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For Whom the Belle Tolls

Hemingway's Garden of Eden (2010)

Susan Allnutt/Roadside Attractions

A soft-core, Jazz Age skin flick masquerading as high art, “Garden of Eden” nonetheless could well be a faithful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published novel. Maybe the icon really did write characters as obtuse and superficial as these, and maybe the man who wrote “The Old Man and the Sea,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” actually produced a narrative so fully comprised of superficial psychobabble.

Controversies over the editing of the work and the usual luxuries of page-to-screen adapters make it impossible to know exactly what Papa intended. Yet, no matter the pedigree, the movie director John Irvin has given us is a cornball, slide-show assemblage of luxurious images, beautiful women in various states of undress and some childhood-in-African flashbacks ripped from the pages of the worst boilerplate fiction.

The movie drowns its leads in a swell of charged ’20s vernacular, endless out-of-left-field debate on a ménage à trois and stagy histrionics. Mena Suvari plays American Catherine Bourne, engaging in carefree jaunts across Europe with husband and fellow expat David (Jack Huston). Vacationing in Nice, the Bournes encounter gorgeous Italian heiress Marita (Caterina Murino) and, inexplicably, insert her into their marriage in a vague third-party arrangement.

To that end, Mr. Irvin offers beautifully coiffed, swimsuit-baring women framed against sun-drenched coastal vistas, gauzy shots of tastefully obscured lovemaking and teary confrontations determined by Catherine’s random, confounding whims. The proceedings resonate as vaguely picturesque at best, and utterly haphazard at worst. There’s a strong sense of cycling through the motions, of dramatics borne not out of a pressing, deep-rooted place but because no one knew quite what to do with the assembled trio when they’re dressed.

So with the halting narrative an automatic nonstarter, the titillation factor becomes the last great hope for salving this curious venture. Yet the actors generate zero heat together, any hope of sexual tension whittled away by an avalanche of period woodenness and endless elocution. The erotic scenes are as stimulating as a cold shower: dolled-up, tastefully photographed and utterly devoid of feeling, an ideal encapsulation of the “Hemingway’s Garden of Eden” experience.


Opened on Dec. 10 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by John Irvin; written by James Scott Linville, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway; director of photography, Ashley Rowe; edited by Jeremy Gibbs; production design by Tim Hutchinson; costumes by Alexandra Byrne; produced by Timothy J. Lewiston and Bob Mahoney; released by Roadside Attractions. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Mena Suvari (Catherine Bourne), Jack Huston (David Bourne), Caterina Murino (Marita), Carmen Maura (Madame Aurol), Richard E. Grant (Colonel Boyle) and Matthew Modine (David’s Father).


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