Original Sin (2001)

original_sinBased on Cornell Woolrich’s novel Waltz into Darkness, the 2001 film Original Sin, directed by Michael Cristofer, contains many of the elements that are commonly found in Woolrich’s work. Seduction, obsession, secrets, and murder drive this story of a man who becomes obsessed with the strange, seductive, and secretive woman whom he has married.

Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas) is the owner of a Cuban coffee company. He does not believe in love, but sees marriage as a sort of necessity, saying that he doesn’t need love. He just needs a woman who treats him nicely and gives him children. He meets Julia, whom he has arranged to marry. Julia, however, is not the plain woman from the photo, but a sultry and sensuous woman played by Angelina Jolie.

Soon, it becomes clear that Julia is not who she seems to be. She cleans out Vargas’s bank accounts. He becomes obsessed with finding Julia and killing her. When he tracks her down and declares his love instead, they both get caught up in Julia’s past, as she continues to manipulate him and he continues to try and save her.

Woolrich wrote a lot about romantic relationships in which one person or another manipulates the other using love and sexuality. That being said, plot dominates his writing. Cristofer’s film does stick pretty closely to Waltz into Darkness. It possesses traits of a classic Woolrich scenario, complete with dark twists. However, the focus seems to be placed less upon the plot and more upon Julia’s sexuality. A long love scene starring Jolie and Banderas dominates the first act and would be at home on late-night Cinemax. Julia sexually manipulates a number of men in a series of physical encounters that seem to grow more twisted and violent as the film progresses.

The story is told by Julia, who is imprisoned and waiting her execution for murder, to a young priest who becomes emotionally invested in the story. The surreal ending begs the question of whether the tale is yet another manipulation designed to gain her freedom, or whether she dies in prison shortly after kneeling with the priest in prayer. Leaving a trail of death in her wake, Julia may never have changed at all.

The film never seems to get a grip on what it wants to be. Is this high art? Is it noir? Is it late night softcore? Renzi writes that the film is “an odd mix of inventiveness, intrigue, inconsistency, and repugnance, which makes the viewing an uneven, uncomfortable experience” (296). Ultimately, the film struggles with an escalating eroticism that overshadows other aspects of the plot, beginning with the sensual and ending with the sadistic. One of the film’s dominating themes is Julia’s struggle to figure out who she really is. Bonny? Julia? Something else entirely? Unfortunately, the film fails to resolve that particular conflict. Renzi writes that “It is the man who has changed, has become like her” (302). Vargas loses his business, his home, his fortune, his freedom, and his life as his lust and love for Julia rots to something poisonous. That tragedy seems strangely overshadowed by Julia seeming to finally care about him.