Monday, February 01, 2016

Lust in the Dust

There are moments of sweep and moments of grandeur and some of the most beautiful shots Werner Herzog's ever filmed in his Gertrude Bell bio-pic Queen of the Desert, but the script is straight-up camel chow. My guess is Herzog wanted to spend some time in the desert and was able to get funding for a movie with Nicole Kidman and James Franco and used them as a framework on which to hang the chance to chill with Bedouins while Nicole was in her trailer having her hair elaborately tousled several hours each day. 

That's not to rag on Nic - she's fine in the film, but tasked with an irritating script that's intent on filtering all of Bell's world-changing achievements through her romantic entanglements. Ladies love love, you guys! Yeah, this is perfectly offensive stuff. But sometimes the camera floats down a cavernous stream only to suddenly shoot up up into the heavens, ricocheting off the rock walls as if carried off by a fit of steady-cammed Parkour, and you feel what Herzog wants you to feel - the rapture of location, location, location. And what locations, old-fashioned and grand.

Plus Herzog's humor wends its way through the movie in unexpected bursts, especially whenever a delightfully posh Robert Pattinson shows up as T.E. Lawrence (aka of Arabia), carrying his desert robes as if they were designed by Bob Mackie - if there's any queen in this desert, tis he. (A cock in a frock on a rock - check, check, and check.) There's an adorable scene halfway through the movie where Lawrence asks Bell to beard for him to get the local ladies off his case; his sweet whispers of "Gertie" are a smile. 

Unfortunately this gives the film the effect of feeling sometimes like a waiting game for Pattinson to show up and perk things up, when really this film ought to feel like a gendered correction to the Great Masculine Epics of Yore, like Lawrence of Arabia. Bell herself remains opaque, a romantic mirage out of an old movie, her heart tangled up in their false-seeming tropes and never entirely approaching a genuine, or even one of Herzog's ecstatic, truths. This woman, an epic unto herself, is bigger than this.

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