20-year-old French-Canadian nurse in World War 2. She is feckless and trusting and lovely, and in today’s world would be a typical open borders Leftist who ends up raped to death like Pippa Bacca. She foolishly lends money to a fellow nurse who wants to buy stockings at the next town. i’ve met so many freeloaders and scumbags (mostly my colleagues) that i immediately registered the fellow nurse as a parasite.

Pippa Barca gives the money to her colleague, who is immediately blown up when her jeep drives over a mine. That is what one would expect.

2. Sappers go to work clearing the road. Pippa Barca walks past them in a daze, intent on retrieving a trinket from her friend’s mangled corpse. The sappers are played by Inspector Lewis and a Sikh; soon after, she will have sex with the Sikh despite her fiancé having just died.

i haven’t seen this film in years but in 1996 it was one of my essential artistic experiences and i probably saw it at least a dozen times over a decade. Then, i saw her grief etc., now my first thought was “if she steps on a mine, she’s taking the two sappers with her.” This is typical of these people – idealistic, full of utopian dreams of diversity and love – they walk through minefields and kill not merely themselves but anyone in their vicinity.

3. Pippa has a patient, a burn victim who is Voldemort. Lacking self-discipline or respect for others, she deserts the Canadian military and takes Voldemort to a ruined monastery because it is romantic and picturesque. She repairs broken stairs by damaging library books, because books are of course part of the past and progress means we’re always moving forwards.

Voldemort asks what all the noise was.

Pippa: I’ve found a library. The books were very useful.

Voldemort: Before you find too many uses for those books, you might read some to me.

Voldemort is clearly a man of learning and culture and, one would hope, something of a fascist in spite of his hideous burns.

Pippa says “what about your book” for he was found with a Herodotus.

4. Cue flashbacks to Voldemort a few years before, unburnt, where he was Count László Almásy, desert explorer and misogynist and Herodotus-reader. An Arab is describing a landscape as Almásy draws what passed for a map in the 1930s; the evil old man is precisely the last man in the world you would trust, cackling in Arabic about a ridge the shape of a woman’s back.

5. A plane arrives, piloted by Mr Darcy, played by Colin Firth. Almásy is perturbed to note a woman on board; she appears to be Lauren Southern and is Mr Darcy’s wife.

Women do not belong in the desert. She should have many white children and no internet access. Her name is Katherine Clifton. Almásy is highly displeased.

 

The only good thing about all this is the new plane. Maddox, the typical Englishman (pre-cultural-enrichment) is enthused. Mr Darcy is foolishly grinning and opening champers.

Maddox: Marvellous plane, did you look?

Almásy: Yes.

Mr Darcy: Isn’t it? Wedding present from Katherine’s parents. We’re calling it Rupert Bear.

Almásy looks at him with disgust. Colin Firth, incidentally, like many white millionaires, thinks nationalism is frightful and is trying to become an Italian citizen after Brexit. This is the millionaire progressive who played King George VI – there you have modern England to a T: the quintessentially English actor who chooses to renounce his British citizenship because his nation votes not to be a vassal of a totalitarian superstate. And if Italy leaves? – move to France, i suppose, sipping champagne in a gated community and tut-tutting about the frightful xenophobia as Paris burns.

Katherine Clifton is petulant and self-important:

She senses Almásy’s disdain and because she is a self-important woman she tries to win him over to adore her:

Katherine: Darcy gave me your monograph and I was reading up on the desert. Very impressive.

Almásy: Thank you.

Katherine: I wanted to meet the man who could write a long paper with so few adjectives. 

Almásy: Well a thing is still a thing. No matter what you place in front of it. Big car, slow car. Chauffeur-driven car. 

He despises her.

Maddox later tries to persuade Almásy in their favour:

Maddox: He can make aerial maps of the whole route.

Almásy: You can’t explore from the air, Maddox. If you could explore from the air, life would be very simple.

6. Back in the ruined monastery, Elias from Platoon turns up, calling himself Caravaggio and claiming to be a near-neighbour of Pippa Barca’s from Montreal.

Almásy is not pleased to hear that a stranger is staying in the monastery, nor does he understand why Pippa Barca should welcome a man just because he’s of her people and neighbourhood:

Almásy: Why are people always so happy when they collide with someone from the same place?  What happened in Montreal when you passed a man in the street – did you invite him to live with you?

Almásy is a man without real friends, who speaks many languages and is at home in the desert, i.e. nowhere. He hates any kind of belonging, any affiliation, identity, obligation. He is happiest in the desert, in the “international sand club” where everyone is from a different nation, because then there are no identities, and so his own essential alienation is easier to bear. He experiences any kind of group identity as a threat, because he is incapable of loyalty to a nation or a people. He is happiest in the desert, with a German, an Italian, an Englishman, an atomized individual and outcast.

He is the kind of man who lives in hotels and airports. If he were to live in a city, in today’s world, it would be an atomized international city like London or New York, a city where no one is at home and no one cares about anyone else – there he would feel at home, having brought the desert to the city.

7. Almásy and Katherine drive together in a convoy through the desert, and she irks him with her feminine self-importance.

Katherine: I’ve been thinking. How does someone like you decide to come to the desert? What is it? You’re doing whatever you’re doing in your castle, or wherever it is you live, and one day you say, ”I have to get to the desert,” or what?

Almásy: I once traveled with a guide who was taking me to Faya. He didn’t speak for nine hours. At the end of it, he pointed at the horizon and said, Faya. That was a good day.

