ou know,’ confesses Bernardo Bertolucci, ‘with Last Tango in Paris the title came before the story. I was fascinated by the title before I even knew what the story would be. It was the same with The Sheltering Sky: Paul Bowles conceived the title in an instant on a bus going uptown in New York.’ In Bowles’s case, however, the essential core of his novel was forged in the same moment: ‘With the book I was saying, “don’t believe in the sky except that it protects us from the dark, beyond it is just blackness.” When Port says it protects us from what lies behind, what lies behind is nothing.’ The bleak, poetic tale of a trio of post-war American travellers confronted by the pitiless landscape and existential loneliness of the North African desert, Bowles’s 1949 novel always has held a fascination for filmmakers. It was first optioned in the late 508 by American action director Robert Aldrich, who tried unsuccessfully to get it made in Hollywood. In Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing, Theresa Russell reads The Sheltering Sky before she and Art Garfunkel embark on a trip to Morocco an oblique reference to the filmmaker’s long-cherished desire to film the novel. Finally, during preparations for The Last Emperor, Bertolucci’s scn'ptwriter Mark Peploe a member of what the Italian director calls ‘the secret society of the admirers of Paul Bowles’ persuaded him to read the book. ‘When I first read the book I felt sick,’ says Bertolucci. ‘I was ill for two or three days after I read the death scene; but I couldn’t stop there because the compulsion to read on was much stronger.’ Immediately hooked, Bertolucci contacted the late Robert Aldrich’s son, William, in Los Angeles, and secured the film rights that so many others had coveted. But why should a novel in Which almost all of the drama takes place inside the characters’ heads appeal to a director associated with the broad historical sweep of I 900 and the eye-ravishing spectacle of The Last Emperor? The answer lies in the subject matter: Bertolucci has returned here to the psycho-sexual intensity of Last Tango in Paris. The contrast in approaches, though, could not be more marked. In Last Tango, Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider communicate through their raw


Bernardo Bertolucci’s ambitious new film of Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky is the realisation of a much-coveted project. But despite the sunny locations and starry cast, Nigel Floyd was disappointed.

sexuality, exchanging bodily fluids but not names. In The Sheltering Sky, Port (John Malkovich) and Kit (Debra Winger), although deeply in love with one another, find it difficult to live together: they even sleep in separate bedrooms. The emotional core of the piece is the impossibility of their relationship, something which Kit acknowledges in a moment of frightening clarity: ‘In spite of their having so often the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were diametrically opposed.’

While travelling in Morocco with New York socialite Tunner (Campbell Scott), sometime composer Port and his wife Kit are forced to confront the impossibility of their relationship. A half-hearted fling between Kit and Tunner only deepens the couple’s despair, and as they travel inland to a heart of diseased darkness, hopes of a reconciliation evaporate like water under the scorching sun. What Kit needs is Port, but what Port needs is something less tangible what Malkovich has called, ‘something out there’. Bertolucci reinforces this point at length: ‘Kit accepts the process of symbiosis between them, which is very natural in a couple who adore each other. For Port, I think, it is a problem on that level. It’s difficult for him to accept that symbiosis, because he feels that when two people are identifying so closely, there is a danger of losing your own identity.

‘We often see Port staring in front of him; but at what? I think at a kind of existentialist nothing. But what is that nothing? Maybe it is a mirror, and maybe he sees himself in that nothing. That is why Port is prepared to go so far, because he has to die in order to find himself again .

Paradoxically, it is in one of the scenes where Bertolucci departs most radically from the novel that he succeeds in capturing its essence. On a bare ridge above a barren plain, Port and Kit make love, clinging desperately to one another as

their relationship slips through their fingers like sand.

‘It’s very strange,’ says a smiling Bertolucci, ‘that you should mention that scene as one of the moments which gave you back the feeling of the book, because it is also one of the few moments

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12 The List 11— 24 January 1991