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'Stealing Heaven' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 28, 1989

Like a dolorous troubadour, "Stealing Heaven" recounts the tragic romance of Abélard and Hélôse, 12th-century lovers who paid for their passion with his castration. This cautionary tale of eternal love must have been repeated by old wives, the medieval answer to birth control.

Revamped for modern, castration-shy audiences, "Stealing Heaven" gets in as many steamy sex scenes as possible before Hélôse's enraged Uncle Fulbert performs the surgery. It is difficult to appreciate said scenes when you well know what's in store for the hero. And that goes for the lush cinematography and the luscious leading lady (newcomer Kim Thomson), the tremulous musical score and the fascinating period detail.

The Notre Dame cathedral still wears its scaffolding, the stone carvers chisel gargoyles as the parishioners pray in the stained-glass light. Paris is a scruffy, bustling city under the thumb of the Catholic Church, whose power is challenged from within by theologians such as Pierre Abélard (Derek de Lint). A noted philosopher, he draws Europe's finest students to his classes, thereby angering his jealous, fundamentalist colleagues. As is customary among Catholic teachers, he has vowed celibacy and cannot be tempted by even the most beautiful Parisian demimondaine.

Hélôse's Uncle Fulbert (Denholm Elliott), a prestige-hungry canon, calls his niece home from the convent, hoping to marry her into some noble family. A titian beauty of 16, she is exceedingly clever, more knowledgeable than a man twice her age in a day when knowledge in women was well-nigh taboo. She is coltish, frisky, positively enchanted with Paris -- rather too "Gigi" for the period, actually -- till her eyes meet Abélard's.

As fate would have it, Abélard moves into Fulbert's home. Soon the unorthodox philosopher and the rebellious girl are arguing politics, astronomy and theology like a pair of rabbis, albeit lovesick ones. And while he prays for strength, she, stark naked, burns a love potion, a magic incense -- smoking herself in the powerful fumes.

Director Clive Donner, known in the '60s for "What's New, Pussycat?," turns up the heat himself, interspersing the smoking Hélôse scene with another of her, Fulbert and Abélard worshiping at the cathedral. Pagan ritual prevails on Christmas Eve in a toasty, fire-lit clinch that quickly finds Abélard out of his cassock. Burning with shame and lust, he is unable to resist, and Hélôse doesn't want to.

On discovering that his niece, now pregnant, is damaged goods, Fulbert avenges himself on Abélard. After a time, Abélard decides this is a just punishment for his sacrilege, and his faith in God is restored. Logically enough, he becomes a monk and Hélôse, to please him, a prioress, both of them now married to God. ("Smart Women, Foolish Choices" wouldn't be written for 850 years.)

The movie, a pop gothic, is interesting in a morbid way. It stalls as it moves gradually toward a conclusion, caught like a bee in its own stickiness. We see Hélôse and a little band of nuns struggling through a storm, she helping to shoulder an enormous crucifix. The piety and self-sacrifice seem forced after all that pawing and panting.

Thomson is an overacting vision, but de Lint is a lunk -- you have the feeling the filmmakers couldn't get Gerard Depardieu. Both have a tendency to pose, cocktail-partylike, but for a time they almost convince us they are medieval lovers. Ultimately they seem more like those wild and crazy hepcats in Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video.

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