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Map Of The Human Heart – film review

September 26, 2012


Directed by Vincent Ward. Screenpay by Louis Nowra. Story by Vincent Ward. Starring: Jason Scott Lee, Anne Parillaud, Ben Mendelsohn, Patrick Bergin, Clotilde Courau and John Cusack. Released in 1993. Running time: 109 mins.

An Australian, Canadian, French, British co-production produced in 1992, Map Of The Human Heart is a sweeping romantic drama spanning two continents and several decades.

Jason Scott Lee plays Avik, an Inuit Eskimo half-breed, who falls for Albertine, a mixed-blood French Canadian-Indian girl, played by Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita). The two first meet as children in 1931 at a Montreal sanitarium, after Avik contracts Tuberculosis and is taken from his Arctic village by English cartographer Walter Russell (Patrick Bergin). Avik and Albertine become firm friends, sharing a rebellious nature and a wicked disrespect for authority which rankles the Catholic sensibilities of Sister Banville (Jeanne Moreau). After the children attempt to flee the sanitarium, Albertine is sent away.

Ten years later, Avik returns to his village as a grown man, but is shunned by his own people as being cursed. With no place to go, he decides to enlist in the war effort in Europe, after a chance encounter with Walter (now employed as a strategic planner for RAF Bomber Command) and becomes a bombardier, flying Lancaster bombers over Germany.

As it just so happens, Albertine works as an aerial reconnaissance analyst for the RAF and despite the fact she is now married to Walter, she seeks out Avik and the two begin an illicit affair which continues over several years.

When Walter finally learns of Albertine’s infidelity, in the final months of the war, he sends Avik’s plane on a dangerous mission to firebomb the city of Dresden – a mission from which he may never return.

Avik and Albertine make love atop a barrage balloon.

Vincent Ward had originally planned to make Map Of The Human Heart as his follow-up to The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey when he was hired by producers Walter Hill and David Giler to helm Alien 3. After he was unceremoniously dumped from that notoriously troubled production, he used his payment from Alien 3 to begin development on Human Heart.

Vincent Ward on the set of The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey

As he had done previously (with Fiona Kay in Vigil and Hamish McFarlane in The Navigator), Ward elicits natural performances from his youngest cast members: Robert Joamie as the young Avik and Annie Gialipeau who plays the young Albertine. The scenes of the two playfully springing pranks on one another are amusing and nicely done.

Likewise, there is genuine chemistry between Parillaud and Scott. And their romantic scenes together – while not being particularly raunchy, are nonetheless sexy – albeit in an understated, classical way. The film is more an affirmation of romantic love, than a display of unbridled mattress gymnastics – so don’t be expecting The Lover or Henry And June.

Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (best known for The Year My Voice Broke and The Big Steal) has a small role as one of Avik’s bomber crew buddies, providing his usual brand of larrikin charm.

Patrick Bergin is suitably dashing as Walter. And in a scene as sinister and bizarre as anything you might find in a David Lynch movie (when Walter reveals his penchant for clockwork dummies with maps glued to them), Bergin does well in conveying Walter’s underlying sociopathic tendencies. We really do believe this guy would have the wherewithal to launch an attack as diabolical and perverse as the raid on Dresden and not give a damn about the horrendous loss of life (the actual death toll has been estimated at around 25,000 civillians, with the resulting firestorm destroying 15 square miles of the city centre).

When Avik asks Walter why he must firebomb Dresden; a city with no strategic value, Walter replies: “There’s a monster in a room. Once that room was filled with everything that was valuable to him. His train sets, his puppet theatre, his model planes. They’re all broken now. All that’s left untouched is his beautiful collection of Dresden china. You go into that room, you smash all his crockery, then you have broken his spirit.”

This rationale is monstrous in itself, but when Walter admits that the real reason for the raid is to strike back at a girl in Dresden who once spurned his romantic advances, it becomes apparent he is just as much of a sociopath as der Fuhrer himself.

And during the sequence which follows, we are reminded of something Sister Banville told Avik back when he was a boy. She said he had a choice: to either be good and go to heaven or be bad “and join the groaning sad sinners in hell”.

And it appears hell is exactly where Avik ends up.

The firebombing of Dresden

The Dresden sequence is harrowing, haunting and eerily beautiful. Using old-school miniatures and pyrotechnics, the sequence is nonetheless visually astounding. Shots of bombers silhouetted against rolling fireballs and strobing flak are particulary striking.

As Ward is himself an accomplished painter (as well as being an aficionado of medieval culture – as evidenced with his ‘monks in space’ concept for Alien 3), it’s no surprise the scenes of Dresden burning bring to mind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – particularly Bosch’s fiery visions of hell.

Detail of ‘Hell’ by Hieronymus Bosch

The authenticity of this sequence is perhaps due in part to the fact that Ward’s own father flew in the actual Dresden raid. Sadly, he passed away as Ward completed shooting the sequence and the film is dedicated to his memory.

From the stark majesty of Arctic ice-flows to the rolling green hills of England to the orange hell-fires of Dresden, the cinematography by Eduardo Serra (What Dreams May Come, Unbreakable) is beautiful to behold. As is the allusive music score by Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue, The English Patient) – one of his finest.

Ward’s supreme talent as a visual stylist elevates Map Of The Human Heart from what could easily have been a superficial wartime melodrama (in lesser hands) into something far more lyrical and movingly profound.

Highly recommended.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

From → film reviews

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