Young newlyweds David and Catherine Bourne (Jack Huston and Mena Suvari) are honeymooning in Europe. David is a successful writer. Catherine is a beautiful heiress. They drive through France and Spain. They stay in hotels on the sea. It’s summer, but no one else in the world has discovered the Côte d’Azur in summer, not even the French, so they have the place to themselves. They swim, sunbathe, eat, drink, and make love. In the mornings David writes. It’s good, but sometimes afterwards he feels hollow.
Then Catherine decides she wants to be a boy and wants David to be a girl. They get matching haircuts and reverse roles in bed. Then Catherine finds another girl. She is also a beautiful heiress. David, Catherine, and Marita the other beautiful heiress (Caterina Murino) drive, swim, sunbathe, eat, drink, and make love. David still writes in the mornings. Then Catherine plays a trick on David. It’s an awfully mean trick. He is angry and it’s her turn to feel hollow. But he dives into the ocean and it’s good again.
In Hemingway bullfighting is art. There is no bullfighting in Hemingway’s Garden of Eden. Instead, people gore each other in the hot afternoon with sharp words and cruel looks and savage laughs in the place of swords and lances and banderillas. Bullfighting is art and the matador must work close to the bull or it’s no good. John Irvin the director and James Scott Linville the screenwriter know this and work close to the novel The Garden of Eden. Many lines in the film come directly from the book. Autos, cocktails, and a story about Africa that David writes also come from the book. But it’s no good, anyway.
The first scene of Hemingway’s Garden of Eden suggests why. A man is filming a tableau of the 1863 Édouard Manet painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass, or Picnic on the Grass). A nude woman sits on the ground with two clothed men, while another woman, clothed, bathes behind them. The scene casts an air of social and sexual transgression upon the union of David and Catherine. We know this because their wedding banquet follows the filming sequence. The banquet table is being set up in the distance behind the tableau.
Who is the man and why is he filming the tableau? We never learn. Like the man, John Irvin and James Scott Linville have translated a work of art from one medium to another without respect to its historical context or to what they should change about the original so that it works in the new format and isn’t too bad.
Hemingway’s Garden of Eden is a film about writing, but it gets writing wrong. In the book, David Bourne writes a story about Africa based on his childhood travels there with his father. The narrator doesn’t just include the story, inserted into the novel. No, he tells the story, describes David Bourne thinking about the story, and shows David Bourne writing the story, all at once. It’s damn good. It’s one of the best things in the book.
John Irvin and James Scott Linville can’t pull it off in the film. They get their capes caught on the bull’s horns here. David Bourne sharpens his pencils with a knife, and we watch the point of the pencil make the words on the paper in super close-up, like the shot of vomit in Wild at Heart when the flies are on it. Parts of the story are dramatized, intercut with the writing parts. David Bourne writes standing up like Hemingway, and he smokes and drinks while he writes. When he reaches the climax of “An African Story” he breaks the point of his pencil.
It’s bad, like in Shakespeare in Love, when the Bard prepares his quills and cracks his knuckles and gets ink all over his fingers, and the sound is amplified like in a bad wine commercial where someone corks and pours the bad wine into a glass and it sounds like a torrent. It’s bad, like in The Hours when Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf is stalking the garden in her false nose dreaming up a novel: “Mrs. Calloway, no, Mrs. Halloway, no, wait, I have it! . . .” They are all creating Literature with a capital ‘L’. It’s solemn, and it’s death if you’re solemn.
Jack Huston tries hard to deliver his lines well. He speaks as naturally as he can and slurs his way through some of the words, trying to be natural. It’s hard with Hemingway dialogue. At least Jack Huston has a whole face. In Boardwalk Empire he only has half a face. And very few lines. Now he has lots of lines, and a whole face to say them with. But it’s no good. John Irvin and James Scott Linville make Jack Huston do a voiceover at Important Moments in the film. It’s solemn and deadly, too.
Mena Suvari tries even harder than Jack Huston, but it’s no damn good. It’s as if she doesn’t know which parts of the lines to emphasize, so the result is a kind of simmering monotone delivered in a loud stage voice. Only Richard E. Grant as Colonel Boyle and Caterina Murino as Marita can utter Hemingway dialogue worth a damn. Richard E. Grant is damn fine as Colonel Boyle, but he’s only in the movie for a minute or two.
David and Catherine begin to resemble one another after Catherine insists they reverse gender roles. They both wear fisherman shirts with horizontal blue stripes, baggy white trousers, and espadrilles. It’s fine so long as the similarity is limited to clothes and bedroom talk. C’est très bien. Then Catherine insists they get the same boy’s haircut and platinum bleach job. She tells the coiffeur to cut her hair like an English boy going off to school for the first time. “Eton” she says, but the coiffeur hears “Hogwarts” and gives them both Draco Malfoy coiffures. She looks like the combed-back Draco Malfoy in Chamber of Secrets. He looks like the more foppish Draco Malfoy in Deathly Hallows. It’s damn bad.
Hemingway’s Garden of Eden confuses biography and fiction. We understand that David Bourne is and is not Ernest Hemingway. David Bourne is a fictional character who shares traits with his creator. No doubt, John Irvin and James Scott Linville also understand this. Yet, Jack Huston wears the platinum hair of Draco Malfoy in The Deathly Hallows and the black mustache of Ernest Hemingway, and it does not look well at all. The mustache looks as if it might come off when David Bourne swims vigorously through the surf or makes love with one of the beautiful heiresses.
In Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden David and especially Catherine and even Marita are sad and hollow, and David and Catherine bleach their hair the color of the bark of a young birch tree and tan their bodies waxed-wood brown as if they want to melt into each other and nature and not feel hollow anymore. In Hemingway’s Garden of Eden David and Catherine are sad puppets worked by John Irvin and James Scott Linville, like the characters put into the Manet tableau. The cameraman cranks and cranks, but it’s no damn good.