Picks and Pans Review: The Sheltering Sky

updated 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Debra Winger, John Malkovich

You're Winger, a gorgeous, rich American woman whose husband has just died in a desolate Foreign Legion post in North Africa right after World War II. Do you:

(a) Ask the Legionnaires to help you get your husband's body home?

(b) Send a telegram to a senator from Nebraska asking for help?

(c) Wonder where Richard Gere is when you need him?

(d) Ask director Bernardo Bertolucci if you can get out of your contract because Arnold Schwarzenegger wants you to play his sweetie in his next maul-a-thon?

None of the above, it turns out. Instead, Winger hitches a ride with a passing Arab caravan and proceeds to join the harem of its leader because she can tell what a hunk he is by the way his eyes peer out meaningfully from behind his veil and burnoose.

Yep, it's that sort of movie, 2½ hours of dissipation across the burning sands, a vast wasteland, a desert epic with plenty of desert but no epic.

The unpredictable Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) took this story from a novel by Paul Bowles, who makes a self-conscious appearance as a character called the Narrator. The story is similar to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, with a crucial exception: Hemingway's characters had substance.

Here Winger, her husband, Malkovich, and Campbell (Longtime Companion) Scott are ignoble Americans wandering aimlessly, dedicating their lives to idle conversation, dull self-indulgences and smoking in decadent fashion. At times they utter such crypto-profound observations as: "Everything is an omen. Nothing can just be what it is."

At one point Winger is wondering whether to accept a ride from a bizarre Englishwoman and her son: "I'm sure they're going to ask us. And I hate trains. I hate choices."

There is even a scene where Malkovich, trying to understand why he and Winger are growing apart, has to say, "Maybe we're both afraid of loving too much."

These are very boring people who offer no sense of possibility or mystery. You hate them so much that when Malkovich gets sick, you root for the typhoid germs.

Malkovich, Winger and Scott troupe it out (though Winger talks in odd cadences, like a musician losing the beat). But Bertolucci, who wrote the adaptation with Mark (The Last Emperor) Peploe, leaves them up a dune without a camel. While he and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro provide stunning landscapes from their Algeria, Morocco and Niger locations, they offer little else, except flies, which keep swarming all over everybody in symbolic fashion as if auditioning for Sartre's play Les Mouches.

If you've seen one fly or one grain of sand, though, you've seen them all, which is exactly what you'll think you've done if you see this movie. (R)

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