Sex has never felt more repellent after watching “Hemingway’s Garden of Eden,” a clumsy effort of eroticism and psychological gamesmanship that’s utterly devoid of structure and feeling. It’s an awful picture, but I’ll admit the campy overtones encouraged by director John Irvin make it an unintentionally hilarious sit, offering the viewer something to delight in while the picture proceeds to spin itself dizzy.
In the 1920s, young writer David Bourne (Jack Huston) has met his match in cosmopolitan firecracker Catherine (Mena Suvari). Quickly marrying the hot-blooded woman, David and his bride take off on a honeymoon across Europe, eventually settling into a seaside getaway in France. Over the course of the summer, Catherine reveals herself to be a unique lover with a penchant for androgynous looks and penetrative bedroom practices, while David chips away at his writing, driving his wife crazy with jealousy. To shake away the blues, Catherine encourages a lustful tourist named Marita (Caterina Murino, “Casino Royale”) to join their marriage, kicking off a downward spiral of jealousy, desire, and emotional ruin.
“The Garden of Eden” was an unfinished novel by Ernest Hemingway, edited and released 25 years after his death, thus creating controversy over the work’s true artistic identity. The film adaptation feels equally orphaned, with scenes stapled together haphazardly, confused performances, and a weird handle on toe-curling sensuality. It’s a movie that looks as though nobody was paying attention during the filmmaking process, with the final product a baffling mess of motivations and subplots. Perhaps Irvin gave up on the whole enterprise early in the shoot.
“Hemingway’s Garden of Eden” is one of those films where odd events continually occur, but the characters never point out obvious Superman leaps in personality. For example, we have Catherine and David as a charged married couple ready to embark on a loving heterosexual adventure. Then, a mere week or two into wedded bliss, Catherine begins to penetrate David anally in bed, insisting she’s the male in the relationship as she furiously climaxes. The character then proceeds to order up a series of boyish haircuts, delighting in her developing masculine look. Unexpectedly, David doesn’t react to any of this, instead carrying on business as usual, gulping absinthe and arranging the press clippings from his last book. He doesn’t even blink. A seismic change in sexuality and possibly gender identification has occurred, and Irvin just moves along, prepping the next turn of this befuddling plot.
Perhaps if there was an actress of exceptional sexual posture in the role of Catherine, the steamy perversions might’ve felt more organic, even enviable. Instead, we’re stuck with Suvari, who’s in way over her head with this complicated role, asked to communicate mental disintegration, only to fail the challenge at every turn. Huston’s just as limp, also missing an opportunity to gift the film a dynamite sense of sinful delight. Murino is obviously a more compelling object of lust, but her role is reduced to an abstract series of emotions scattered around the picture to generate bewildering shouting matches between Catherine and David. The story suggests a turbulent love triangle. Irvin captures sexless mania executed in broad strokes, gracelessly tanking a combustible arrangement of broken hearts.
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation does a competent job sustaining the outdoorsy feel of the cinematography, with the sun-drenched look of the film retained for the DVD viewing event. EE is apparent and colors have a tendency to bleed, but the image allows a clear view of the stars and skin, which seems fitting for movie hunting blindly for eroticism. Skintones read a little too pink, while black levels are unconvincing, creating soft evening encounters.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is a subdued event, with much of the concentration placed on the dialogue exchanges, which sound thin but clear. Atmospherics with seaside locales are compelling, with a nice read on water movement and wind. Scoring cues are light and never intrusive, swelling commendably when the moment calls for high drama. Surrounds are rarely offered substantial activity, while low-end is nonexistent.
English and Spanish subtitles are included.
A Theatrical Trailer is offered.
“Hemingway’s Garden of Eden” eventually splits into two movies in the second act, as David recalls his elephant-hunting childhood in Africa with his whoring father (Matthew Modine) as fodder for his latest book. The flashbacks are painful and pointless, feeling right at home in this increasingly exasperating picture. The characters hem and haw, clothes are removed, and the period details shine, but there’s no connective tissue to anything here, with scenes starting and stopping without warning, and an ending that’s simply no ending at all.