At times, it can feel like stories are at an all-time low in contemporary cinema. Not only have reboots become as common as original narratives, but the MCU has introduced a new model of world-building-as-IP that can sometimes make it difficult for genuinely experimental visions to make their way to the big screen. Three Thousand Years of Longing, George Miller’s latest film, is both a commentary on and a corrective to that situation. Based on A.S. Byatt’s 1994 short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” the film starts by introducing us to Alithea Binnie, a narratologist played by Tilda Swinton, as she travels to Istanbul for a conference. Interestingly, Alithea opens her keynote address by reflecting that there are only a limited number of stories in the world, meaning that, by this point in history, all stories have already been told. Against that more cosmic sense of the impossibility of total originality, Miller suggests that the sensuality of stories lies in the telling, or the retelling. In contrast to the MCU model, which tells the same narratives in the same way with an insistence on originality each time, Miller sets out to reinvent familiar stories in the act of retelling them.
The catalyst for the process is a vase that Alithea buys at a local bazaar. Upon polishing it in her hotel room, a djinn, played by Idris Elba, emerges, and grants her three wishes. A long conversation now ensues, and takes up the majority of the film, in which the djinn functions as a kind of incitement to storytelling. Like stories themselves, he is embodied, and has deeply sensuous yearnings, but is also ethereal, liable to dissolve into thin air at any moment. He proceeds to tell Alithea a trio of stories, each of which recounts how he was released and returned to his vase after a sensuous encounter with a human. In the first of these, he was forced to watch the Queen of Sheba, his beloved, as she made love to King Solomon, and screamed in anguish as they reached the height of their nuptials, only for Solomon to cast a spell on him, and vaporise him into air, at this moment of maximum sensuous frustration. Alithea, too, briefly recounts an affair that began sensually, but all of a sudden “evaporated.”
Each of the djinn’s stories revels in the architecture and connective tissue of storytelling itself. In every case, his vase is cast down into, or dredged up from, the depths of the ocean, which becomes a figure for the flux of contingencies from which all human stories are born. One of my earliest memories of reading is of C.S. Lewis’ description of the wood between the worlds, in The Magician’s Nephew, the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia. Early in the novel, Polly and Diggory, the two main characters, come across a vast wood dotted with pools, each of which represents a nascent world, one of which just happens to be Narnia. I remember being fascinated by this sense of endless imaginative possibility, the sense that stories could beget worlds upon worlds upon worlds. There’s a similar feeling of imaginative freefall in the oceans of Three Thousand Years of Longing, a sense of an endlessly fluid raw material that is waiting, like the djinn himself, to be pulled up and shaped into a narrative form that we can recognise.
To that end, Miller revels in the connective tissue between the djinn’s appearances across history – the ways he is freed, and then imprisoned, each time. After being relegated to the vase by Solomon, thrown out a castle window, and deposited in the Red Sea by an eagle, he is dredged up as part of a block of limestone, and then used in a castle wall, where he is eventually broken by free by a woman climbing the edifice to catch a glimpse of her lover. Later on, he is imprisoned beneath a flagstone in a remote and abandoned courtyard of another castle, where he languishes for many years, despite sending out tendrils to passing courtiers. Not only does Three Thousand Years of Longing celebrate the architecture of stories, then, but its stories become part of actual architecture, embedded in the buildings and structures where the film takes place. They also become part of actual bodies – when the block of limestone is removed from the sea, the vase has calcified into the skull of a drowned sailor, while the djinn only escapes from the flagstone because a heavily obese woman falls on it, a member of the king’s harem, which is exclusively made up of women of a similar build.
Having intertwined his stories with the buildings and bodies of the film, the djinn recounts the various ways he tried to negotiate his freedom with the people who summoned him. In doing so, he reminds us of the power of telling a story for a more urgent, libidinal or personal reason than simply continuing IP. In telling Alithea the story of his life, the djinn is trying to impress upon her the importance of making three good wishes, and so ensuring him his freedom, since all of his previous masters ended up entrapping him again as a result of their wishes. We see this same urgency elsewhere in the film too – for example, in the host of storytellers who are brought into satiate a mad prince, and so have to spin narratives for the sake of their own lives. Alithea also confesses to a more primal reason for studying stories than mere narratological curiosity – to help her experience feelings she can’t feel in real life.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is thus entranced by stories that have an agenda, in stark contrast to the MCU’s predilection for anti-stories, screenplays that are so desperate to purge themselves of anything problematic that they end up being nothing at all. This high-stakes storytelling may be treacherous, Miller admits, but it is also more vivid, and more conducive to the narratological alchemy that is the film’s driving preoccupation. For the djinn-master relationship is ultimately one of collaborative storytelling, in which the djinn allows his master to craft new narratives in their lives, but also depends upon them to write his own future as well. The key, the djinn insists to Alithea, is to prevent her wishes, and their shared story, from becoming too volatile, since that can overtake the process of collaborative world-building, and end up trapping both parties. Together, they have to tame the unpredictable power of narrative, or at least maintain a relatively stable balance between chaos and control.
