Punishment and fate are the recurring themes of author Anne Rice’s work. Try though they may, her characters fight a loosing battle trying to escape their destinies. Much of that destiny is retribution for the past, so that fate and punishment are intertwined. These people are caught by implacable forces leading to an end that suggests more pain lies ahead. Even though they may struggle against their fate, they are trapped. Rice’s world is not the land of happy endings.
Her early novel, The Feast of All Saints, has been faithfully brought to the screen in a two-part mini-series that captures the complex sweep of the story. Rice created a picture of a unique level of Creole society, the gens de couleur libre (free people of color), in her native New Orleans. These were the children fathered by white men who took slaves as mistresses. The daughters of those unions who were able to live free were encouraged to take white men as lovers as well. Their children, in turn, were also part of this sector of society that enjoyed special privileges (an often elegant standard of living, education) and that considered itself a cut above pure blacks who were still slaves.
But there was a silent rule that had to be observed: these children might dress and live well, even travel abroad, but they could never hope to be considered the equals of their white counterparts. A white man could take a partly-black mistress, but the children he had with her were on a completely different level from the children he had with his white wife. And in a world where social position was very important, the girls were made to understand that they should not marry one of their own kind, because they would relinquish any hope for the future of their children–they would revert to the status of slaves. These women were locked into a predetermined future.
The story of Feast involves several generations, reaching back to the slave uprising in Saint Domingue (now Haiti). The daughter of a black slave woman and a French plantation owner murdered in the revolt is saved from being massacred by another black woman slave and ends up a free woman in New Orleans. She becomes the mistress of Philippe Ferronaire, a man who has been taken into a wealthy plantation family to marry the daughter (there is no son) and become the head of the plantation. Rice interweaves two parallel stories: that of the illegitemate children of Ferronaire, and what befalls Ferronaire himself at the hand of his wife and his legitimate son. It is all about retribution and the merciless hand of fate.
Rice’s gift as a story-teller is her ability to create vivid pictures of life. Before she became consumed by her vampire Lestat, Rice reveled in historical fiction. Her Cry to Heaven is a compelling fantasy of Renaissance Venice and castrati, the boys emasculated to preserve their pure, high singing voices. Just as those boys had to follow a life path that was determined by others, so do the partially-black children of Feast live a circumscribed life. Rice tells the story swiftly, giving her narrative a propulsive energy that is matched by the colorful characters and events.
Among the people in the story are Dolly Rose, a quadroon proprietess of a very tony house of pleasure, where the white men meet their future mistresses at the very popular octoroon balls. Jennifer Beals gives the role a dignity that is tinged with sadness, an acceptance of her station in life. There is the acerbic Rudolphe Lermontant, played with piercing intensity by Ben Vereen, and his wife Suzette (a gracious Pam Grier), whose son Richard (earnest Jason Olive) falls in love with Marie Ste. Marie, one of his own kind. At first this union is forbidden, but love prevails and ultimately they marry. It is one of the hopeful signs of societal change that occurs in this story.
The Ste. Marie family, the mistress and illegitimate children of Philippe Ferronaire, are the focal point of Feast. Cecile, the mistress, is subtly portrayed by Gloria Reuben–she is aware of the limitations inherent in her relationship with Ferronaire, but loves him devotedly and is understanding when he mercilessly beats their son, Marcel, when Marcel rashly goes to the plantation to confront his father. As the young Marcel Ste. Marie, Robert Ri’chard gives a performance that is appealing in its boyish enthusiasm. The daughter, Marie Ste. Marie, (sweet Nicole Lyn) is the one who makes the mistake of falling in love with Richard Lermontant. But she is lucky because that romance is allowed to proceed. In contrast, her brother Marcel also falls in love with a gen de couleur, the beautiful Anna Bella Monroe, but that love is thwarted. In one of the more graphic sequences of this film, Marie is betrayed and falls into the unscrupulous hands of Lola Dede (a gleefully wicked Eartha Kitt), who drugs Marie and subjects her to a gang rape.
A story of such complexity requires many character actors, and a good cast has been assembled. It ranges from the sultry Lucinda Davis, to lecherous Clive Revill, feckless Alec McClure and two desperate women, Jenny Levine and Rachel Luttrell. As Philippe Ferronaire, Peter Gallagher gives a thoughtful performance, but he makes no attempt to employ a Southern accent. The story is told as a flashback by the mature Marcel Ste. Marie, portrayed by James Earl Jones. His first scenes are stiff, and the narrator device seems very literary–it does not have the immediacy that the author surely intended.
No Anne Rice story is complete without a healthy dollop of sex, and Feast does not disappoint. But on two occasions, as intercourse is about to take place, the camera pans down to a bunch of brightly colored flowers with a red flower in the center. This cliche notwithstanding, director Peter Medak tells the story clearly and efficiently. The atmospheric production design by Tamara Deverell evokes the period and the place beautifully. It doesn’t hurt to know the book, but close attention is rewarded by a good tale that has its roots in historical fact.
– Larry Campbell