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Hemingway’s Garden of Eden (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Run Time 98 minutes.

This slow film is from an Ernest Hemingway book published posthumously in 1986, 25 years after Hemingway’s suicide. Publisher Scribner’s version contained only 70,000 words, effectively eviscerating what Hemingway wrote, which contained 200,000 words. Hemingway, who started working on the book in 1946 and continued up to his death, was exploring androgynous characters and the reversal of sex roles.

The story is about a young expatriate American writer in Paris, David (Jack Huston), who marries Catherine (Mena Suvari), a mysterious heiress, after a whirlwind courtship and gets a lot more than he anticipated. They embark on a honeymoon throughout the south of France circa 1926/27 in a classic Bugatti Type 35 Roadster she bought for him.

She gets him to color his hair the same color as hers and wants to act as the man in their sexual relations. She then picks up an equally opaque young lesbian, Marita (Caterina Murino), and manipulates a ménage à trios with lots of nude lovemaking scenes. Alienating Catherine, David discards the novel he was writing about them and embarks on an autobiographical novel about his father and himself on safari to which the movie cuts from time to time.

While Scribner cut one long subplot from Hemingway’s manuscript, the novel David is writing remains. Hemingway intended the story of the elephant sought in David’s fictional safari as a metaphor for the loss of innocence in David’s youth and the quick degeneration of his once blissful marriage.

It has been speculated that the story is autobiographical, based on Hemingway’s second marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer, as the description of Catherine roughly corresponds to Pauline. If it is intended to be autobiographical, the film David’s Hemingway is a wuss that’s totally contrary to Ernest’s macho image. One Hemingway expert claims that the changes made by Scribner resulted in a work that did not reflect what Hemingway was trying to say.

Whether it does or not, this still could have been an entertaining film with better actors. Lots of books have been substantially altered for cinema, like From Here to Eternity (1953), without suffering. While this is an interesting story, told sort of like a thriller with a complex, inscrutable femme fatale, it needed a more accomplished actress to play that role. The way Suvari delivers many of her lines is excruciating, if not laughable, despite her beauty. To the film’s discredit, she’s not the only actor in the film who comes across as not ready for prime time. Frankly these performances make the film border on camp. Had the entire cast given performances of the quality of Murino and Matthew Modine, as David’s father on safari, this could have been a much better film.

On the positive side, director John Irvin evocatively captures the look, feel, wardrobe, and ambience of France in the ‘20s.

December 9, 2010