The perhaps begs the question of the film's target audience, and indeed if a specific audience was being targeted at all. Director Anthony Minghella seemed to have a definite target in mind: in an interview with Mr. Showbiz, he remarked, "The audience The English Patient is playing to is much more conversant with fractured narratives and with a more modernist style of storytelling." (1) This statement, combined with the enigmatic format of the advertising, begins to form a cogent picture of the target audience; in essence, the target audience is intellectual. They have familiarity with "fractured narratives" and are likely to be drawn in by puzzling, mysterious advertisements. Further, it is obvious from the Miramax trailers that the film is highly visual in a beautiful, detailed, classically romantic manner, thereby broadening its appeal to an informed audience. [Click here to view the trailer and TV spots.]
More specific information about the intended audience, and about the general intertextuality of the film, is contained in Miramax's press release and the official still photographs and posters. There are seven other films mentioned in the press release (listed beside the artist who was involved with each): One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; Amadeus; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Truly, Madly, Deeply; Schindler's List; Trois Coleurs: Bleu; and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It is quite interesting that these seven films are indicated in lieu of the dozens of others that involved the members of the cast and production staff, since each of the seven is either an intensely dramatic, artistic endeavour, or a complicated love story, or a combination of the two. From this can be surmised the intended categorisation of The English Patient among other films. Ralph Fiennes is to be associated with his work from Schindler's List, and not with his work from Strange Days or The Baby of Macon. Kristin Scott Thomas is to be associated with Four Weddings and a Funeral, and not with Mission: Impossible or Angels and Insects. Producer Saul Zaentz is momentarily forgiven his role in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. The author of the press release chose to intermingle The English Patient with these films for a reason: to provide a broad category into which it might fit.
This somewhat undefined genre is fleshed out by the two official movie posters, each one a study in photogenics. In the first and most famous, Ralph Fiennes is standing alone against a golden-brown backdrop, the mountainous horizon giving way to a dusky sky precisely at his waistline. He is staring pensively at something unidentifiable in the distance as the golden sunlight forms what must be called a halo around his head. He is ultimately masculine in this picture; his features are chiselled, rugged, almost dirty. A field of hallmark stubble defines his jawline. The caption above his head, suffused in the holy golden light, reads, "In memory, love lasts forever." The messages of the image are not overtly subtle, but striking nonetheless. Obviously, Fiennes should be associated with a mythical lover, perhaps of the unrequited variety. His presence at the vista of a panoramic mountain range seems to suggest that he is the proverbial master of his domain, yet his intensely disaffected staring over his right shoulder indicates a dissatisfaction with this condition. Clearly, there is something else over which he would rather be master, something to do with love. The result is an image that is appealing to both men and women, highlighting at once his unassailable masculinity and his willingness to abdicate his knowledge (hence his power) to the cause of love. In this case, the film is labelled as an emotionally challenging love story fraught with complex motifs.
The other official poster is perhaps easier to read. Encapsulated in the same golden light as the first, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are engaged in a passionate kiss. It is an extreme close up of the two, with Fiennes in a dominant position. The desert is visible in the background, as is a bright, orange sun that seems to emanate from Fiennes' head. The message here is much clearer than before: this is a love story. In particular, it is a love story that focuses more on the man than on the woman, all the while maintaining senses of passion, heat, and artistry. It is worth noting that both of the posters are used as the front covers for Picador's re-pressing of Ondaatje's novel. In this sense, the intertextuality of the film has come full-circle: the novel inspired the film, which crafted images based on a popular interpretation of the novel, which was subsequently marketed using the film's fabricated images.
Clearly, a vast amount about the film can be interpreted from the posters, and both play an important role in relaying certain aspects of the generic conventions of the film. But even more information is provided by Miramax's still photographs available with the press release. There are twelve of these in all (including one of director Anthony Minghella), and taken together they create a unified feeling for the film. For example, in none of the stills do any of the characters exhibit an overabundance of emotion. Their faces are intricately composed canvases of intensity, each one wavering somewhere between soul-searching and seductiveness. In perhaps the most famous of these photographs (click here to view), Fiennes and Thomas are slow-dancing together amidst a sea of people. Their eyes are focused mysteriously: they each appear to be staring through each other's right collarbone. But there is an undeniable magnetism between the two, an indiscernible chemistry. It is both a rejection and a cautious acceptance, further compounded by the fact that Thomas' wedding ring is fully visible in the shot. This image relates the truly implied focus of the film: the doomed love affair between intellectuals, a societally unacceptable romance.
Beyond the industry-provided relays is the most important intertextual interface for a film based on a novel: the novel itself. Michael Ondaatje's scintillating book was uniformly hailed as a masterpiece, and has been the topic of all manner of study since its release. It has moved in and out of best-seller lists in dozens of countries. On the back cover of my copy, critics have hailed it as, "truly great, "magnificent," "wise and graceful," "a magic carpet of a novel." (2) These descriptions, and the intertext set up by impressions generated by the novel itself, have seemed to follow the film directly. Description of the novel paved the way for a certain interpretation of the film, an interpretation which theoretically would be insured by a faithful filmic rendering of the book. In other words, so long as the film remained remotely true to the text (which, in many ways, it did not), it was guaranteed the descriptions already granted to the novel. The critical response to the film proves true this premise, as one would be hard-pressed to find amongst the criticisms a surplus descriptions unique to only the film or only the novel.
In all, the summation of available pre-film information reveals much
about The English Patient's genre, audience, and intent. It is obvious
that the film cannot be pinned down to a single genre such as "love story"
or "drama;" the commercial information makes this clear. Instead, one is
left with a collection of impressions that revolve around certain themes,
such as love, loss, exploration, war, nationalism, and masculinity. This
is, in a sense, far more appealing to the film's target audience, as the
film denies itself a genre, preferring to skate the borders of existing
conventions (much like the seven films with which it is associated in the
press release). The English Patient all but declares itself too good for
a generic label. But just how effective was this marketing, and how did
the critics respond to it?
(1) The English Patient Central, Interview with Anthony Minghella
(2) Back cover, Picador Press 1996 repressing