Passion in the Desert, A (1997): Lavinia Currier’s Visually Impressive Directorial Debut

Telluride Film Festival 1997–Part an adventure in the wilderness, part a love story between a human being and a leopard, and part a metaphysical meditation about the mysteries of Nature, A Passion in the Desert (aka Simoom), Lavinia Currier’s visually impressive feature directorial debut, derives its inspiration from the controversial novella by the French writer Honore De Balzac.

Tough marketing faces Fine Line in positioning a film that’s not easily categorizable. On the one hand, it’s not a typical children fare like Robinson Crusoe, and on the other, mature viewers may have reservations about a film that works its considerable magnetism almost exclusively through imagery and sound.

In her adaptation of Balzac’s late eighteenth century story, Currier follows Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels), a young French officer in Napoleon’s doomed Egyptian campaign. Augustin is escorting the artist-scholar Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Michel Piccoli), who is commissioned by Napoleon to record Egyptian’s great monuments and temples. Dedicated to the preservation of Egypt’s unique art, Venture sketches furiously as French soldiers destroy sphinxes in acts of mindless barbarism.

During a combat with Mamulke warriors, Augustin and Venture are separated from their regiment and a fierce battle to survive the dunes and sand storms begins. Suffering from unbearable thirst, the two men circle helplessly, with no sense of place or direction. On the verge of madness, Venture kills himself, leaving Augustin alone and lost, with the shreds of his military uniform as the only reminder of–and link to–human civilization.

The film’s more intriguing section commences once Augustin finds himself in a deep canyon surrounded by the ruins of an ancient city. A wild African leopard appears and a dangerously seductive bond evolves between the soldier and the animal, which shows him the way to a hidden source of water and even shares its prey with him. Communicating through gestures, the leopard, which Augustin names Simoom, introduces him to a whole new way of life in which complete harmony prevails between Nature and its untamed inhabitants

Set at the beginning of the Enlightenment Age (circa 1798), Currier’s yarn obviously aims at being a philosophical reflection rather than a simple man-animal exploit. A product of his milieu’s mode of thinking, at first Augustin perceives Egypt as just another “manageable territory,” a land of Noble Savages to be conquered by Europe’s Rational Man. Currier juxtaposes science and technology (specifically, navigation instruments) with the beauty of Nature as a simple and pure mythic force. Hence when Venture goes mad in the desert, it’s implied that his madness is a result of uncontrollable euphoria rather than exhaustion or fear.

As a study of co-existence, it’s Augustin who adjusts–and is absorbed–into the leopard’s environment. However, when “human” nature reasserts itself, it endangers the lives of Augustin as well as Simoom. The emotionally sad but truth-ringing ending is hinged with moral ambiguity in its criticism of humans’ desire to suppress and subdue Nature as a way of mastering their control.

Endowed with a strong physical presence, Daniels moves gracefully, and his quiet, prolonged interactions with the leopard (played by three different wild cats) are often mesmerizing to behold. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Augustin begins to caress the leopard and the two engage in a mutually enjoyable physical contact that’s both lyrical and erotic. Taken out of context, this element of the tale, which is innocently conceived, might upset conservative parents, who may not deem it proper for their children to watch.

Spectacularly shot by Russian lenser Alexei Rodionov in the Jordanian desert and the city of Petra, A Passion in the Desert beautifully captures the dizzying–and dazzling–effects of sand, heat, light, and silence on Augustin, a solitary individual forced to experience the awesome magnitude of Nature.


Augustin Robert…………………Ben Daniels
Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis…Michel Piccoli
Grognard……………………….Paul Meston
Officer…………………….Kenneth Collard
Bedouin Bride…………………….Nadi Odeh


Running time: 93 minutes.

A Fine Line release of a Roland Films production.
Produced, directed by Lavinia Currier.
Executive producers, Joel McCleary, Stephen Dembitzer.
Screenplay, Currier and Martin Edmunds, based on Honore De Balzac’s novella of the same title. Camera (color), Alexei Rodionov; editor, Nicolas Gaster; music, Jose Nieto; production design, Amanda McArthur; costume design, Shuna Harwood; sound (Dolby), Michael Stearns; special effects supervisors, Colin Arthur (Jordan), Randy Pope (U.S.); associate producer, Emmanuelle Castro; assistant director, Waldo Roeg, Stephen Pushkin; leopard trainers, Jungle Bookings, Rick and Judy Glassey; casting, Daphne Becket. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 31, 1997.