Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 29 / 20 July 2017
 

Alexandrian mysteries

DVD


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Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is among the greatest English-language literary achievements of the 20th century. In it, Durrell (1912-90) recounts the same events from four perspectives: Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960). Set in the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 1930s, it is hypnotically atmospheric and a compelling analysis of the "truth." In 1969, Twentieth Century Fox filmed Justine . It's available in DVD.

Shooting began under the direction of Joseph Strick (Genet's The Balcony, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ), who early on was replaced by an Oscar-winning Hollywood veteran, the openly gay George Cukor (The Women, My Fair Lady). Lawrence B. Marcus wrote the screenplay. Like the quartet's first novel, the movie is narrated by the young schoolteacher and aspiring writer Darley (a super-sexy Michael York), who has returned to Alexandria after an absence of several years. He recalls his life-changing experiences as a callow youth.

Darley falls in love with the sweet, honest prostitute Melissa (Anna Karina), who is a belly-dancer at a club that features transvestite performers. He rescued her after she'd been drugged by some patrons. Melissa is the obsession of Cohen, a wealthy furrier who wanted to leave his wife and children for her, but she adamantly rejected his proposals.

Darley soon meets the beautiful Justine (Anouk Aimee) and her fantastically rich husband Nessim (John Vernon). Pursewarden (Dirk Bogarde), an English diplomat, and Pombal (Philippe Noiret), a French diplomat, tell him about the illustrious couple. She is Jewish and reportedly had a daughter who was taken away from her as an infant. She searches for her in the child brothels of the city. Nessim is a Coptic Christian, half-Danish, half-Egyptian, who seems to ignore his wife's repeated infidelities. His beloved, hotheaded, deeply religious younger brother Narouz (Robert Forster) disapproves of Justine.

As Melissa had foreseen, Darley soon becomes Justine's latest conquest. At first, he's gloriously happy, but soon becomes possessive and jealous. He's amazed at Nessim's polite acceptance of his wife's infidelities. A character describes Justine as a "turnstile through which we must all pass." But things are more complex than they seem to outsiders.

The Copts fear the Moslems. Hence, Nessim bribes Memlik Pasha (Michael Constantine) and assures him that his fellow Christians will cause no trouble. But in fact, Justine and Nessim are behind an arms-smuggling operation that sends weapons to Palestine to arm Jews rebelling against British rule.

Mountolive (George Baker), the English Ambassador to Egypt, arrives in Alexandria. He is engaged to Pursewarden's sister but is unaware of the complexity of the relationship between the siblings. Mountolive has also heard rumors of the arms-smuggling, which he intends to stop.

Marcus understandably takes considerable liberties in his adaptation. For example, Balthazar (Severn Darden) appears in only two scenes. Clea, a lesbian artist, is not present. Scobie, the cross-dressing character in the original, who is murdered by sailors, is absent. Instead we have Toto (Cliff Gorman), who flirts openly with the transvestite dancers and who makes his attraction to Narouz no secret.

Cukor takes advantage of the location scenes to convey Durrell's remarkable sense of place. Leon Shamroy's fluid camera movements include rich, color-drenched set-pieces, notably a Mardi Gras ball. One of the funniest moments in that sequence features Pombal, in drag, "seducing" his nemesis, the French Counsel General (Marcel Dalio), only to accuse him of attempted rape. Justine and Toto, dressed in identical red outfits, relish their respective anonymity. That anonymity becomes dangerous, however. Toto, wearing Justine's distinctive ring, gropes Narouz, with unintended tragic results.

Under Cukor's expert guidance, most of the actors give excellent performances. York, perfectly cast, is superb, capturing Darley's painful maturing after exposure to such complex, conflicted individuals. Bogarde is moving as the haunted Pursewarden, especially in a memorable scene in which he reveals his deepest secret. Vernon is convincing as the sincerely religious Nessim, who nonetheless is capable of pimping his wife out to ensure the success of his illicit mission. Karina is touching as the simple, good-hearted Melissa. The transvestite dancers at the club adore her, and she them. Foster is suitably intense as Narouz. Gorman is memorable as the doomed Toto. Noiret is very funny as Pombal, and Albertson quite sympathetic as Cohen. Baker, Constantine, Dalio, Michael Dunn as a gossipy barber whose clients are the city's elite, are all fine.

Alas, Aimee fails to consistently convey Justine's enigmatic, narcissistic, amoral nature, which makes her such a femme fatale . She's almost inevitably placid and detached. Cukor, a noted director of actresses, complained bitterly that she made no effort to convey Justine's conflicted character. Thanks to her large, Audrey Hepburn-like eyes and the sensational costumes by Irene Sharaff, she holds viewers' attention, but ultimately emerges as a sphinx without a secret. The irony of the final scene seems lost on her. Jeanne Moreau would have been a better choice.

Despite the disappointment of Aimee's performance, the film is fascinating and worth seeing. Viewers shouldn't expect a faithful version of a literary masterpiece. Instead, they should anticipate a visit to an exotic location with memorable characters living in a world long gone.






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