American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The first shot on the screen is a closeup of Angelina Jolie's lips. And what lips they are, plump and pouting and almost bruised. Eventually we tear ourselves away from the sight, and realize she's talking. She's telling the story of why she happens to be in a jail cell; these flashbacks will eventually reveal that she has been condemned to death by garroting--a nasty way to go, as the executioner turns a screw to tighten an iron collar around your neck.
This prologue undermines any romantic illusions as the story itself begins, circa 1900, introducing us to a wealthy Cuban coffee planter named Luis Durand (Antonio Banderas), who anticipates the arrival of a mail order bride named Julia Russell (Jolie). Handsome and rich, he has never married ("Love is not for me. Love is for those people who believe in it"). His expectations for the bride are realistic: "She is not meant to be beautiful. She is meant to be kind, true and young enough to bear children." "You don't recognize me, do you?" Julia murmurs in a thrilling low register, as he finds her standing before him at the dock. He does not. This sultry vision is not the plain woman in the photograph he holds. She confesses she sent the wrong photo because she did not want a man who was attracted only to her beauty. He confesses, too: He owns his plantation and is not simply a worker there. He didn't want to attract a gold-digger.
"Then we have something in common," she says. "Neither one of us can be trusted." Actually, he can.
"Original Sin" is based on the novel Waltz into Darkness , by the famous noir writer Cornell Woolrich. Another of his books inspired Hitchcock's "Rear Window"--and indeed this one was earlier filmed as "Mississippi Mermaid" by Francois Truffaut, in 1969 (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve played the roles). Like many good thrillers, it really gets rolling only after we think we've already seen through the plot. There are surprises on top of surprises, and I will tread carefully to preserve them.