This is the collaborative alchemy that Miller also wants to forge with his audience, much as Alithea is a surrogate for the audience, and the ways we have become acclimatised to narrative closure above all else. That symbiosis is all the more visceral in that Swinton, who is nearly always centre stage in her films – “captivating” the audience – is here kept captive by stories, a refreshing turn after so many self-consciously virtuosic roles. Like an audience raised on the MCU model, Alithea initially resists this narratological burden, first by refusing to make a wish at all (because, as she puts it, there are no wishing stories that “aren’t cautionary tales”) and then by wishing that the djinn had never appeared either. We also see a distant ancestor of Alithea’s hesitation in the obese woman whose fall finally freed the djinn from the remote courtyard of the castle. Since this woman existed only to serve the pleasure of the king, as part of his harem, she couldn’t even countenance the possibility that she might craft a story of her own, and so wished the djinn back into the vase the moment he appeared.
As this woman’s response suggests, Miller’s thesis here is that modern cinema is stricken both by a fear of storytelling and a more primal fear of desire. Each of the djinn’s encounters with his masters expands the realm of desire a little bit more, cementing this link between narrative and desire in the process. In the first, he falls in love with Sheba, but is supplanted by Solomon, her other lover. In the second, he helps another woman find a lover, but then can’t protect her from the consequences. Finally, in the third, he reaches an impasse, by falling in love with a master who reciprocates his feelings. On the one hand, she wishes for knowledge, and ends up learning every story, including the background of the djinn himself, along with his composition and physiology, which we learn is part regular human organs, and part condensed electromagnetic radiation. On the other hand, this means that the djinn no longer has any stories to tell her, no need to incite her to storytelling. Eventually, they reach an impasse – he longs to be trapped once again; she wishes to forget that she ever met him.
This trajectory suggests that the djinn wants to continually postpone the moment at which his story, and the story of his masters, comes to an end. True narrative, like true desire, is thus unfulfillable, meaning that a true story can’t end, any more than true desire can ever be satiated. Once linked in that moment of narratological alchemy, story and audience are forever intertwined – at least if it’s a genuine story, such is the primal power of narrative. All that a story can do, then, is proliferate into ever more complex stories, much as Miller’s mise-en-scenes accrue more and more arcane details that are never explained or contextualised. Watching Three Thousand Years of Longing made me realise how aggressively the MCU model forecloses desire in in its endless nihilistic perkiness. If anything, the MCU approach is positively terrified of the open-endedness of desire, just as its trademark “knowing” style is anathema to desire in its insistence that everything must be known and contained in advance.
By contrast, Miller constructs a geology of narrative, replicating the accumulation of stories over the last three thousand years of history by adding more and more texture to his tableaux. Even more than Mad Max: Fury Road, this film is self-consciously plastic, pieced together from other physical objects, and shot in an array of different and dissonant styles. At times, it draws on a particularly prosthetic brand of 80s fantasy that revels in costumes, make-up, props, animatronics and corporeal special effects. When it does stray into CGI, it’s never for the sake of naturalism, or for any semblance of a reality effect, but to contour the most overtly magical and fantastic scenes in the film. Each of the djinn’s stories is chock full of exotic details, tantalising us with the forking paths of other narratives that we only ever glimpse, evoking world upon richly embroidered world that takes Miller’s imaginative vision to its very zenith.
Without closure – with only more stories – Miller this reinvests narrative itself with a longing, a yearning, a reach that exceeds it grasp; a desire that can never be fulfilled, but only deflected into endless retellings, revisions and reworkings. Accordingly, Alithea’s first and only wish is to feel this same longing that the djinn has stored up – that is, to accept, from the outset, that their shared story can never end, and that it is destined to subsume them into subsequent stories beyond their conscious control. For Miller, the MCU model is little more than a futile attempt to rein in these stories, which means that the third act of Three Thousand Years of Longing attempts both more and less than world-building as we’ve become acclimatised to understand it. If the djinn, like stories themselves, is corporeal and effervescent at the same time, then this third act sees him and Alithea trying to embrace this effervescence as it inevitably dissolves, relish it for just a little while longer, as they return to London together.
Scenes now become shorter, fragmented with sudden and mercurial fades, Alithea’s own world starts to grow glitchy, and Miller intersperses the action with abstract CGI sequences in which the djinn communes with other djinns, in a world beyond human perception. At the same time, the djinn peels off from Alithea during the day to explore the cutting edge of electromagnetic technology: an MRI brain scan, a satellite dish that captures the most distant stars, and the centre of the Hadron Collider. Since the djinn himself is partly composed of electromagnetic radiation, he seems to be exploring the furthest he himself can percolate through Alithea’s world, and the limit point at which their stories become somebody else’s.
This third act thus poises us on the threshold at which we start to lose control of our stories, suspending us in the moment at which a story becomes bigger than any single collaborative party. That threshold, Miller suggests, is what’s missing from the MCU model of franchise building. In its place, he offers the semi-continuity of the djinn’s stories, which resembles that of his own Mad Max franchise, along with the way that Dan Trachtenberg has elasticised both the Cloverfield and Predator franchises in recent years. This kind of story-telling can still exist, but it requires us to occupy the dissonant position of the djinn in these final scenes – neither quite freed or contained, but perpetually longing to be freed, forever looking forward to a closure that can only be anticlimactic if it does eventually come. And this precipitous cusp between stories ending and beginning is the true source of the djinn’s potency, which he tentatively, provisionally and precariously inhabits in his final agreement with Alithea: to visit every now and again, and accept that he will always stay for just a little longer than he plans.