|THE FAVORITE [INTIMATE POWER]
The story of Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry (a.k.a, Nakşidil,
Nakshidil) is explored in this 1989 film starring F. Murray Abraham as Sultan Abdül-Hamid
I (who reigned from 1774-1789), Maud Adams as Sineperver (Ayse Seniyeperver Valide
Sultan), and Amber O'Shea in the title role. This is a film I had seen years ago, and
stumbled upon recently. It's one of the very few Western films that has treated the
Ottoman Empire "sympathetically."
from Ace Video, for "The Favorite."
But even in this rare case of cinematic kindness, note how
the movie was sold, from the video box. The only indication we have of the Turkish subject
is the lettering style of the word "intimate," which is an extremely subtle
element. We have some "warriors" at bottom, but who knows what nation they are
representative of. Certainly, the costumes of the soldiers in the movie bear no
And to add insult to injury, note the description on the
back of the box:
In the 1850’s a
beautiful young French nun, Aimee (AMBER O’SHEA), is abducted. She’s transported into
the Istanbul slave trade, where she catches the eye of the Sultan (F. MURRAY ABRAHAM,
Amadeus). He falls in love with this outsider and they share the secrets of Intimate
Aimee bears his son.
Jealous women plot to kill the baby, to poison Aimee, and to usurp the Sultan’s reign.
revolution rocks Persia, Aimee fights along side the Sultan emboldened by what’s theirs
forever... Their Intimate Power.
Since the described sultan's reign ended in 1789, already
we know they are way off base with their "1850's" description (Aimée/Nakshidil lived from 1768-1817);
the sultan she fights alongside of in the film regards successor sultans... "as
revolution rocks Persia." For God's sake! They can't even get the name of the
As we look into how the film was handled, we'll make comparative
notes with what apparently was the real history. It's difficult to ascertain what the real
history was. In doing research, I noticed some quarters even question whether the title
character originated from France. The film itself responsibly states in the end credits:
The legend of Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry is based on
fact. This motion picture tells the broad story of that legend. As a result, all
characters except Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry, Abdul Hamid and Mahmud, depicted in this
photoplay and the details of events are fictitious.
So the historical commentary to follow is a matter of interest, not
criticism. It is the age-old right of a motion picture depicting historical events to take
liberties; this is after all, a work of entertainment, and not a documentary.
was the subject of several novels, and the film was based on "Sultana" (La
Nuit du Serail), written by ”
by Prince Michael of Greece. She was also covered by Janet Wallach in
"Seraglio" (here is an excerpt
which follows the events of the film closely, and a review.) A
site dedicated to historical women leaders (guide2womenleaders.com) tells us:
Influential Naksidil Valide Sultan of The Ottoman Empire (Turkey)
depiction of Aimee, "ornament
of the heart"
An apocryphal story
has it that she was originally Marie Martha Aimée Dubuc de Rivéry — cousin of
Empress Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie of France. She was supposed to have been
captured by pirates and sold to the slave marke(t) of Istanbul and presented to
Abdülhamid and acted as his advisor 1733-73. After his death his brother, Sultan
Selim III asked her to remain at the Seraglio harem with her son, Mahmud his nephew.
She acted as his advisor and apparently taught him French; and for the first time, a
permanent ambassador was sent from Istanbul to Paris. Selim was assassinated in 1807
by religious fanatics who disapproved of his liberalism. The assassins also sought
to kill Mahmud, but Nakshedil saved her son by concealing him inside a furnace. Thus
Mahmud became the next Sultan, accomplishing significant reforms in the empire that
are, for the most part, attributed to the influence of his mother. She lived
Adams plays "Sineperver"
I like the way they presented the
facts questioningly, even though they blew it big time with their 1733-73 dates in
which she had acted as an advisor. (They also appear to be wrong with the
classification of Mahmud as Selim's nephew. It seems Selim was the nephew, and not
the brother, of Abdulhamid, the father of Mahmud.) The site also featured the Maud
Adams character as a woman of influence:
Seniyeperver Valide Sultan of The Ottoman Empire (Turkey)
Also known as Daulatlu
Ismatlu Aisha Sina Parvar Validi Sultan 'Ahiyat us-Shan Hazratlari, she was mother
of Mustafa IV (1807-08), who was deposed in favour of his half-brother Mahmut II.
