When this film was made, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jeremy Thomas were riding high after their shock clean sweep of nine Oscar wins for nine nominations with The Last Emperor. It was one of the few great films to win that award in the ‘80s, otherwise a low point in the Academy’s history. They decided to next adapt what was considered one of the most unfilmable novels, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. Thomas would gain a track record for adaptations, most notably his collaborations with David Cronenberg on Naked Lunch and Crash, and more recently with Ben Wheatley on High-Rise. The Sheltering Sky was not as successful artistically as those films, although there is plenty to admire.
Paul Bowles was a fascinating figure: he was the connecting tissue between the Modernists of the ’20s, Existentialism and the Beat Generation, although he wasn’t a part of any of those movements, and especially hated being lumped in with the Beats. He was also an accomplished musician, and spent the last 52 years of his life in Tangiers, Morocco, which informed all of his fiction. His most well-known book remains The Sheltering Sky, and despite narrating the film, he expressed displeasure with the film in retrospect in a preface of a later edition of the novel, where he dismissed it by saying “the less said about the film now, the better.”
Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger), along with their friend George Tunner, arrive in in Oran (Algeria), where Port and Kit decide to stay on for a year or two. Their marriage is on the rocks, and they believe a change of scenery might reignite whatever sparks they once had. Everything that can go wrong, does, and they sink into a desert of alienation and existential doom.
When Malkovich is at his best, he is one of the world’s great actors, but here he is one of the most insufferable characters ever put onto the screen—you wonder why nobody just slaps him silly. Winger undeniably gives the better performance, and she carries the film. It’s probably her finest performance, and despite the negative reaction to the film at the time, she was always cited as a standout. Timothy Spall, however, is the real standout as the drunk British huckster Tunner, trying to turn any trick he can.
Depiction of doom-laden existentialism is hard on film. which why it always works better in a genre setting, whether it’s film noir or science fiction, than it does in straight drama. The film ends up having a bit too much navel-gazing for its own good, and romance and sex is played up. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is splendid, but then again, if you’re in the Sahara desert, you will shoot beautiful images even if you’re blind. Storaro and Bertolucci were frequent collaborators, including Bertolucci’s masterpiece The Conformist.
Arrow has compiled a very nice release with commentary by director Bernardo Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, and screenwriter Mark Peploe; a lengthy archival making-of , a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson, and a new interview with art director Andrew Sanders, plus archival interviews with cast and crew, image gallery and the original trailer. The booklet (in the first pressing only) is by Kat Ellinger.