Original Sin (2001)

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By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

A dream that stole your soul

Michael Cristofer’s Original Sin begins with that cheapest of scene-setting devices: the antique map. Appearing under the opening credits and accompanied by sultry guitar strums, the map lets you know that the action will take place in a faraway time and place, that is, Cuba (actually, the film was shot in Mexico) circa 1880, when women wore long white dresses and men rode horses. So now you know: you’re in for some bodice-ripping.

The map also introduces the journey undertaken by protagonist and narrator Julia Russell (played by Angelina Jolie—and if I hear one more film reviewer refer to her luscious-pouty-full-seductive lips, I’ll jump out a window; please, gentlemen, take note: many non-Caucasian women have similar lips, and have had them for centuries). Like most journeys in movies that begin with antique maps under the credits, Julia’s is both internal (from bad to good, or at least somewhat redeemed) and external (from Delaware to Cuba). She tells—or rather, confesses—her story to a priest (Mario Ivan Martinez), remembering in breathy detail how she came to be inside a gloomy prison cell. Alas and alack. It’s not long before you learn that pale-and-still-lovely Julia is about to be executed, because she’s done something really, really . . . really terrible.

“This is not a love story,” she informs the rapt priest, dead-seriously. “But it is a story about love . . . You cannot walk away from love.” It appears that this particular line is included so as to provide rationale for Gloria Estefan’s soundtrack-enhancing single, “You Can’t Walk Away From Love,” but it’s lame just the same. Julia massages such mawkish language with an intermittent accent (sort of Euro-Brit, by way of Madonna during her Girlie Show days) and the story she tells is as tawdry and silly as they come. The film doesn’t actually flash back to her woeful, parentless childhood (developing a co-dependency with an evil little boy, a fellow “foundling”), but she makes a few vague references to abuses and tragedies, looking daintily pained.

The flashbacks proper begin with Julia’s arrival in Cuba, as a mail-order bride ordered by a coffee baron named Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas). Immediately, she must explain why she doesn’t look a thing like the photo she sent along with her application letter. She says she didn’t want him to want her just because she “has a pretty face.” Luis not only believes her, but marries her half a day later and then tells her that it’s okay if she doesn’t want to have sex with him, or open the big trunk she brought with her from America, or explain why she breaks the neck of the little tweety-bird in a cage that she’s brought all the way from Delaware. That Luis, he’s just so sensitive-male. And stupid. Incredibly stupid. And so, I say, he deserves everything he gets from this moment forward.

What he gets is lots of grief, along with splendiferous sex shot from overhead so you can see both beautiful movie star bodies interlocked in various poses. Artful closer angles detail their exquisite body parts—worked-out chest and sun-tanned thighs, delicate profile and heaving breasts, etc.—in all their luminously perspiring perfection. And it’s not just the imagery that’s campy. Check out the dialogue: “I am someone else with you,” declares the valiant Luis. “Someone more like myself.” Beat. She responds in her voice over, “And there in his arms, I became someone else,” getting her confessor increasingly hot and bothered.

Well, yes, you know where this is going. Luis appears to have just one friend in Cuba, his business partner Alan (Australian actor Jack Thompson doing a broadly U.S. Suthuhn accent), who warns him that he’s becoming obsessed with the wife (Alan also lays out one of those preposterous bad-movie aphorisms, this one concerning the difference between love and lust: for the first, you want to give all, for the second, you want to take all). Then, when Julia inevitably turns out not to be who she said she was and runs off with all his money, Luis is comforted by a wise black servant-lady, Sara (Joan Pringle), who asserts, in an appropriately foreboding tone, “You were married to a dream, a dream that stole your soul!” Hold on ominous close-up. Cue timpani drum roll.

Indeed, Luis decides he must avenge himself against this dream, a point he makes while waving a pistol, after a few days spent screwing and drinking himself into a stubbly-faced stupor at the local brothel (where all the women look like supermodels). Luckily for Luis, he’s assisted in this endeavor by an obviously skeezy private investigator from the States, Walter Downs (Thomas Jane). Luis, ever the dupe, enlists Walter’s help to track Julia (real name Bonny) to Havana, where, inevitably, the scene is infused with “Carnival” decadence, translated visually as hallucinatory dissolves and doubled images. Luis finds Bonny, they struggle for a second, then fall into bed. The problem from here on, according to Julia/Bonny’s narration, is that neither can compromise enough to survive in the other’s world—his being too moralistic and privileged, hers too greedy and distrustful. He’s a respected businessman and she is, as one of her former associates points out so very dramatically, “a whore!”

The rest of the film—which goes on for far too long—explains how this inability to compromise leads to Julia/Bonny’s stint on death row. Based on Waltz Into Darkness, the same Cornell Woolrich novel that Francois Truffaut used as inspiration for his infinitely more fun Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Cristofer’s script is inept in most every way. Initially slated for release last November, Original Sin has been shelved for months, as MGM pondered what to do with it. It’s a good bet that they figured the stars of Tomb Raider and Spy Kids might help recoup costs. Jolie and Banderas are being good sports about it too, shilling the movie on talk shows from Letterman to Larry King, pretending that it’s a serious movie, that the shoot in Mexico was hot and difficult, that the period customs took some research, whatever. They do this because it’s their job, and everyone knows it. But it’s doubtful any of these tv viewers will be convinced that Original Sin is anything but what it so obviously is: expensive, tacky melodrama.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/original-sin/