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Hemingway’s Garden of Eden
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