Directed by Lavinia Currier, the film Passion in the Desert is based on the controversial story A Passion in the Desert by Honoré de Balzac, written in the first half of the 19th century. In her adaptation Currier tracks a young Napoleonic army officer into the sweeping gales and stark caverns of a land unlike any experienced by most Europeans. Here the hot winds of the Sahara lead the Frenchman to a life-changing experience with one of the most beautiful and lethal predators ever—a leopard.
It is 1798 and to Augustin Robert (Ben Daniels), a young captain in Napoleon’s doomed Egyptian Campaign, logic and order are paramount. Raised during The Enlightenment while Europe debates noble savage vs. rational man, Augustin sees Egypt as a manageable territory, neatly bounded by the Nile and the Red Sea.
The French artist-scholar Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (Michel Piccoli) has been sent by Bonaparte to explore and record Egypt’s monuments, temples and landscapes; a representative of France’s enlightened wisdom meeting the ancient wisdom of the East. But Venture’s passionate temperament is stirred by what he finds in this land: an environment shaped by centuries of untamed natural forces. Even as French soldiers destroy a sphinx in an act of mindless vandalism, Venture sketches furiously, preserving Egypt’s antiquities in his images.
In a skirmish with fierce Mamaluke warriors, Augustin and Venture are separated from the regiment. Duty-bound Augustin protects Venture as best he can but is unprepared for the sandstorm that throws him off course, for the dunes that change shape by the hour and the feverish, charged air that comes after the storm. The two men circle helplessly, wracked with thirst and on the verge of madness. After Venture kills himself, Augustin wanders alone, lost, the uniform of a soldier of the Revolution literally falling from his body in shreds.
Dazed by the surreal combination of sand, heat, light and silence, Augustin slides into a world where nothing is quite what it seems. Bedouin chase him like an animal across the sands, into a canyon and down a passage where he finds the ruins of an ancient city. As the sun sets, the nomads give up their pursuit, leaving the young Frenchman to the preternatural forces who rule this place – the jinns.
In fact, the dark of night brings a surprising presence: a wild African leopard.
At once dangerous and seductive, the animal most feared by human beings and a legendary source of charismatic power, the cat finds Augustin hiding in a cave. At first she appears as a pair of unblinking amber eyes. As he makes out her form, though, he is even more terrified, knowing she could destroy him with a swipe of her claws.
Instead, she observes him and slowly approaches. She shows the way to a hidden source of water. She even shares her kill. One moment purring like a contented domestic cat, in the next she brings down prey with chilling accuracy.
They communicate through sound, smell and touch, and he calls her Simoom, the Bedouin name for the Sahara's hot, poison wind.
What follows is the tale of how Simoom absorbs Augustin into her world, as gradually his life becomes attuned to hers. When his regiment intrudes, Augustin’s human side unexpectedly reasserts itself, endangering not only himself but the wild leopard who spared him.
A Passion in the Desert (USA) 91 mins
Augustin Ben Daniels
Venture Michel Piccoli
Grognard Paul Meston
Officer Kenneth Collard
Bedouin Bride Nadi Odeh
Shepherd Boy Auda Mohammed Badoul
Medicine Man Mohammed Ali
Bedouin Habis Hussein
Soldiers James Peck
Abdul Latif Salazar
Lavinia Currier Producer/Director/Screenwriter
Martin Edmunds Additional Script
Adapted from the novella A Passion in the Desert by Honoré de Balzac
Alton Walpole Supervising Producer (US)
Jamil Dehlavi Supervising Producer (Jordan)
Stephen Dembitzer Executive Producers
Alexei Rodionov Director of Photography
Amanda McArthur Production Designer
Nicolas Gaster Editor
Daphne Becket Casting Director
Shuna Harwood Costume Designer
José Nieto Original Music
Hamza El Din Additional Music
Michael Stearns Sound Designer
Judy Glassey Leopard Trainers