The Sheltering Sky

The Long-Awaited Film Version of Paul Bowles's landmark 1949 novel of an American marriage heading for oblivion in North Africa is a wincing embarrassment. The only thing director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) has gotten right is the atmosphere. Camera whiz Vittorio Storaro conjures up genuine drama out of sand, heat and pestilence, something Bertolucci and co-writer Mark Peploe fail to manage with the film's three main characters as they set out for the desert.

John Malkovich is Port Moresby, and Debra Winger is his wife, Kit, loosely based on Bowles's wife, Jane. They have come to Algeria with their friend Tunner (Campbell Scott) – a dilettante whom both Port and Kit find alternately attractive and repellent. Tunner intends a short trip; the Moresbys plan to stay indefinitely – they're drawn to the unknown as a means to discover or lose themselves. On the page, Bowles made something uniquely spare and poetic of the Moresbys' existential quest. Though Bertolucci has cast the eighty-year-old Bowles in a small role – he sits in a cafe in Tangier and supplies occasional narration – the director hasn't found a way to reimagine the author's thoughts in film terms. Endless shots of flies on meat and humans in a sexual fever do little to fill in the blanks.

Port distracts himself from his repressed homosexuality by visiting an Arab brothel where a whore rubs her breasts against his penis. Kit needs to get drunk on champagne to bed down with Tunner; she turns orgasmic only when she joins up with a masked and very young Tuareg caravan leader (played by ballet dancer Eric Vu-An). The actors are not well served. Malkovich does too little, Winger does too much, and Scott, the promising young actor from Longtime Companion, trapped in a cipher role, does nothing. The thirst for meaning in all this angst can only be quenched by Bowles's book; Bertolucci's two-hour-plus opus leaves the mind and heart parched.

From The Archives Issue 595: January 10, 1991