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Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas
cast: Hannah Chevalier

directors: F.W. Murnau (and R.J. Flaherty)

82 minutes (PG) 1931
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
[released 19 November]

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
F.W. Murnau's final film was only so because of his death in a car accident. Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas, released in 1931, shortly after Murnau's death, was shot as a compromise when the film's original financier began to muck the filmmaker around with a dribble of pre-production coffers. Murnau quickly assessed the situation and re-devised the plot returning with a story that was significantly different enough from the original that the earlier financier could not come after him for an unearned share in the proceeds, something that they reputedly did quite unsuccessfully. Tabu was to have been co-directed by celebrated documentarian R.J. Flaherty, but Murnau was no fan of shared adulation and demoted Flaherty following the completion of several opening shots.

It would probably gall Murnau to know that the film is promoted with poster art, reproduced on the Eureka Masters of Cinema DVD sleeve, which is drawn from an image captured by Flaherty. Flaherty retained his equal billing though the film avoids an actual director credit, supporting the ruse that there is factuality to the drama. The film was promoted on its employment in camera of genuine South Seas islanders, further attempting to blur the lines between fact and fiction, even when symbolism and fantasy have clearly been courted as party to the tale.

The story opens with necessary simplicity. The rudimentary paradise calls for little more than the islanders of Bora Bora to hunt, eat, love and play. A romance is blossoming between two of the young and free, a boy called Matahi and a girl named Reri. The credits identify the pair only with these names (as character and actual) but the delectable Hannah Chevalier plays the girl. Into the idyll arrives a ship, the Moana Papeete, conveying a representative of the chief of Faruma, an old warrior called Hitu. An almost motionless presence, he has been sent to collect a chosen virgin to replace the dead wife of his leader.

As a tradition, this is merrily accepted by most of the islanders. The virgin this time, however, is Reri, and neither she nor Matahi are happy with the arrangement. Matahi first rebelliously tries to upset the ceremonies. This can do nothing more than upset Hitu and give Reri hope. When night falls Matahi abducts Reri from the berthed ship. They flee to a near port and are introduced to commercialism, though their initial failure to fully understand it, Matahi putting himself in credit in the celebratory air of their arrival, will be their downfall. Matahi's diving skills are also exploited.

Then the Moan Papeete docks... The French authorities, keen to conserve peace, would prefer to honour the fatal tradition that would demand that the chosen virgin, the abductor of her love and the emissary all die in the failure of delivery of the girl to the chief. The policeman is prepared to turn them in but Matahi has learned a little of the exhange rate on the two pearls he has saved and it buys them time with the crooked authority figure. A giant shark guards lagoon pearls that might finance the young couple's passage to a safer distance. Matahi does not inform his loved one of his intentions, the risky dive into the lagoon. She, meanwhile, is awaiting the opportunity to slip away and sacrifice herself to tradition. Matahi returns with a black pearl but the consequences of his midnight absence lead to a terrible end drama.

Film historians R. Dixon Smith and Brad Stevens provide the commentary. Stevens' enthusiasm, especially, can sound over the top. Tabu is a good film but Stevens' appreciation has been shaped by his personal history with the film, his pursuit of several versions of the film, which has at times been hampered by censorship and fears of an overlong running time for what would be sold as a documentary parable. On its release in the U.S. it was clipped for time and for a single shot of a Caucasian celebrant gyrating his groin inappropriately close to native dancers. The later purchase of the film saw a lot of the nudity removed leaving some scenes rendered meaningless.

I am joining the film at a stage at which Eureka are topping the standard of the region 1 Criterion edition so, clearly, I am losing some of Stevens' joy. The inter-titles are scarce and all are linked to the written word: diary entries, receipts, decrees and love letters. 'Kammerspiel' films in Germany were a type that told simple stories of fate, in which characters were rarely honoured with names and the telling was purely or almost purely filmic, with little or no need for titles. Murnau, five years after arriving in America was still a great believer in and practitioner of the form and Tabu was an act of rebellion, following the complexity of Sunrise and the interim Hollywood titles.

Murnau was returning to basics with his South Seas tale, a latter-day silent movie, commercial suicide, surely. It's beautifully shot by Floyd Crosby, particularly the chiaroscuro nights, but it is not as compelling from the beginning. I do not blame Flaherty for this, and the film is hardly flawless in the latter half. The first sight of the giant shark is risible, resembling as it does, a child's bathtub whale toy. Stevens is too eager to draw comparison with other Murnau films. This sometimes seems taken too far, but I concede having been eventually convinced by Stevens' paralleling and matching.

The fact that the story is told silent when exotic song, birds and the wash of waves could have enhanced the soundtrack, can be brought to bear on the film could have been improved. Less avoidable is the lack of colour that the film screams of, partly due to the absence of the occupying richnesses of sound. Smith's claims that scenes of great sensuality and tenderness between Matahi and Reri were unrivalled and unthinkable in other Hollywood films of the day don't help. It denies the existence of exotic, erotic jungle gothics like Congo and Tarzan And His Mate in the pre-Hays Code sound years. Tarzan And His Mate suffered cuts on its release removing nudity but the sexuality and sensuality are categorical and surrounded by great comic humour, sets that grab and amaze, flora and fauna, shock deaths, high adventure, and if some of the lion attacks and elephant ears are resoundingly fake then they are no more bogus than Tabu's shark and mise en scène. In Tarzan And His Mate, sound brings the tropics expressway to us. In Tabu, the silence distances us.
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