May 13, 1922 [L’Atlantide/Queen of Atlantis]



At first glance, Queen of Atlantis is another Cabiria, an instantly exotic travelogue. But this French adventure is primarily concerned with the sense of space and isolation that comes with desert life--the sands stretching into the distance, like the line of camels, while in the foreground lie the skeletons of those who could not bear the sun and lizards--and more: an atmosphere thick with hallucinatory possibilities (at more than one point, hashish or some other intoxicant swells lungs with delirium). It is a story told in a fever, as occult images swim into view--cat, skull, silver hammer. The crisp uniforms and carefully laid plans of our French gentlemen do little to put off the weirdness of this “land of fear.”

They wake in a lush hidden place, where they meet Queen Antinea, panting in close-up like Valentino or Theda Bara, her skullcap crown sprouting down-turned horns like a little goat, reveling in jealousy and vanity, her voluptuous frame lolling, her heavy gaze directed at us like a melodramatic dagger.

And within the tale another emerges: the slave-girl Tanit-Zerga like Scheherazade passing along the night’s surface, her home raided by Tuaregs, burned and smoking as the women and children are herded into the desert--her mother succumbing, stabbed because she cannot keep up--and herself enslaved to Antinea, but hoping to return to Gao, its blue gum and rose-colored dune merely another mirage in this dream-epic.

And as jealousy grows--Antinea another “She,” drawing men to sandy doom--the camera cutting from face to face, story to story, all of them crossing in the hidden desert city--the plot thickens like incense and heavy draperies, Antinea’s swelling bosom a plump metronome ticking off her conquests.

I will not dwell on the silliness of the proceedings--Antinea’s cat-like clawing and writhing--at one point her teeth actually tearing at a pillow in sexual frustration; a psyche en deshabille, hair askew, head rearing in feline rage; the drug-induced murder and male swooning; the religious invocations--to Christ, the Prophet, and older gods; and the final outrages, as Antinea kisses the corpse of the man who refused to love her; and the hopeless escape.

--But perhaps these extravagances do form the heart of this strange film, set in a blank space where everything eventually opens, including the gates that held back irrationality. At the end, the survivor who tells the tale draws in his listener, and together they return to the desert and Antinea, caught up in the “ecstasy” that comes with their knowing they will never return. It is an especially contorted “adventure,” crowded with not only the requisite alarms and vistas but also a permeating desperation, desires never satiated but only repeated, remorseless as the colonial wasteland into which the wide-eyed Frenchmen disappear.

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