In the world of romantic desire, there is no close enough for jazz; you hit the note or you don’t. by George Miller Three thousand years of nostalgia– playing out of competition here at the 75th Cannes Film Festival – yearns for something romantic and magical and almost reaches those heights. But a film starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba – as a “narratologist” who tells “stories about stories” and a wish-granting djinn who emerges from a scratched glass bottle bought at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar – should offer at least a smidgen of non-intellectualized eroticism. It’s ultimately a story about companionship romance, itself a thing to cherish in life. But the highest purpose of movies is to give us more than we think we want, and even if Three thousand years of nostalgia offers many delightful images, the arrow he shoots from his mighty bow just doesn’t pierce as it should.
What it offers is a lot of talk. Alithea Binnie of Swinton, with her red Louise Brooks bob and the ability to make flat brogues look great with a long dull skirt, is a storytelling scholar with a storybook career: her specialty is examining why stories have a such power over us. While on a business trip to Istanbul, she buys that fateful glass bottle. It’s misshapen and a little dirty, but there’s something about it. Later, in her hotel room, she starts cleaning it with her toothbrush. (Now There are a dedicated flea dealer for you.) Lo and behold, he shatters in the sink, releasing plumes of red and purple smoke that transform into a muscular and seductive Elba djinn, a supernatural hottie with pointy ears, skin shimmering and sonorous. In exchange for his freedom, he is willing to grant three wishes to Alithea.
Alithea knows better, like any old school kid who has read WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Yet the two of them, dressed in comfy his-and-hers terry hotel robes, easily strike up a conversation. “You speak the Greek of Homer”, notes the jinn with admiration, a nice reply if ever there was one. And so the two business stories from their past: Alithea is a self-proclaimed loner, happy with her own business, despite being married once, a union whose dissolution was a relief. The experience of the jinn, which spans the three thousand years of the title, is more complicated. Three times he was imprisoned in a container that was too small, simply because he couldn’t resist the company and conversation of women – although you might notice that, for a guy who claims to like listening to women , he certainly does a lot of talking, even if he seems adept at delivering orgasms with nothing but wisps of smoke.
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First there was the lovely Sheba (Aamito Lagum), whom the smitten djinn lost to Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) when the latter showed up at his court with a marvelous stringed instrument – because let’s face it , guys, it’s always the guitarist who attracts girls . In the bottle goes the jinn. Fast forward a bunch of years and it is the handmaiden Gulten (Ece Yüksel) who then frees him from his little prison. She begs him to set her up with a handsome prince (Matteo Bocelli), but that romance also ends in tears – the djinn seems doomed forever in the bottle. Then the young Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), supremely intelligent but married to an old merchant who seeks only to control her, welcomes the jinn into his unhappy life. She asks for and receives “all knowledge of useful, beautiful and true things” – but even this deal goes wrong, and the jinn is again confined, left alone with his languid heart.
He’s stuck until Alithea, with her careful and thoughtful use of her trio of wishes, discovers the secret to his freedom. And although she claims to be “lonely by nature”, she eventually admits that she wants love – who doesn’t? The brief final section of the film – describing the idyllic but complicated life of the duo, whose impermanence is actually part of its appeal – is the film’s most poetic. The djinn is the ultimate remote boyfriend for those who prefer not to have a guy in their hair all the time. What’s not to like?
It’s all quite smooth and cerebral, and some of the effects are lovely. When Solomon seduces the afterlife of Sheba’s beauty, the lute-like instrument he plays becomes a living thing, with tiny fingers knotting along a second neck and a singing little mouth chirping sweet nothings somewhere. share near the chord pegs. Miller excels at this whimsical stuff. Three thousand years of nostalgia is less inventively grunge than Mad Max: Fury Road and more in the dreamy and imaginative vein of Baby: Pig in the city 1998, one of the great fantasy films of all time. (He co-wrote the screenplay with his daughter, Augusta Gore; the story is adapted from AS Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Eye of the Nightingale”.)
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But movies about smart people being smart together aren’t as romantic as you might think. Alithea and her djinn represent a meeting of spirits, and perhaps souls, across time and space. Is it too much to ask for a little more electricity between them, just a nominal acknowledgment of the role of desire in our lives, as opposed to just a repeated reaffirmation of our human need for stories and myths? If it’s true that stories, written or otherwise passed down through the centuries, give us pleasure and sustenance, three thousand years is still a long time to wait for a good hug.
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