In 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. This is ultimately a story about the romance of companionship, itself a thing to treasure in life. But the highest purpose of movies is to give us more than what we think we want, and even though 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.
What it does offer is plenty 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. On a business trip to Istanbul, she buys that fateful glass bottle. It’s misshapen and a little grimy, but there’s something about it that appeals to her. Later, in her hotel room, she begins to scrub it clean with her toothbrush. (Now there’s a dedicated flea-marketer 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. And so the two trade stories of their past: Alithea is a self-described loner, happy with her own company, though she was married once, a union whose dissolution was a 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. Into the bottle the djinn goes. 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. The djinn is the ultimate long-distance boyfriend for those who prefer not to have a guy in their hair all the time. What’s not to love?
It’s all quite sweet and cerebral, and some of the effects are lovely. When Solomon seduces the beyond-beautiful Sheba, the lute-type instrument he plays becomes a living thing, with tiny fingers noodling along a second fretboard and a small singing mouth warbling sweet nothings from somewhere near the tuning pegs. Miller excels at this fanciful stuff. Three Thousand Years of Longing is less inventively grungey than Mad Max: Fury Road and more in the dreamily imaginative vein of Babe: Pig in the City 1998, one of the great fantasy films of all time. (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 represent a meeting of minds, and maybe of souls, across time and space. Is it too much to ask for a little more electricity between them, just some nominal acknowledgement of the role of desire in our lives, as opposed to just repeated reaffirmation of our human need for stories and myths? 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.