She lived (1761-1828).
played by Amber O'Shea
This film likely wouldn't have been made if not for "The Lustful Turk" element, where
the innocent Christian woman is captured against her will to become a sex slave. The lure
of the harem is little less irresistible today than in the days it had captured prurient
imaginations throughout the Western world.
As the film begins, I was impressed the title card called the city
by the name the Turks called it, Istanbul (and not Constantinople), in 1817. The
"Sultana" is on her deathbed (at only 49 years old), and Sultan Mahmud (Francesco
Quinn) summons a priest (Gerard Touroul) to her dying mother’s side.
“I am a Christian,” the priest protests; “so is my mother,” the sultan replies. He
joins in Muslim prayer to the priest’s prayers... which was quite an effective scene in
Noel Barber's sensationalized and frequently biased "The
Sultans," my main account of "real history," confirms the accuracy of this
scene: "...as Aimée's life slipped away the grief-stricken Mahmud made what was,
for a devout Moslem ruler of a Moslem empire, a decision of courage and love." We
are told the convent superior of St. Antoine, Father Chrysostom, was summoned. He noted
Mahmud "appeared to be about forty years of age; his height was above the ordinary;
his brow high and noble; his expression commanding. His beard was black, and gave his face
an impressive, grave beauty."
The Greek doctor by Aimée's side and the black slaves were told to
withdraw, and she was told by a kneeling Mahmud: "You wished to die in the religion
of your fathers; let your wish be fulfilled." Barber further writes, "Father
Chrysostom listened to Aimée's confession, prayed with her for an hour and gave her
Absolution, while in a corner of the room the 'Christian Sultan,' as he was nicknamed by
those opposing his reforms, called on Allah to help him bear his loss. So Aimée died in
the faith to which she had been born."
harem life begins.
We travel back in time thirty-three years, to Nantes France, and first learn how defiant
she is at convent school. “I don’t think if you ever had to take a bath
you’d be stupid enough to do it with your clothes on,” she prays, asking God to
have the Mother Superior change her mind about her punishment, and let her be free
for the holidays. There is a nice scene displaying the corruption of hypocritical
holies, as the uncle (Tom McGreevey) is forced to give a never-ending pay-off
to the chief nun (Edith Fields), in order for Aimée to be released. On
a ship, Aimée is kidnapped by Algerian pirates, and later transported to Istanbul,
where she would spend the rest of her life.
Barber confirms: "Aimée must have been
a remarkably resilient girl, for when she was forced to exchange the strict and
decorous life of the convent (where she had been made to wear a calico robe each
time she took a bath) for the imperial harem where the odalisques spent long hours
'lolling in Turkish baths, naked and sleek, ladling perfumed, water over each other'
she appears to have quickly realised that it was useless to struggle against her
harem girl tells Aimee that she's only trying to be nice
In fact, it was this resilience that made it
difficult to suspend my disbelief when I had first seen the film. It just seemed
ridiculous that at every turn Aimée proved defiant and got away with her "bad
attitude"... which must have been very difficult in an atmosphere where a
slave, especially a female slave in what was such a male-dominated society, could be
so lucky. Particularly when we see another woman making advances on our heroine, and
even though (after being caught), she protests the sultana Sineperver had put her up
to it and that she didn't do anything, she gets bound and thrown in the river.
Finally, she'll be making a splash in her life
This seemed pretty odd, and apparently was
designed to appeal to our baser instincts... since Barber also lost no opportunity
to tell us of this barbaric style of murdering these poor young harem women. Yet, if
this barbarism existed, it seems hard to believe that any kind of defiance would
have been tolerated. Aimée was undoubtedly strong-headed
(and she had been described as "spoiled" in several accounts), but it's a
surprise the novelty of her backbone could have lasted so long... no matter how
attractive she was. (Barber: "The odalisques in the harem paid her the
supreme compliment of christening her Naksh, 'The Beautiful One'.")