8. Anyway, Almásy ends up banging Katherine, actually she turns up at his hotel and throws herself at him, despite being married to Mr Darcy and claiming to love him. But then she’s a woman and needs to be admired. The Almásy-Katherine affair is clearly not going to last long, since they live in a small European community in a mostly Muslim city, and also have jarring personalities. She is a woman at home in England, who says she wants to be buried in her family garden and while unable to restrain her lusts and need for attention, is also far from Almásy’s isolated intelligence:

Almásy: What do you hate the most?

Katherine: A lie. What do you hate the most?

Almásy: Ownership. Being owned. When you leave, you should forget me.

– not the answer she expected, or wants.

However, Almásy’s solitude is undone through the affair. If Katherine, being a woman, is able to lie to the husband she allegedly loves, basking in her own beauty –

– Almásy is transformed, forming a loyalty to at least one person in his life. He is selfish, predatory, anguished, and strange.

9. She decides to end their affair, no doubt afraid that her husband will divorce her and she will end up as a shameful woman no one will invite to parties. Almásy goes mad and gets drunk, but before anything can happen war approaches and the “international sand club” disperses as the British clamp down on foreigners wandering about North Africa. It all ends in death and Almásy guides Rommel’s spies through the desert, because nations are meaningless to him. Back in the ruined monastery, in 1945, Caravaggio accuses him of guiding German spies across the desert; they photographed the British intelligence officers in Cairo, who ended up in German interrogation chambers.

Caravaggio: There was a result to what you did. It wasn’t just another expedition. It did this. If the British hadn’t unearthed that photographer, thousands of people could have died.

Almásy: Thousands of people did die. Just different people.

which reminds me somewhat of a Swedish politician who said Sweden shouldn’t deport Somalian serial rapists because they would only rape women in Somalia, and after all Somalian women aren’t any better than Swedish women.

10. All in all, a film very much of its time. The book was published in 1992; the author, Michael Ondaatje, according to Wikipedia:

[…] was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, in 1943; and is of Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil ancestry. His parents separated when he was an infant; he then lived with relatives until 1954 when he joined his mother in England. While in England, Ondaatje pursued secondary education at Dulwich College; he then immigrated to Montreal, Quebec in 1962.

So one should not be too surprised that the novel is about the evil of nations and cultures and how we should all get on with everyone and not be so precious about our heritage or identity because these things are meaningless or even evil. In its defence, it was written when it was still possible to pretend we don’t need an ethnic or cultural identity, and i think it’s a good enough novel (and film) that, as Millennial Woes said of Withnail and I, it can be taken in many ways; and it shows the consequences of the atomized worldview.

i read a Christian review dismissing this film simply because it does not explicitly condemn adultery. It would have been nice to know more of Katherine’s motivations – she claims to love her husband, but cold-bloodedly and repeatedly betrays him; however, even there the film is so fragmentary that it doesn’t feel like a deficiency, just something we’re not shown because it doesn’t directly enter into focus.

Pulp Fiction – which shows one of the most gruesome junky overdose scenes i’ve seen – was accused of glamourising drugs, as i think was the truly squalid Trainspotting. Aesthetically, The English Patient makes adultery and betrayal romantic and exciting; but it also shows the obsessive madness of Almásy, Mr Darcy’s suicidal despair, the lonely death of Katherine, the burning and slow death of Almásy as Voldemort. In this, i think it’s actually true enough: the aesthetic refinement is surely part of it, or why would Almásy and Katherine risk so much? To show two ugly people copulating in a sewer would leave the viewer to wonder at their motivation. Why, one would ask, Does she risk her marriage and social status, and he risk his place in the sand club, and possible his life? The whole point of “sin” is that it is superficially attractive, enough to overwhelm qualms and reservations.

The film doesn’t condemn the attraction between Almásy and Katherine, it merely shows the consequences of betrayal: betrayal of marriage and friends, and betrayal of nations.

As for the multicultural diverse aspect, i don’t mind it as the focus of the film is on a special group (the international sand club in 30s Cairo; the small group at the ruined monastery in 1945) and so one can hardly take it as a moral lesson on how everyone should behave, anymore than one should take e.g. Predator to teach us to daub ourselves in mud and kill our enemies with Stone Age weapons.

Almásy, although he forges a loyalty to Katherine, would clearly never be part of a nation or culture. Maddox says: “Come and visit us in Dorset when all this nonsense is over,” and then – a moment later: “You’ll never come to Dorset.” The whole idea of Dorset in 1939 as the kind of gentle, traditional Scruton-esque English place now destroyed by modernity & Muslims – that is incompatible with Almásy, the perennial awkward outsider, the man who speaks a dozen languages but has no home and no people, and never will.

There is something attractive about Almásy, in part because of course he’s played by a 34-year-old Ralph Fiennes, but it’s also in the book – it is a Luciferan charm, the appeal of the determined, isolated individual, bearing fealty to none, non serviam as his motto. Such a man would betray his colleagues and friends, any nation. As with Withnail, the film is fantastical and psychologically realistic: often, the most attractive of people are the worst, amusing or charming or interesting, but they tend to wreck their own lives, and others’. If he shines like Lucifer, so also does he fall, and burn.

Almásy is a man of knowledge, sparse, suspicious, and acidic like Patrick Kurp; he is resourceful, driven, and in his dry way, passionate. The love and lust he feels for Katherine are compelling and irresponsible, and lead to their destruction as the story requires.

 

 

Advertisements