Number One over at Cinerati requested my comments on the forthcoming Tristan and Isolde film and the legend. I promised them too him, then got too busy with the holidays to write about it.
As of this writing, there is very little official about the movie. One of my students got a free poster that she passed on to me, and there is a fan site, but the official site is very short on detail. Much, then, of what I have to say about the film here is going to be partly speculative, and should be taken with an appropriate-sized grain of salt.
After having viewed the trailer and other marketing stuff, I'm not too hopeful about the film. It appears as if it is going to strip all of the interesting adult material out of the tale and make it simply another dog-tired movie about true love overcoming disapproving authority. Perhaps if I were a sixteen-year-old girl I'd find that exciting and fresh, but as someone old and jaded I recognize it as cliche and childish.
[As an aside here, why can't we have filmmakers today who portray ADULT romantic relationships, like Hitchcock used to do? Watch Notorious and see if you can stomach seeing Meg Ryan or Leonardo DiCaprio on the screen again]
Of course, the versions of Tristran and Isolde vary (as do the spellings of their names, e.g. Tristram, Iseult, etc), so I am sure the filmmakers can make a case that their particular movie is a relatively accurate adaptation of one version or another. My favorite versions of the tale deal with issues of the difficulties of love between two people, rather than the difficulties of love in the face of external opposition.
The McGuffin at the center of the Tristran and Isolde myth is a love potion. Generally, the pair drink the potion while Tristan is escorting Isolde to meet her fiance King Mark, and naturally trouble ensues. What differs is what happens before and after. Most of the time, Tristan has been (apparently) mortally wounded when he meets Isolde, and she nurses him back to health. In some versions, they fall in love, but their love is severely tested with Isolde discovers that Tristan has killed one of her kin.
In my favorite versions of the story, though, Isolde and Tristan do not fall in love then, and Isolde is filled with hatred for Tristan when she discovers he has been the enemy of her family. Also, in some versions of the tale the love potion isn't permanent -- it only lasts for a particular period of time, such as seven years. The temporary love potion is also my favored McGuffin.
Why? Because if they are not in love before they drink the potion, and the effects of the potion are known to be temporary, we get a much more interesting and adult exploration of love. Image you are one of the lovers and you drink such a potion. Now you are really and truly in love with the other person, and are unwilling to help yourself. Intellectually, however, you know that the love is drug-induced, not natural -- but that doesn't stop it from feeling real. Yet you cannot simply shrug, say "oh well," and abandon yourself to the love of the person, because you know that in seven years the potion will stop working and presumably your love will die. Your love has an expiration date.
These versions of the tale intrigue me more because they deal with real adult issues. Who among us hasn't ourselves (or seen a close friend) loved someone whom they knew to be bad for them? Intellectually, you understand that the object of your love is someone you should hate -- and yet you do not. By the same token, how many of us have entered into a relationship with a lover that we knew could never last?
Sometimes the Tristan and Isolde myth is silly and trite, while other times it is powerful and adult. I fear the coming film may be the former.