Directed by F.W. Murnau
Starring Anne Chevalier, Matahi and Hitu
On a small South Pacific island, the tribal men hunt fish using spears and the women... well, they frolic in pools of water and slide down waterfalls as though they are at a water park. It's paradise.
The best of of the spear fishers is Matahi, making him quite the catch for the ladies. Matahi however only has eyes for Reri, the beautiful daughter of the chieftain.
Fate soon introduces an obstacle to their burgeoning romance. The king of the islands decrees that Reri must remain a virgin to satisfy their gods. She is tabu, and for a man to even look at her with lust in his eyes means death.
Matahi is exactly the kind of restless youth who refuses to take "no" for an answer. He sneaks Reri away and together they row to a distant island, half-dead but together.
Matahi recovers his strength and soon becomes renowned as the best pearl diver in his new home. Unfortunately, he has little concept of money and willingly signs the receipts to keep the booze flowing at a huge party.
This debt becomes a major problem when the king's emissary tracks the couple down. The penniless Matahi sneaks off to dive in an area labeled with a "Tabu" sign post. It seems a maneating shark has killed all the divers who have attempted to swim there. The boy hopes to find a big enough pearl to charter an escape voyage.
For her part, Reri fears for the life of her lover and agrees to return to be "tabu."
Will Matahi best the shark and find treasure? And can the two lovers remain together?
I should love Tabu.
It's the final movie of F. W. Murnau before he tragically died in a car crash. Murnau has easily been my favorite director of the 1920s.
Also, at the risk of psychoanalyzing Murnau, it feels like an attempt to extend his middle finger in Hollywood's direction. After poor box office receipts for his first U.S. films, he retreats to a Pacific island to shoot a film entirely populated by natives. At a time when talkies were taking hold, he shoots a silent film with almost no intertitles. That kind of anti-establishment sentiment feels like a perfect set-up for me to fall head-over-heels for a movie.
So why does the film leave me cold despite its tropical setting?
As with most things, it comes down to the script. We get one scene between our star-crossed lovers before she is declared "tabu" and ripped from Matahi. We never get a sense of who they are and why they are fated to be together in the first place.
It's an odd omission and not one from which the film can ever recover. The audience has to feel the stakes in a love story like this and that all flows from us being invested in these two people getting together. That never happens.
Instead, we get prolonged sequences showing tribal dancing and other rituals the islanders engage in. These are fascinating to watch, but their length does little to advance the story.
When they finally reach the island that they hope will be there escape, we start to get a sense of who Matahi is, but we only see him through the eyes of a French officer. And this foreigner sees Matahi as a gifted diver who is naive in the ways of the world. We aren't meeting our characters; we are getting other people's impression of them.
The film's structure seems to constantly function to keep the audience at arms length from its characters. It should be cajoling us to embrace them.
As Tabu moves toward its climax the only two things we have learned about Matahi are that he is reckless and he loves Reri. We also find that despite being told he is naive about money, he knows how to bribe an officer and charter a boat. That's it.
Reri fares better. She agrees to go back to her home because she knows the alternative is death for the man she loves. There is a reasonableness and maturity to her approach to their dilemma.
The two neophyte actors who anchor the film do their best to make Matahi and Reri more fully formed characters. Anne Chevalier is particularly good as Reri. You can see her concern and thoughts in every frame.
Because it's Murnau, the visuals are gorgeous. After a career of shooting cityscapes and buildings as one of the masters of German expressionism, he shows a surprisingly light touch in filming the sumptuous climes of Bora Bora.
Still, Tabu is at best a good film. It's a beautiful structure, but its foundation is a script that is as shifty and porous as the sands on the film's many beaches.
**1/2 out of *****