The credit sequence consists of a close-up of a piece of paper, upon which a figure is gradually painted. As the credits finish, the image of the painted figure slowly dissolves into an aerial view of the desert landscape. The two-dimensional brown painted figure changes to a grey colour, and then begins to interact with the undulating sandscape. When the figure finally disappears, the shadow of a biplane takes its place. The camera moves back to reveal the biplane flying over the sandscape. It has two passengers, whom we later find out are Almâsy and Katharine.
The soundtrack of the film's opening is equally complex. Before the credits even begin, we hear a percussive sound, which we can later locate in the film as the clatter of small vials of medicinal oils. In addition, we hear male voices chanting, a Hungarian folk song, non-diegetic orchestral music, and the diegetic sound of an aeroplane engine. These opening shots and sounds contain a wealth of associations, which we shall attempt to unravel.
We could argue that the rest of The English Patient simply elaborates and extends the elements of the mise-en-scène condensed in the credit sequence and opening shot. The painted figure is the same as the figures Katharine paints in the Cave of Swimmers. We can therefore suggest that this image derives from the scene in the Cave of Swimmers, and that Katharine is painting the figure. The Cave of Swimmers is important to Katharine because it is her tomb, the place where she dies at the end of the film.
The sand dunes and the painted figure momentarily superimposed over them are similar in shape. The similarity in shape creates the metaphor that the sands take on a human form. Heightened significance or implicit symbolism is therefore created through the superimposition (through cinematic elaboration, in Perkins's terms). This metaphor is relevant to Almâsy's first flashback scene. In the foreground of the shot, we see him sitting talking to a desert tribesman about how to locate the Cave of Swimmers. Almâsy is seen drawing the cave, and translates the tribesman's words - 'It is shaped like a woman's back'. But just before the tribesman gives this metaphorical description of the cave, a biplane lands in the background. The tribesman pauses, sees the plane, and then offers his description, which Almâsy then translates. A few shots later, we realize that Katharine and her husband are in the plane. The associations established in the film's opening, between Katharine and the Cave of Swimmers, is therefore strengthened at this moment in the film.
Furthermore, we can use the foreground-background heuristic to identify the significance of the play between foreground and background. The superimposition in the film's opening links the figure being painted by Katharine to the desert (more specifically, to the Cave of Swimmers, which can be identified because it resembles a woman's back) to the shadow of the biplane carrying Almâsy and Katharine. By the end of the film we realize that this image shows Almâsy flying away from the Cave of Swimmers after retrieving Katharine's body. Moments later the plane is shot down and Almâsy is badly burnt. Katharine is further linked to the painted figure and the Cave of Swimmers when Geoffrey describes her as being like a fish in that she loves water and can swim for hours.
The painted figure is significant in a further respect: Katharine's paintings mark the initiation of Almâsy and Katharine's love affair. When the two of them are stranded in the desert, Katharine offers Almâsy several of her paintings, to put in his copy of Herodotus' History, which serves as a scrapbook of his life. At first Almâsy politely refuses them. But by the next morning, he changes his mind and says he will be honoured to put them in his book.
The sounds in the credit sequence are equally significant, although not so straightforward to explain. The sound of the bottles of medicinal oils is located in the film at the moment when a tribesman attends to Almâsy's burns. He uses some of the oil to cover Almâsy's face. The Hungarian folk song is located in the moment when Katharine stays the night with Almâsy in his hotel room. In the morning he plays on a gramophone the folk song which, he says, was sung to him when he was a young boy.
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