Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fiction has been ill served by cinema, and Henning Carlsen’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” adapted from his most recent novel (2004), doesn’t buck the trend. This elegant and wildly non-PC take on a 90-year-old man who doesn’t want to die without experiencing true love is as evocative and thought-provoking as its source, but a splendid central perf by Emilio Echevarria can’t ward off inertia and an air of deja vu. Marquez aficionados may want a look, but business will be slow for an item whose sexual politics will be just too retro for many to handle.
In 1960 Mexico, dapper, white-suited El Sabio (Echevarria), whose moniker translates as “the Wise Man,” is a journalist about to turn 90. He has never loved and never married, and has mostly paid for sex. He calls brothel owner Rosa (Geraldine Chaplin) and asks her to fix him up with a young virgin, a tricky moral premise that the script, like the novel, takes as completely natural. The lucky girl (Paola Medina Espinoza), who is named Delgadina in El Sabio’s imagination, but whose real name is never given, is a seamstress with a sick mother. In a film in which all the women are wives, servants or whores, she gets to deliver just one line.
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On the first evening, Delgadina sleeps under the influence of valerian and bromide, while El Sabio softly sings to her. The fact that he doesn’t have sex with her suggests to him that he’s in love for the first time. Fascinated, Delgadina improbably begins following him around on her bicycle.
Pic leaps smoothly between El Sabio’s childhood, when he is initiated into sex in the arms of a one-eyed mulatto and has suspiciously strong feelings for his mother, and the 1940s, during which he has a special relationship with whore Casilda (played at different ages by mother-daughter pair Olivia and Angela Molina), and leaves Ximena (Dominika Paleta) standing at the altar.
Remarkably, given El Sabio’s distinctly dodgy character profile, Echevarria manages to suppress the notion that he’s simply enacting an old man’s unpleasant fantasies by suggesting the nonagenarian is just a misguided, bookish romantic, given to occasionally muttering Marquez epithets such as, “At my age, a year is like an hour.”
Some, but not much, of Marquez’s magic is transferred to the screen in the adaptation by Carlsen and Jean-Claude Carriere, as when El Sabio leaves a single rose on his mother’s grave with the message, “Thank you for these 90 years.” But mostly the air of willful exoticism gets in the way of any real involvement with the characters, although Chaplin is watchable throughout.
Visually, the film is topnotch, with lenser Alejandro Martinez thoroughly enjoying the opportunities for rich hues, light and shade afforded him by the pic’s location. For the record, the Mexican shoot was delayed when financing collapsed after it was accused of inciting child prostitution; as a result, Delgadina is considerably older here than she is in the novel (14). All of which may suggest why Garcia Marquez has decided that this will be the last film adaptation of one of his books.