Original Sin

(Michael Cristofer, USA, 2001)


One more time, a film which is in some sense a remake is promoted without the slightest mention of its predecessor.

The acknowledged source of Michael Cristofer's Original Sin is Cornell Woolrich's novel Waltz into Darkness. In publicity material, Cristofer genuflects to various masters of art cinema including Max Ophuls – whose The Reckless Moment (1949) forms the basis for The Deep End (2001), another film on whose borrowing publicists were silent. However, Critofer neglects to mention that another firm Ophuls fan, François Truffaut, already adapted Waltz into Darkness as Mississippi Mermaid (1969).

Truffaut's take on Woolrich is a little eccentric, but Cristofer's is just plain crazy. Original Sin is one of those films so bad that it strains credulity and becomes gruesomely fascinating.

Woolrich's basic story – which Truffaut described as an exploration of "degradation by love" – is fascinating material. The lonely, wealthy bachelor Luis (Antonio Banderas) arranges an American bride through correspondence. When Julia (Angelina Jolie) arrives in Cuba, there seems something rather too mysterious and worldly about her to be true.

This is a classic story of the manipulation of a gullible man by a femme fatale, but taken to unusual, perverse extremes of amour fou. Luis' love may turn for a while to burning hate, but this is not a simple tale of deceit and revenge. Rather, Luis' passion turns him into a death-driven masochist, while Julia's sadistic streak twists itself into something resembling genuine love.

What went wrong in this movie? Just about everything, beginning with the casting. Jolie can undoubtedly be a superb femme fatale – Cristofer seems especially entranced by her full lips, which he regularly frames in extreme close up – but her unfailingly contemporary way of reacting to events wrenches her out of the period setting. (Her response to Luis' confession "I killed a man" – "Well, so what? I bought a hat" – is priceless.)

Cristofer showed great promise in his scripts for Falling in Love (1984) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987), as well as his directorial debut, the true-life telemovie Gia (1998), also starring Jolie. But his subsequent films have been marred by a combination of slick style and general hysteria. Original Sin lurches from one melodramatic climax to another. No trick – a framing flashback from Julia's viewpoint, portentous slow motion at every possible opportunity, MTV-style montages of breathless lovemaking – is too cheap for this film.

It is easy to take Original Sin as self-parodic camp – as might be suggested by the very odd scene in which the sinister private investigator Walter (Thomas Jane) kisses Luis vigorously in order to check whether Julia has been in his boudoir.

But Cristofer, it seems to me, approaches his material with po-faced seriousness, and his film falls from the Olympian height of trying to be another Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

© Adrian Martin December 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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