Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Painted Veil

Just watching the trailer to The Painted Veil, you'd probably end up thinking the film was a somewhat-generic historical romance in the vein of Titanic or Captain Corelli's Mandolin, full of exotic locales, political upheaval, photogenic stars, steamy sex, the whole bit:

It's really not. If anything, The Painted Veil is the best kind of horror movie.

The plot runs something like this: Around 1925, Kitty marries Walter--a Shanghai-stationed, British bateriologist whom she doesn't love--moves to China with him and promptly embarks upon a torrid affair, which, when discovered, causes her husband to drag her to a tiny village where folks are perishing in droves due to cholera. Still sounds like, Ralph Fiennes should have starred, right?

What sets The Painted Veil apart is its unflinching portrayal of ugliness and brokenness and death. Kitty's affair is played for beastial, ruttish lust, rather than as a softly lit, erotic interlude, à la
The English Patient. (When interrupted in the middle of coitus, her lover--played by Liev Schreiber--heaves up into the bottom of the frame, a river of sweat coursing down his face; when we see him shucking on his shirt later, we also glimpse his hairy, convex belly.) So, our sympathies then lie with Walter, poor cuckholded guy. That is until he confronts Kitty, siezing her arm, throwing her into a chair and hissing, "If you interrupt me again, I'll strangle you." Then, rather than take the easy trip up-river to the cholera-afflicted village, he subjects her to a blisteringly hot and throughly unneccesary overland trek. Then he fails to innoculate her against the disease, in the apparent hope that she'll perish. Trapped in a primitive backwater, the two soon start trading barbs as though they were blows, battering each other over transgressions both real and imagined.

The horror isn't limited to interpersonal relationships. Effluent-soaked cots fill a filthy hospital, soaking up the watery excrement and vomit. Kitty discovers a dead peasant left on the side of the road, his eyes milky as though with cataracts. A clenched hand the color of Artic ice (dehydration turns the skin of cholera victims blue) thrusts through a thin covering of soil over a rude grave--a grave mere yards from the river that serves as the town's drinking water. Fear of infection erupts from any number of things. A cut from a broken piece of laboratory glassware. A batch of vegatables improperly cooked. Familiar faces that suddenly disappear, cut low by disease.

Released by Warner's independent division, the film did little business at the box office. I'd wager that audiences had a hard time reconciling the grim realities of mortal illness and nasty marital strife with romance. That's a shame, because horror and love go hand in hand, to use the old cliché. Anyone who has attempted to love another knows about horror, about the nagging frustrations and petty vengences the beloved can arouse within you. And anyone who has known this horror and surmounted it--as Kitty and Walter do--also understands that the patience of love alone conquers mosters without and within.

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