January 09, 2008

The Saragossa Manuscript

The Manuscript found in Saragossa is one of the great monuments of 19th Century culture- written by Jan Potocki it tells the tale, supposedly through a manuscript discovered in Saragossa, of Alphonse Van Worden and his attempt to get from France to Spain in the mid 18th Century. Van Worden's journey is delayed and obstructed by a group of gypsies, Moors, scientists, occultists, a set of sexy lesbian princesses and the spirits of two hanged men. These individuals engage him and tell him stories which parallel those of Boccacio or Chaucer- there are baudy stories, erotic stories, exotic stories, bizarre stories, ghost stories, tortures, rescues, deaths and duels, treatises on science, treatises on the Kaballah and accounts of the history of the wandering Jew, Ahaseurus. The tales are amazing- better than the tale which contains them all- they contain all sorts of life and love and mystery and magic. The Manuscript is an almost unfilmable book because of its extent- almost anything you could desire to read about and write about is here- from the gentle pains of remembering lost loves in old age to the glory of feeling it in the first flush of youth.

Putting it on to a screen is therefore not easy. Particularly that's true because the Manuscript works on a very imaginative level. You have to for example imagine two beautiful Moorish princesses, draped over each other and over the hero and how they seduce and play with his mind, making him into their tool whilst they entice his senses with sisterly caresses. You have to do this in your own mind- and to have it rendered in flesh and blood women is bound to be disappointing. The same goes for so much of this incredibly intense book- you have to not be there in order to impose your own images of horror and delight upon it. This is a world crafted in such humane colours that we all have met its characters- and we can all appreciate the bullying Busqueros, so much so that we all put a face to him as we read. Putting a cinematic countenance in there deprives the book of its personal impact.

The version put out by the Polish director, Wojciech Has, in 1965 though does manage to entice you in. It surprised me. In that I didn't think anything could give me the same mixture of horror and delight as the book does. It does. There are some wonderful sequences- especially when our hero reaches out his hand to caress the face of a lesbian princess only to find he is stroking the countenance of a hanged man. There are some really good comic moments as well- as characters climb up ladders and terrify other characters in the middle of the night- or as servants laugh at the misfortunes of their stupid masters (of which more later). The film captures some of the burlesque of the original- its sheer joie de vivre, its appreciation of the eccentricity of normal human life and the wonder of that eccentricity- its praise (to borrow an Erasmian phrase) of folly.

Where the film doesn't cope so well though is in conveying some of the book's deeper reflections. The book contains characters- a Kabalist and a scientist- which the film contains but does not exploit. The hours of commentary that these two men supply- by way of explication of the situation that Van Worden finds himself in and of the wider world- vanishes and is replaced by their mute presence. They sit and listen but they are not as crucial as they are in the book- this leaves their presence rather moot. You wonder why they are there- what their characters are doing- you wonder why the Kabbalist has a sister and what her relevance is. In the book she is a crucial character- in the film the line of decolletage is low cut but the purpose of her character is unclear.

This means that the film loses something of the quality of the book- which is that its anchored within the enlightenment. It loses something of the nature of the book as a fictional encyclopedia of the eighteenth century and instead changes into something else. The film includes many more revelations of the soundness of the working classes- many more revelations of the way that they unlike their more privileged masters they do understand. They think that duelling is silly, that absurd honour is silly etc etc. Of course that message is absent from the book- but its been placed there by the director. A twentieth century message about class has replaced an eighteenth century obsession with the bizarre intellectual movements of the age- this diminishes the film in my eyes.

Its worth saying as well that not everything does work here- for moments of beauty and there are many, there are also moments of clumsiness when you regret that the director wasn't more in control. At points the story veers away from him, at points the plot is lost. Having said this this is a worthy effort to film an unfilmable book, to condense 700 odd dense pages into 2 hours of film. That it doesn't quite work is not a surprise, that Has got it anywhere near to working is.


Ashok said...

I heard something about sexy lesbian princesses!

Gracchi said...

They're there. Its a good film though. Whoops I should have said bisexual!

The Saragossa Manuscript said...

Just to let you know about a new site set up to accompany the release of Saragossa on DVD.


Hope it explains a few things

Timjim (site creator)