J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

DWF ’16: Dinner with the Alchemist

Next time you are in New Orleans, consider taking a walking tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. You can’t miss what is considered the crypt of the illustrious voodoo priestess (and Roman Catholic of good standing) Marie Laveau, because it is surrounded by offerings left by those seeking her intervention (often in matters of the heart). None can doubt the name Laveau still has potency in the Crescent City. In the early 1900s, Laveau’s cautious granddaughter has difficulty filling the shoes of her legendary namesake, but an enigmatic new arrival will convince the voodoo practitioner to take a more activist role in Kevin Good’s Dinner with the Alchemist (trailer here), which world premiered at the 2016 Dances with Films.

Alchemist Jacques St. Germaine has just arrived from Paris, but he should feel linguistically and culturally comfortable in New Orleans. He immediately seeks out Marie Laveau, out of respect and for professional reasons. His beloved cat died during the voyage, but he is certain she can fix it. He also believes Laveau’s powers can halt the Yellow Fever ravaging the outer wards. Although Laveau is reluctant to open Pandora’s Box, but she relents in the case of the cat out of gratitude for some timely assistance.

The good news is the epidemic might not be as bad as the city assumed. The bad news is its death toll has apparently been inflated by a serial killer planting his victims among the deceased diseased bodies. Prostitutes are his preferred target, which is rather bad timing for Mary, an earnest Catholic orphan who has just accepted employment in Madame Catherine’s brothel. She hoped to perform conventional servant girl chores, but obviously that is not what the Madam had in mind. However, Mary can possibly forestall the worst of her new duties by investigating the murders (presumably committed by one of their clients). St. Germaine is not one of them, but he has taken a personal interest in Mary, for mysterious reasons.

If you dig New Orleans, there is probably just enough of it to carry Alchemist. The premise is terrific, but at times it is hamstrung by its budget constraints. For instance, the supposed interior shots of Saint Louis Cathedral were obviously shot in a different, smaller location. The subplot involving Mary and her sailor suitor are also rather awkward (to put it diplomatically).

On the other hand, Dan Istrate is terrific as St. Germaine, especially when confronting Dionne Audain’s Marie Laveau. They have real presence, dignified but also somewhat uncanny, as befitting such powerful Crescent City denizens. Unfortunately, many of the supporting players provide rather questionable support.

Still, Jenna St. John’s screenplay is quite clever, incorporating a great deal of colorful NOLA lore and even some legitimate history. She and Good clearly understand the original Laveau’s continuing importance to New Orleanians. Despite its limitations, Dinner with the Alchemist is an entertaining period urban fantasy and an affectionate love letter to New Orleans. It deserves to find an audience among fans of the city’s macabre legends and lies, following its world premiere at this year’s Dances with Films, in Hollywood, USA.

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