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In a much-bruited scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1966 film “Pierrot le Fou,” the sui generis American filmmaker Sam Fuller turns up at a party and is asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo to define cinema. He says: “A film is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death, in one word, emotions.”
“Three Thousand Years of Longing,” the new film directed by the protean “Mad Max: Fury Road” creator George Miller, is very much a battleground. And very much about the emotion tagged in the title. In the case of Alithea, the academic played with traits both prim and feisty by Tilda Swinton, the longing is one she denies. Introducing herself in voiceover as a “narratologist,” that is, a studier of stories, she cherishes her solitary self-sufficiency. Arriving in a storybook-bright Istanbul for a conference, she’s put up in the Agatha Christie room of the Pera Palace Hotel. “She wrote Death on the Nile here,” Alithea is told. The movie will be about emotion, but also about storytelling and stories.
During a lecture Alithea faints after a hallucination. We are to ask, later, whether it was a hallucination or something ancient and real calling to her. Back in her hotel room, she tries to scrub off an ornamental bottle she picked up at an antique shop. And yes, she unleashes a genie, or djinn, and a giant one at that—the sight of his enormous foot opening her bathroom door is something unusual to be sure—who, upon learning some English, proffers Alithea the standard three wishes. As played by Idris Elba, the djinn is a figure grave, funny, absurd, and moving.
As for those wishes: not so fast. As a narratologist, Alithea knows that a djinn is one gift horse worth looking in the mouth. The wish-fulfillment narratives involving genies famously never work out—either due to the stupidity/venality of the wisher or, more pertinent to Alithea, the fact that genies are notorious tricksters. There’s a reason they end up trapped in bottles, after all. And so, rather than a wish-fulfillment journey, Alithea begins an interrogation.
The djinn’s first tale sets the tone and pace for the rest of the movie. He was a consort, or so he claims, and teacher to the famed Queen of Sheba (“She was not beautiful. She was beauty itself,” the Djinn avers, and in the form of actress Aamito Lagum, she indeed is), until that wily Solomon came along. Even the elaborate tableaux of Cecil B. DeMille aren’t sufficient preparation for the production design and CGI-driven phantasmagoria of this tale, which features, among other things, a kind of self-playing lyre, the better to augment the song of Solomon that seduces Sheba.
As it turns out, over the centuries, it’s always a woman who’s responsible for the djinn’s captivity, but this is not a nesting-doll tale of misogyny. (It is adapted, very loosely, from a novella by renowned British writer A.S. Byatt.) It’s more a chronicle of how love and hate can make one do funny things. And about the paradox of being human, our intrepid selves and our shadow selves. So much human achievement is depicted here, and so much human atrocity. As is observed near the end of the picture, “Despite all the whiz-bang, we remain befuddled.”
As the tales unfold, Alithea, while never entirely letting down her guard, comes to understand that the lack of love in her life is more upsetting than she’s been willing to admit to herself.
That sounds dry. The movie is not. The tales told by the djinn are packed with hair-raising violence and extremely variegated landscapes of lust. One would-be ruler, a very slow and heavy fellow, is confined to a sable-lined room by his mother, where he is supplied with a steady stream of women of unusual size, whom he drools over. This episode is staged and shot with Fellini-esque relish by Miller—it’s a bit of an elaboration on the wet nurse scene in “Fury Road.”
Speaking of “Fury Road,” after the mostly practical and in-camera effects of that hair-raising epic, it’s interesting to see Miller return to what appears to be a predominantly CGI mode, although given his work on films like “Babe: Pig in the City” and “Happy Feet,” it shouldn’t be unanticipated. His mastery makes the movie eye-popping; his freedom and audacity make it surprising and unsettling.
One may also be unsettled that the movie arguably partakes of what the scholar Edward Said called “orientalism.” Western culture taking Eastern culture and molding it to its own ends, to put it one way. In many respects Miller shows scrupulousness. The ancient world depicted here is not whitewashed in the casting department (Lagum, who plays Sheba, is Ugandan, and won the first season of “Africa’s Next Top Model”). But just the idea of a Black Djinn and a white Englishwoman in a battle of wits over narratives real and fictional is apt to strike a dissonant chord with some. Is Miller exercising his freedom as a creative artist or taking undue license? I believe the former. And I believe that the compassion and imaginative energy he brings to the project (this hardly looks like the work of a director who’s almost 80) justifies his choices, if indeed any justification were really necessary.
Available in theaters tomorrow.
Tilda Swinton as Alithea Binnie
Idris Elba as Genie
Ece Yüksel as Gülten
Zerrin Tekindor as Kösem
Erdil Yaşaroğlu as Prof. Günhan
Kaan Guldur as Young Murad IV
David Collins as Jocular Storyteller
Alyla Browne as Young Alithea
Nicola Mouawad as King Solomon
Angie Tricker as Narratologist