In pre-WW2 Alexandria in the Middle East with the British on the point of departing, impoverished young poet Darley (Michael York) becomes the latest plaything for Justine (Anouk Aimee), wife to Egyptian banker Nessim (John Vernon) who encourages her multiple relationships in order to smooth the path for his gun-running activities. Matters are complicated since Darley is having an affair with belly dancer Melissa (Anna Karina) and some of Justine’s other lovers float in and out of the picture. Political intrigue which might have anchored the movie also shifts in and out of view. In this cross-cultural hotchpotch various groups – Jews, Moslems, Coptic Christians – look to seize control.
Cluttered is the best way to describe this. Despite excellent performances by Anouk Aimee and Dirk Bogarde it is still a mess. Whatever story there was has been buried by “atmosphere” and too many characters adding too little to the overall outcome. Entangled lives end up being just that – wrapped around each other with nowhere to go. Over-emphasis is placed on the louche background, nightclubs featuring cross-dressing belly dancers and a massive carnival. Luckily, we can’t entirely blame venerated Oscar-winning director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, 1964). He was picking up the pieces after Twentieth Century Fox fired Joseph Strick (Ulysses, 1967) but was stuck with a lot of footage that had already been shot and a screenplay that didn’t make much sense.
When you realize the movie encompasses religious prejudice, racism, same sex arrangements, incest, child prostitution, nymphomania, revolution, and police and political corruption and is hardly able to give any of these themes more than a fleeting glance you soon realize this is one of those films that is just going to go on and on until sudden conclusion rears up and all is revealed. And that would be fine since many movies of this decade meander at length and sometimes appear to be completely lacking in plot or logic, but whose flaws are more than compensated by outstanding direction or performances. Alas, even the stunning evocation of this city and period cannot save the day.
And it would have worked if Justine had been a femme fatale of the film noir school or if the politics been more grounded, but that doesn’t occur either and although Justine does have many influential men in her clutches you could hardly say that Darley is one of them. His role is merely to act as narrator and apologist.
One last point which has little to do with the film. In this film and in the same year’s Topaz, John Vernon gives very good dramatic performances, in both cases, coincidentally, wounded emotionally. So what happened that he is mostly remembered for villainous tough-guy roles from the following decade?