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Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Original Sin (2001)

Director: Michael Cristofer
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Antonio Banderas
Domestic Gross: $16,534,221

If Original Sin had come out a decade earlier, early enough to have ridden the wave of "erotic" thrillers that found an audience in the late 80s/early 90s, it might have been a decent sized hit (of course, if it had come out during that era, it probably also would have had to be rewritten so that it could star Michael Douglas). It has the elements that could have made it a hit during that era: hot actor, hot actress, a sultry, exotic location, a sexual charge combined with sexual danger snaking its way through the story. It even classes things up a bit by making it a period piece. By 2001, however, the genre had been out of favor for years, though I can see why MGM thought this could be the film to revive it: it had Angelina Jolie, fresh off her Oscar win and a hit in Tomb Raider, and Antonio Banderas, doing his Latin lover thing, fresh off a hit of his own in the form of Spy Kids, and it got a decent amount of press with regards to the sex scenes, with some footage having to be cut in order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. Yet, when the film came out in the summer of 2001, audiences reacted with complete indifference and the film sunk like a stone at the box office. Perhaps there's simply no amount of Angelina Jolie nudity (and there is a ton in this movie) that doesn't get canceled out when the story is all about the emasculation of the male protagonist.

Based on the novel "Waltz into Darkness" by Cornell Wollrich (which was previously adapted by Francois Truffaut as Mississippi Mermaid, which starred Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo), Original Sin is set in late 19th century Cuba and centers on Luis Vargas (Banderas), a coffee plantation owner who has amassed great wealth but longs for a wife to share his life and have children with him. To that end, he has sent for a mail order bride from America named Julia Russell who shocks him when she shows up looking like Angelina Jolie rather than the much plainer woman in the pictures he'd been sent. She explains that she sent a picture of someone else as a means of ensuring that Luis wanted more than just a pretty face, and he confesses that he lied, too, in that he's not a clerk, but the owner of his own company. They marry later that day and settle into a happy domestic life, despite the fact that there are numerous discrepancies between what Julia tells him in person and what she had told him in their correspondence prior to her arrival in Cuba. There's also an incident with the bird Julia brought with her, which should be a red flag, but Luis is so besotted with his new bride that he believes everything she tells him.

Shortly after Luis has made arrangements for Julia to be given access to all his personal and business bank accounts, a private detective named Walter Downs (Thomas Jane) shows up looking for Julia. As Walter explains, Julia's sister has become concerned for her welfare as a result of Julia having cut off communication with her. Luis shrugs off the concerns, having been told by Julia how controlling her sister is, but when the sister herself shows up and informs Luis that the one letter she's received from "Julia" is not written in her sister's handwriting, Luis finally clues in to the fact that he's been deceived. He races home but gets there too late: the woman he knows as Julia has disappeared, along with the expensive clothes she's been purchasing since marrying Luis, and she's cleaned out his accounts. In the wake of this event Luis falls into a deep depression, feeling like a fool for having been so thoroughly deceived, and still desperately in love with Julia despite it all. He rouses himself only to team up with Walter to track her down, intending to exact his revenge on her - or so he says.

In truth, as soon as he comes face-to-face with her again, he's back under her spell (though he does make a show of his intention to kill her first), and the two run off together with the intention of starting over. It's not that easy, however, as Walter catches up to them, his interest in Julia (whose real name is Bonny Castle) far more personal than Luis suspected as Walter is not a private detective at all, but Julia/Bonny's lover and the mastermind behind the plan to kill the real Julia Russell and have Bonny take her place in order to clean out Luis' fortune. After a struggle with a gun, Luis believes that he's killed Walter and at Julia's urging he goes to buy them train tickets so that they can get out of dodge. When he returns, Julia tells him that she's gotten rid of the body, though in actuality Walter isn't dead at all and has strong-armed Julia into scamming Luis again. Crosses, double crosses, attempted murder, attempted suicide, and an attempted execution ensue, all leading up to a happy ending that is as improbable as it is impossible.

Original Sin is a story of sex and power. Although Luis is an ostensibly commanding figure as the film opens, a successful businessman who is respected by his colleagues and beloved by the staff in his household (the fact that, given the circumstances, he's probably a slave owner is never mentioned), he's dominated by Julia/Bonny almost immediately, with everything proceeding on her terms. At their reception she wants to dance and he says that he doesn't dance, so she makes him. When they retire afterwards, he tells her that they'll have separate bedrooms until she decides otherwise and so they each go to bed alone. Once they consummate their relationship, he's so distracted by all the sex they're having (seriously, there's a portion of this movie where it feels like every other scene is of them having sex, about to have sex, or just having had sex) that he doesn't realize that he's doing things that are paving the way for his own destruction. When Julia cleans out his accounts and disappears, leaving him looking like a fool, she's metaphorically stolen his manhood, but in truth he was already somewhat emasculated at the beginning, which is why he was an effective target.

