World-class eccentric, anachronistic prima donna, and paragon of blue-blood ridiculousness, Colin Tennant (or, as he no doubt prefers to be called, Lord Glenconner) used to own the Caribbean jet-set wonderland of Mustique—and hates nothing more than to be reminded that he no longer does. Tennant bought the three-square-mile island in the ’50s and soon made it a magnet for celebrity hedonists. (Presenting a patch of land to then swinging Princess Margaret in effect procured a royal seal of approval.) Financial woes forced him out in the late ’70s, and ever since, he has lived in exile in nearby St. Lucia. The Man Who Bought Mustique follows Tennant, now 73, on a rare return trip to the old stomping ground he still considers home turf.
A boldly absurd figure in his flowing white linen caftan, Tennant turns out to be a control freak of astronomical proportions, bent on stage-managing every last detail of the filming. He orchestrates scenes, rehearses anecdotes, bosses around the camera crew, and at one point even shoves his hapless toady biographer out of the frame. The subject of the film, as shaped by director Joseph Bullman and producer Vikram Jayanti, is Lord Glenconner’s idea of what the film should be. It’s a duplicitous strategy, but also one that speaks to Tennant’s colossal self-absorption—his poignantly naive belief that the filmmakers would actually comply.
Writing in the London Independent last summer, Jayanti said that Tennant had hoped the documentary would serve as an “instrument of revenge” on Mustique’s new owners. It’s the filmmakers who end up exacting revenge on Tennant, gleefully recording his every splenetic outburst and infantile hissy fit. With the exception of his old friend Princess Margaret, who happens also to be visiting, and his unflappable wife, Lady Anne, no one is spared, though the targets of his ire—his assistants (mostly local kids), the island’s recent nouveau riche arrivals, members of Mustique’s administrative board—seem more bemused than offended.
The Man Who Bought Mustique climaxes with a luncheon thrown by Tennant for the princess in his enormous Indian tent (without a place to stay, he decided to erect elaborate canopies, which he had specially flown in). HRH agrees to be filmed, from afar, though not while she’s eating (“Food gets stuck in her mouth,” Tennant explains). From the moment she climbs out of a red four-wheel drive clutching a sarong (“I don’t think kissing, do you? Sweating and, um, sun cream”), the proceedings escalate into high grotesquerie. (The long-lens photography only enhances the Discovery Channel quality.) Tennant gets right down to “the entertainment,” unfurling huge wall scrolls emblazoned with Kama Sutra illustrations. The one with an indigo-hued maharaja shtupping a courtesan causes a stir. “More than wrestling,” sniggers the host. “He’s gone bleww,” Mags gasps in response.
The film is circumscribed by its reflexive desire to make sport of its subject. There’s a sense that Tennant’s personal tragedies (two of his sons died young, another was nearly killed in an accident) are so briefly touched upon because they were deemed incompatible with the mockery at hand. It may lend itself to an entertaining demystification of verité process, but passive aggression on this scale is invariably a questionable position for any documentary filmmaker.
Distributors of The Man Who Bought Mustique and Jacques Doillon’s Petits Frères (opening next week at the Screening Room), First Run is also currently enjoying a 38-feature retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Running through June 19, the series offers a comprehensive history of the 22-year-old company (founded by the late Frances Spielman, now headed by Seymour Wishman): its early success with documentaries (Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County USA, Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style), its commitment to gay and lesbian themes (Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman), and its idiosyncratic and increasingly venturesome slate of foreign films. Two must-sees: Claire Denis’s No Fear No Die and Dariush Mehrjui’s Leila.