Dark Hearts

Halfmoon keeps faith with Paul Bowles' vision of the horribly familiar

There is something reptilian about Paul Bowles, the ancient American writer who has now lived for nearly a half-century in Tangier. His fictions turn on chilly, bleak cruelties, and while Bernardo Bertolucci got the horror garishly wrong in his film version of Bowles' 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky (not the ideal vehicle for Debra Winger), the German filmmakers Frieder Schlaich and Irene von Alberti capture the coldblooded essence of three Bowles stories in Halfmoon.

Bowles himself introduces and comments on each of the three pieces. With white hair and a cardigan sweater, he looks like a kindly grandfather, but his eyes shine with the icy, predatory brilliance of a man who studies and, with amusement, records the many brutalities people inflict on one another. At times his presence in the movie seems awkward and forced, and he isn't an especially compelling articulator of his own words, but his brief scenes do reinforce his claim to the moral authorship of Halfmoon. These are his stories and his life.

The movie's second episode, "Call at Corazon," is the most autobiographical and alarming of the three. A British writer (Sam Cox) and his wife (Veronica Quilligan) take a honeymoon cruise up the Amazon on a series of increasingly grim boats. They are the classic Bowles married couple (and an echo of Bowles' own marriage?): affectless, bored with one another, their relationship essentially a series of venomously understated skirmishes.

The man takes a fancy to a monkey and, over his wife's objections (or because of them?), buys it. During dinner they lock the creature in their cabin; when they return they find their room trashed. If the man is at all put out, it doesn't show, but she registers her distress and fury by bolting a smile onto her lips. Most of the time she looks as if she's had a bad face lift, her teeth showing in a cadaverous leer.

Yet despite their discomfort with one another, there is no escape and they must make do. The boats seem to be traveling in only one direction: upriver, into the heart of darkness. Of course the miserable excursion was his idea: He's a Bowles-like writer with a keen appetite for the exotic and dangerous; she's a nice girl who's plainly wondering why she married a writer, of all things, and why she let herself be conned into a honeymoon unimaginably remote from a more comfortable outing to, say, Brighton.

The last ship looks like a Mississippi paddle-wheeler, and the unhappy couple's quarters are jaillike in their Spartanness and verminousness. As the boat careens through the evening water, the wife retreats to the cabin to await the exterminator (a handsome young crewman) while the husband gets smashed on deck. When he returns later, she's not there. He finds her sleeping naked with the exterminator in another cabin.

As Bowles intones at the beginning of "Call at Corazon," the story's theme is revenge -- a dish, as Bowles understands, best served very cold indeed. There are no harsh words between the newlyweds, no scenes or tears or any possibility of reconciliation -- just an almost unnoticeably sly act whose clear-eyed cruelty stirs every primitive fear of abandonment. Bowles' recurrent theme is the predicament of civilized man in savage country, but of course civilized man, with his self-conscious deliberateness and well-developed arts of psychological warfare, is capable of far greater barbarism than his rustic counterpart. The man's betrayal of his wife is singularly Western.

Revenge also figures in the final tale, "Allal," in which an illegitimate boy, Allal (Said Zakir), scorned by his village, befriends a grizzled snake charmer and, in a nerve-shattering scene, one of the old man's snakes. The Saharan setting of "Allal" is most typical of Bowles, and the filmmakers do a good job of capturing (as does Bowles' prose) the harsh physicality of the place: gritty sand blowing everywhere, the sun's blinding glare, the faintly relieving coolness of shade in which to doze.

The snakes do not exactly add a reassuring note to the featureless menace of the desert. They are alien, evil, frightening -- also threateningly phallic. In an extended scene, Allal seduces one of the snakes, a cobra that wraps itself around the naked boy as if tying together desire and death.

The exchange of consciousness between boy and reptile isn't too effective in the film, but then it isn't too good in the story itself, where Bowles simply announces that the magical transfer has taken place. The moviemakers, lacking that narrative license, must resort to visual effects of Star Trek cheesiness, such as giving the now snake-brained Allal a pair of eyes that glow an unearthly blue.

"Allal" isn't Bowles at his best, but it is Bowles at his most viscerally powerful. There's nothing like a poisonous snake on the loose to stir up a sleepy desert village. The men -- many of them jeerers at Allal's bastardy -- turn out with clubs and shouts to deal with the threat. They don't yet grasp that their quarry is no ordinary cobra, but a creature bent quite consciously on revenge, and capable for the first time of taking it.

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