‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ Leaves Much to Be Desired

Itn the world of romantic desire, there’s no such thing as close enough for jazz; you either hit the note or you don’t. George Miller’s Three Thousand Years Of Longing—playing out of competition here at the 75th Cannes Film Festival—strives for something romantic and magical and almost reaches those heights. But a movie starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba—as, respectively, a “narratologist” who tells “stories about stories” and a wish-granting djinn who emerges from a stripey glass bottle bought in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar—should offer at least a smidgen of un-intellectualized eroticism. It is ultimately about the love of companionship. This story can be treasured in every aspect of life. The greatest purpose of movies, however is to provide us with more than we imagine we need. Three Thousand Years Of Longing offers plenty of rapturous imagery, the arrow it shoots from its mighty bow just doesn’t pierce as it should.

It does provide a lot of talking. Swinton’s Alithea Binnie, with her red Louise Brooks bob and the ability to make flat brogues look awesome with a long, dowdy skirt, is a storybook academic with a storybook career: her specialty is examining why stories have such power over us. She finds the glass bottle on a business trip in Istanbul. It’s misshapen and a little grimy, but there’s something about it that appeals to her. She scrubs it with her toothbrush in her hotel bathroom later. (Now there’sA dedicated flea marketer is available for you. Lo and behold, it shatters in the sink, releasing plumes of red and purple smoke which transubstantiate into Elba’s muscular, beguiling djinn, a supernatural hottie with pointed ears, shimmering skin and a sonorous voice. In exchange for his freedom, he’s ready to grant Alithea three wishes.

Alithea knows better, as would any former schoolkid who’s read W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” Yet the two of them, dressed in cozy his-and-hers terrycloth hotel robes, fall easily into conversation. “You speak the Greek of Homer,” the djinn notes with admiration, a great pickup line if ever there were one. The two stories about their trade history are now complete. Alithea describes herself as a loner and is happy working for her company. She was once married, but that union ended in relief. The djinn’s experience, stretching across the three thousand years of the title, is more complicated. Three times he has been imprisoned in a too-small container, simply because he couldn’t resist the company and conversation of women—though you might notice that, for a guy who professes to enjoy listening to women, he sure does a lot of talking, even if he does seem adept at providing orgasms with nothing but wisps of smoke.

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First there was the ravishing Sheba (Aamito Lagum), whom the smitten djinn lost to Solomon (Nicolas Mouawad) when the latter showed up in her court with a marvelous stringed instrument—because face it, guys, it’s always the guitarist who gets the girls. The djinn is released into the bottle. Fast forward a bunch of years and it’s servant girl Gulten (Ece Yüksel) who next releases him from his tiny prison. She begs him to set her up with a handsome prince (Matteo Bocelli), but that romance also ends in tears—the djinn seems doomed to bottlehood forever. Then young Zefir (Burcu Gölgedar), supremely intelligent but wed to an old merchant who seeks only to control her, welcomes the djinn into her unhappy life. She asks for, and receives, “all knowledge of things useful, beautiful and true”—but even that deal goes sour, and the djinn, is confined once again, left alone with his pining heart.

He’s stuck until Alithea, with her cautious and thoughtful use of her trio of wishes, discovers the secret to his freedom. And although she claims to be “solitary by nature,” she ultimately admits she does want love—who doesn’t? The movie’s brief final section—describing the duo’s idyllic but complicated life together, one whose impermanence is actually part of its appeal—is the film’s most poetic. For those who don’t want a man in their hair constantly, the djinn can be the ideal long-distance boyfriend. What’s not to love?

It’s all quite sweet and cerebral, and some of the effects are lovely. Solomon seduces Sheba with his lute-type instrument. His tiny hands move along the second fretboard, and the small, singing voice can be heard crowing sweet little things from near the tuning pins. Miller does a great job with this sort of imaginative stuff. Three Thousand Years Of LongingIt is more sloppy and grungy. Mad Max: Fury RoadAnd more, in the dreamily imaginative veins of Baby: Pig in the City1998. One of the most iconic fantasy films ever made. (He cowrote the script with his daughter, Augusta Gore; the story is adapted from A.S. Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.”)

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But movies about smart people being smart together aren’t as romantic as you might think. Alithea and her Djinn are a reunion of minds and perhaps souls across space and time. It would not be unreasonable to request a bit more energy between them. A nominal acknowledgment of their desire to live in a world that is filled with stories and myths, but no repeated affirmation. While it’s true that stories, written or otherwise handed down through centuries, offer us pleasure and sustenance, three thousand years is still a long time to wait for a good cuddle.

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