When Luis finds Julia/Bonny, he tries to make up for his metaphorical castration by roughing her up and then threatening to shoot her in the head. Instead they make up and, reinvigorated by the thought that he's regained his manhood, he quite literally shoves it in another man's face. A man who, the night previously, had attempted to talk Julia/Bonny into bed shows up at her door in the morning and kneels down in front of it in the expectation that she'll open it and find him in a position of mock pleading as a form of flirtation. Instead a naked Luis answers the door so that his genitals are level with the other man's eyes. Having asserted himself as a man, Luis is feeling pretty good about himself, but this is short lived because as soon as Walter catches up with him, it's revealed to be nothing but an illusion. The scene that then occurs between Luis and Walter is fascinating for its sexual undertones, particularly in light of a later scene between Walter and Julia in which they engage in some BDSM play where he cuts her with a knife as either a prelude to or at the conclusion of a sexual encounter (it's not clear from the scene). Luis attempts to stand up for himself, but Walter quickly overpowers him physically and then forces a kiss on him - and it's not a quick peck, it's a long kiss which Luis is unable to fend off. Luis saves himself by shooting Walter, but what he doesn't know is that the gun is full of blanks. It's the same gun he used previously to threaten Julia and I'm sure the Freudian implications of his gun ultimately being useless don't need to be elaborated on. Later, the gun will have actual bullets and Luis will shoot Walter, but doesn't kill him. It's up to Julia to take the gun and finish the job so that, even in the end, Luis still hasn't truly gained his manhood.

Yet, while Julia/Bonny is the dominant figure in her relationship with Luis, she isn't the dominant figure in her encounters with basically any other character in the film. Because the film is working towards a "happy" ending, it can't let Julia be a heartless sociopath (arguably, the film would have been better if it had, if only because it would have given the character some small bit of consistency); it needs to "redeem" her and it needs to knock her down a few pegs so that the power imbalance between her and Luis is less pronounced. In order to redeem her, Original Sin spends its second half victimizing her repeatedly, reducing her to little more than Walter's pawn, subjecting her to gang rape, and having her arrested and given a death sentence. She's a "bad" woman who, through suffering, can be made into a "good" woman just in time to die - except that she manages to elude death (the ultimate proof of her becoming "worthy" is that she tells her story to a priest who afterwards helps her escape) and reunite with Luis, who is his previous scene looked as if he was a goner. Interestingly, though the film deems her sympathetic enough for a happy ending after subjecting her to a campaign of sexualized violence, the balance of power between her and Luis is reasserted by the ending. First, she saves his life not only by finishing the job with Walter but by also by ensuring that the crowd that gathers after the first shot (fired by Luis) sees her fire the second shot, so that it will appear that she alone is the culprit and so that, in essence, she sacrifices herself for Luis. Second, she and Luis reunite and flee to Morocco where they're last seen running a gambling parlor. Earlier in the film Julia comes up with a means for them to raise the funds they need to run away and disappear by cheating at poker. She comes up with the system by which they do it and Luis reluctantly agrees to go along with it, and for it to work he needs to follow her direction, thus she's in charge again in this scenario. Given how badly the plan worked out earlier in the film, it's sort of weird that the two would revisit it at the end, but that's really only one of the ways that the ending rings as entirely false.

Of the two films based on "Waltz into Darkness," Mississippi Mermaid is certainly the better one (it may be minor Truffaut, but it's still pretty entertaining), but Original Sin actually isn't half bad. Or, rather, half the film isn't bad. It's beautifully photographed throughout by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and the first half of the film, when it's more heavily reliant on melodrama elements as opposed to thriller elements, has a certain lurid charm. The second half, when complication is heaped upon complication to make the plot so twisty and turny it becomes pretzel-like, is a lot less successful (though there is something to be said for Jane's performance, which rockets so far over the top that you half expect him to start twirling his Snidely Whiplash mustache, which turns out to be fake). Banderas delivers a solid performance throughout, as he has the benefit of playing a character that the story has a firm grasp of, while Jolie's performance suffers in comparison because once the story enters its second half, the Julia/Bonny character starts to go a bit off their rails and neither she nor the film can right the course. The character is treated as so malleable by the screenplay that she can be, and often is, anything from one scene to another, and the result of that is that there's no center to the character, no framework on which Jolie can hang her performance and nothing solid for the audience to latch onto. Without that the ending, which hinges on the notion that the audience wants to see Julia/Bonny get away and live happily ever after, can't help but fall flat, which is does.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Eh, probably not, though I am surprised that it couldn't work its way to a slightly more respectable box office take.

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