The English Patient is an excellent rich movie full of visual significance. Pay close attention when you watch it and you will be rewarded. It is rare to see a movie where images and visual textures play such an important role, not merely as decoration, but as substance and metaphor.
Lone Star, 1996, John Sayles, which I think was a better movie than English Patient. It also explores several interrelated themes from several angles, perspectives, and times. Due out on video in early May 1997.
Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, David Lean, which is still the best desert romance/visual treat around.
For example, a textured background is the first shot. A brush comes into view, revealing the texture to be paper. But when the brush starts painting, the object being painted is not obvious. When the object becomes recognizable, its style is a mystery. Before we can brood too long on the style, we dissolve to a strikingly textured orange-and-black screen that eventually resolves itself into a desert landscape (the people and the land are intimately connected?). A plane flies into view with a sleepy woman and a ruggedly handsome pilot (both of whom will prove not to be as they seem).
The paintings, the desert, the two people, and the airplane all figure into the movie literally, but they also run through the movie as themes. In addition, we will see that there are other cases where we cannot identify the nature of things from just one short glance.
There is one story, told in two different time periods. A burn victim in a mobile military hospital in Italy at the end of WWII is in pain from being moved. A nurse offers to stay with the patient at an abandoned house until he dies. The patient’s love of a married woman is told as the earlier story, before he was burned. The nurse’s story and the patient’s story are intercut.
What makes this movie so good, though, is not the plot, per se, but the mood, the texture and the parallels between stories. Each timeline has a love story; each couple has a private secluded “art museum;” each timeline involves the same man, though he has two distinct faces; the same man has two different deaths.
This movie is a rewarding experience for those who pay close attention. It well deserves to have won “Best Picture.”