Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
Is there a story more common, more well-known than that of the star-crossed, doomed lovers? Probably not. It’s a tale oft told and loved. Harlequin Romances have made more than a cottage industry on the idea of pairing the frail, idealistic woman with the dangerous, romantic hero. At least I think that’s true. That’s what the movies have taught me, at least. Having never read a Harlequin Romance, I’m basing this off what I remember from Romancing the Stone.
But hey, Romeo and Juliet has been kicked around in various fashion since long before Billy the Shake (Shakespeare’s MC name) crafted the version with those particular lovers. The Greeks and Romans had their share of doomed couples, and almost certainly the Sumerians and Babylonians before them did as well.
Tabu is such a tale set on the South Seas island of Bora Bora, demonstrating that awesome tendency toward reduplication so common in many Austronesian languages. The film concerns, of course, a pair of young lovers. The boy (yes, that’s his name in the credits; he’s played by Matahi, who has only one name, and is generally referred to in the film as Matahi) is a good hunter and fisherman, two important skills in this community. The girl (credited in a piece of fake ethnology as Reri, but actually played by Anne Chevalier) is of shocking beauty. Matahi meets her and falls for her instantly, and the two are happy.
The problem occurs when the chief of all of the islands arrives with news. The maid of the gods has died, and the successor to her must come from this island. The old warrior (Hitu) announces that the girl Reri has been selected to become the new maiden of the gods. It’s a great honor, but it comes with a substantial downside. Betrothed to the gods, Reri immediately becomes taboo; no one can touch her or even look upon her with desire or will suffer immediate death. And thus we have our doomed lovers and a plot for the final hour of the film.
What happens next will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen any film involving this plot, or indeed read a single story that involves this idea. The boy sneaks onto the boat holding the girl and preparing to send her away from him forever, absconds with her, and sails off away from the rest of his people to find a place where the two of them can live together, regardless of the taboo against touching her. Naturally, they are pursued by the man charged with her retrieval.
Additionally, the pair is also taken advantage of by those more aware of the workings of the world than they are. Unused to the concept of money, the boy frequently gives away valuables, and then must risk his life to pay off huge debts he didn’t know he’d acquired and wasn’t aware that he’d have to pay. It’s almost impossible to avoid some level of stereotyping in a film like this on one level or another. The boy and girl are shown as being hopelessly naïve and backward, and are cheated by not a white man, but a Chinese one.
F.W. Murnau is credited with the direction this film, and he did do most of it except for the opening sequence. But the film is helped in no small part by the work of Robert Flaherty, best known for Nanook of the North. Tabu is not an ethnography and doesn’t purport itself to be anything other than a love story, but there is a sense of the people in the film being portrayed in more or less a realistic fashion. Of course, Flaherty wasn’t above staging things for his other films, and thus the reality here needs to be questioned.
While nothing here is particularly shocking, for the time it almost certainly was. Not the story, nor the characters, but the clothing. More specifically, the lack thereof. Tabu is from 1931, and for at least a portion of the film, many of the young, nubile Bora Boran (that’s a guess, but if it’s wrong, it shouldn’t be) girls are topless, adorned from the waist up only with a lei that covers nothing. This film was also likely the introduction for many people to the hula, or similar dances, and it is certainly suggestive for the cultural standards of the early 1930s. All that pelvic thrusting and such.
A couple of things are worth noting, both about the film in general and the version that I watched. First is that this was the final film of the great F.W. Murnau. My age when he died, Murnau was killed in a car accident just a week before the premiere of this film in New York. While not my favorite of his movies, it’s a fitting end to a career cut far too short.
Second, while the transfer I watched was a good one in terms of the film quality, this version from Milestone has a terrible soundtrack in places. For the most part, the music is unremarkable and relatively appropriate, but some of it is flat terrible. The instrumental pieces are good, but several of the songs also have vocals, and these are borderline embarrassing. Several of the songs sound like Alpine yodeling while others are closer to what it would sound like if very very white people who have never been closer to the South Seas than Des Moines tried to get funky.
Silent films are often very stylized and overacted. It was a function of the time and a function of not having sound. Surprisingly, from the guy who created the hyper-stylized Nosferatu that this film does not really come across as overacted in the style common for silent dramas. Because of that, to modern eyes, the film comes across as more honest than it otherwise might.
Unusual for the time, unusual by some standards even today, the film does not condescend regarding the natives. A particularly rich pearl bed, for instance, is considered taboo because of native superstition according to the police on the island our couple goes to after fleeing. When one diver breaks the taboo and dives there, he is killed by a huge shark, demonstrating that there might be something to the taboo after all. Of course, just as he has broken the taboo by stealing the girl, Matahi will eventually break this taboo as well.
Is this a great movie? Probably. Silent films, or at least silent dramas, always lose something in the translation to a modern audience. But Murnau was nothing if not ahead of his time. The shocks still work, and the scenery is beautiful, especially when considering the equipment available at the time.
Why to watch Tabu: Exotic locales, exotic people.
Why not to watch: Same old story.