Porter (John Malkovich) insists that he is not a tourist but a traveller. A tourist ‘is someone who thinks about going home the minute they arrive’. His travelling companions Tunner (Campbell Scott) and Kit (Debra Winger) tend to agree as they arrive in post-war Morocco with their tropical khakis, pigskin luggage and sparkling pith helmet still in its hatbox.
In Tangier, anything and anyone can be bought for the right price. As Kit and Tunner settle in, Port is off on a night-time sexual prowl, availing himself of a cheap thrill from a wallet-stealing prostitute in the process. Meanwhile, our trio tries to shake loose a grasping Englishman (Timothy Spall) and his freakish mother (Jill Bennett), who provide comic relief and seem to have dropped in from another movie. With sandstorms and flyblown hotels and weevils in their bowls of noodles, Port, Kit and Tunner negotiate their menage.
Based on the 1949 novel by American composer-slash-writer Paul Bowles (who is heard in voiceover and seen briefly on screen), the story sees Kit and Port travel deeper into the Sahara and out of their depth. And although this semi-autobiographical story does not quite capture Bowles’ and his fellow writer and wife Jane’s reputation as arch kinksters, it remains a painful story of consuming love and loss of identity in a bewitchingly alien world. Kit’s loss is made complete as she becomes the lover and willing captive of a passing Arab (Eric Vu-An).
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro captures not only the achingly beautiful undulating deserts and night skies of stars and crescent moons, but uses an intriguingly Freudian colour palette to reflect the moods and inner motivations of the characters. There’s gorgeous period detail and a psychologically interesting script, but the epic story steers perilously close to pretentiousness at times.
Everything is enhanced with Ryuichi Sakamoto’s memorable score. Although breezy Winger and malevolent Malkovich might not be everyone’s idea of doomed lovers, they are persuasive even if they sometimes come across as archetypally tiresome art students wracked with cynicism and ennui in equal measure.
Available on Blu-Ray from Arrow Films from Mon 2 Nov 2020