Nostradamus is a film with a sure-fire marketing hook, and absolutely nothing else to commend it. It presumes to reveal the life of a man whose encrypted predictions still fascinate the popular imagination.
Nostradamus' scribblings, forever handily reinterpreted, provide endless fodder for the tabloid press. It makes some kind of awful sense, then, that this film offers a tabloid-style biography, composed of nothing but corny clichés.
In medical school, Nostradamus (the imposing Tchéky Karyo) opposes the blinkered, old-fashioned views of his teachers. He seeks out the secretive Scalinger (F. Murray Abraham), who introduces him to suppressed, mystical knowledges such as the cabbala.
But what Nostradamus wrote and how he wrote it is almost incidental to this movie – war, disease, book burning and sex make for much better spectacle.
According to this telling, Nostradamus was fiendishly attractive to women. But he is a love 'em and leave 'em kind of guy – prising himself away from his lovers' arms in order to get back to his sacred books.
As if wracked by a similar ambivalence, the film displays some rather curious and contradictory attitudes towards its female characters.
Early on, director and co-writer Roger Christian tries desperately to infuse pre-feminist spirit into Nostradamus' companion Marie (Julia Ormond), who spends the entire film railing against patriarchal oppression. As the story wears on, however, it becomes clear that this revisionist touch is only a pale ruse, intended to distract us from the rampant misogyny informing the other central women of the piece – the predatory vamp Helene (Maja Morgenstern) and the mad Catherine de Medici (Amanda Plummer).
Clichés are not necessarily a handicap in movies. Contemporary biopics such as Heart Like a Wheel (1983), about the racing car driver Shirley Muldowney, or the Tina Turner story What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993) embrace their clichés, investing them with a vigorous truth. But Nostradamus is an earnest, plodding exercise that shuns such smart strategies. It is a supremely trashy film posturing as quality drama.
What's worse, it finds itself competing with the memory of Monty Python-style parodies of historical drama. The scene in which Nostradamus wakes from a vision and starts raving about Hister (Hitler to us) as he paints a giant, prophetic swastika on the wall is an instant classic in the annals of inadvertent camp humour.
Risible, too, is the way in which Nostradamus' visions appear to him – as famous bits of documentary footage (JFK's assassination, atom bomb blasts) swimming in a bowl of enchanted liquid. These wacky montages – not to mention Nostradamus' nightmarish presentiment of Catherine's children soaked in vast quantities of blood – would not be out of place in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994).
Come to think of it, perhaps Stone is the only director who could have done something spirited with this material. The story of a rebel and outcast fighting inner torments and external persecutions, his over-stimulated consciousness burdened with cosmic intuitions of the planet's fate ... Stone has already told this tale, except that his Nostradamus was Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991).
MORE Christian: Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000
© Adrian Martin February 1995