It's the big sensation and it's sweepin' the nation. Moviegoers are mad for it, they're wild in the aisles, mindless, tumescent creatures in the throes of acute Lakmania. I know. I'm one of them.
It was only two years ago (it seems so much longer) that I happened to catch an HBO broadcast of The Hunger, Tony Scott's kinky little picture featuring Catherine Deneuve as a millenniums-old ambisexual vampiress. She looked extremely well preserved. The highlight for me -- heaven knows, for all of us -- was the scene in which ripe Susan Sarandon is seduced by Deneuve to the strains of the charming barcarole from Lakmé , the opera by the French composer Léo Delibes. As the music exponentially increased the erotic power of the scene to an excruciating level, the fusion of music and picture became dangerously psychoactive. Perhaps the opium-soaked Parisians of the late 19th century, with their sensory thresholds kicked way out of whack, experienced similar effects when Lakmé was first produced in 1883. The romantic melodrama, with its exotic East Indian setting and tragic cross-cultural love story, not unlike the later Madame Butterfly, had all the elements that the jaded Parisian operagoer in search of magnified sensation and moist frissons was yearning for.
In The Hunger, Deneuve, at the piano, explains that the barcarole from Act I is a duet for two women. "Sounds like a love song," says Sarandon. Yowie. The two alluring actresses executed a series of slow kisses. I gripped the night table and gasped for air. Over the soundtrack, you could hear the creak of cable watchers' toes curling all over the city. I should have seen the handwriting on the wall.
The fever subsided until a couple of weeks ago, when I went into what used to be called an "art house" to see the Canadian film I've Heard The Mermaids Singing. Polly, the goony heroine, escapes her humdrum life by experiencing moments of aesthetic rapture. She helps induce these altered states by playing a recording of ...the charming barcarole from the opera Lakmé by the French composer Léo Delibes. Immediately after the film was over, the sensitive, upscale audience, totally wired and anxious to undergo similar oceanic bliss, stampeded over to Tower Records to purchase their very own copies of the work. I already had a copy from before.
By then I was living, dreaming only Lakmé. I could sense its cinematic presence. When a friend asked me to attend a screening of Ridley (Tony's brother) Scott's Someone To Watch Over Me, I acted on a wild hunch and suspended my standing proscription against seeing movies where they let you in for free.
Everyone was there for the same thing. We watched politely for a few minutes as the actors moved like deep-sea fauna through the lushly photographed, wicked deco interiors. Then our chant began, a burbling moan that gradually escalated into an awful, insistent ostinato: Lak-mé, Lak-mé...
After sitting through a few classical pieces, several versions of the Gershwin standard, and an aria from Catalani's La Wally, another directors' favorite (all the Wallymaniacs had died of apoplexy during the first run of Diva), our collective lust was finally satisfied. Love-struck police detective Tom Berenger scurries back to the perfumed lair of his high-society sweetie to be comforted not only by gorgeous, unmussable Mimi Rogers but also by the charming barcarole from Lakmé, the opera by the French composer Léo Delibes.
Heavy-lidded and woozy, we filed out of the theater well before the picture ended as a recycled melody from another of (Ridley) Scott's features, Blade Runner, started up behind us. We gave each other the Lakmaniac's special handshake and staggered out into the mean streets.
Is it possible that this music from Lakmé, this recently obscure cultural object, has again found its moment in history and thereby projected itself into the public consciousness? Is this where the fin de siècle of Delibes, with its trunkful of sensuality, decadence, and chinoiserie, falls into sync with our present age? Quel mystère to ponder.
Incidentally, a barcarole, as all good Lakmaniacs know, is a kind of song that Venetian gondoliers sing, or an imitation of one. In the original opera, the Brahmin's exquisite daughter Lakmé and the slave girl Mallika decide to boat downstream in search of blue lotus flowers. Here is a rough translation of the maidens' song:
Under the dense canopy
Where the white jasmine
Blends with the rose
On the flowering bank
Laughing at the morning
Come, let us drift down together
Let us gently glide along
With the enchanting flow
Of the fleeing current
On the rippling surface
With a lazy hand
Let us reach the shore
Where the source sleeps
And the bird sings
Under the dense canopy
Under the white jasmine
Let us drift down together...
W-w-w-wow! I can't stand it, cannot stand it anymore! Operator, please get me L.A., Lakmaniacs Anonymous! Nix it on the dense canopy, cancel the white jasmine. It won't be any picnic, but we've got to fight our way out of this thing. God help us all.