Incidentally, were lesbian acts in the harem
punished by death? In the brief excerpt to Janet
Wallach's novel, she tells us Aimée was ruffled by
the "Lesbos" setting... not hard to believe, given these women must have
led such incredibly boring lives, waiting to be picked by the Padishah.
court's dwarf (Joseph F. Griffo)
No decadent royal court would be
complete without a dwarf, and this film offers a couple. When we see the “Chief
Dwarf,” he speaks in impeccable Turkish (the name he introduces himself as is the
Turkish word for “Big”) That made me think at least the film has a stamp of
authenticity, unlike MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, where the spoken language was mainly
indecipherable. Then, in a later scene, the actor spoke perfect, unaccented English.
That must have been dubbed, I thought. But when I later learned the actor’s name
was Joseph Griffo (who has an accomplished list of credits) and when I later noticed
he spoke Turkish onscreen mainly with his back turned, I realized which language was
the one likely dubbed.
fact, there are no Turks in the cast, except for a character called Baktar, and a
harem girl extra, Ayse Gungor, who is the third wardrobe assistant. Although the
film was shot in Turkey (the end credits give thanks to a representative of the
Topkapi Museum), only a handful of Turks were in the crew, all as assistants (except
for the "transportation captain.") This must have been quite an
extravagant production, importing everyone from outside the country.
Mr. Nice Guy from Tulip
to the story. The sultan picks Aimée from a
line-up, and she runs away... after Tulip (the chief black eunuch, played by Ron Dortch) instructs her to kiss his hem. When I
thought the fact that she rejected the sultan would be curtains, she is instructed
in the fine art of obedience (Tulip already had trouble with Aimée when she refused the Turkish name "Nakshidil" he had
given her. At one point, she asks why he is going through so much trouble for her,
and he replies that he values love and friendship. Hmm!); she is still resistant,
but Sineperver persuades her, explaining the only option that remains would be
death. The fateful scene between Aimée and the sultan takes place.
clean-cut, but not a
Barber: "Toward the end of the
eighteenth century, fifty-nine year-old Abdul Hamid
I, who had been Sultan for eleven years, received a gift which delighted and
rejuvenated him, for it consisted of a golden-haired French girl with a witty,
upturned nose below large blue eyes, and a perfectly formed Cupid's bow of a mouth
above a determined chin."
Sultan Abdülhamid explains that he will not
force her, and gives sob stories about his old age. That's when the
thirteen-year-old girl chooses to be his lover, later explaining in a scene where
she is privately praying to God that something compelled her. Was it pity?
Yet, Barber writes, "There is little
doubt that Aimée was deeply attached to the Sultan," and later in the film
(when he goes off to war and to his death), she proclaims his love.
chief of the Janissaries wants to go to war with the Russians, the sultan explains
tradition of overthrowing sultans. So why not let them go to war, Aimée asks. The sultan explains
that the Janissaries are outmatched, and they would be destroyed. She replies, then he wouldn’t be
overthrown. In this fashion, she will continue to show others the errors of their
She bears Abdülhamid a son, but Sineperver has the
newborn killed. The succeeding sultan, Selim, will later ask her to be the guardian
of Mahmud (whose mother had died years ago, the film tells us)... but according to
Barber, the son Aimée bore was, in fact, Mahmud. Perhaps the film was taking
liberties here, demonstrating the behind-the-scenes intrigues taking place, where
poisoning/killing of royalty was to be commonly expected. Or maybe it was an
interesting way to set up the "confrontation" scene, where Aimée bursts
into the sultan’s throne room, unveiled
(forcing the other men to bow their heads, since they are not permitted to gaze) and
yelling that she hates him because he never does anything. "You like the
killing,” she screams, little realizing that if he liked killing that much she
could well be next in line. Yet, the Sultan permits this insolence, witnessed by so
Sultan Abdülhamid returns spoiled from war, and Selim (James
Michael Gregary) ascends the throne. He falls in
love with Aimée. Barber:
"The relationship between Selim and Aimée provides a fascinating question to which no historian has been able to
find an answer. They had known each other well since Aimée first entered the harem to
become the sultana of an ageing husband who had allowed Selim every liberty, permitting
him even to learn the precious art of French politics from Aimée (veiled and under the
strictest supervision, no doubt). They were both in their twenties, physically attractive,
and shared a love of literature. Selim was 'of a pallid delicacy... one of those sighing
princes, whose vellum-toned features have a feminine cast.' Lamartine described him as 'a
lonely, dreamy prince, sensitive and shy, with almond eyes, a long serious face.' He spent
hours listening as Aimée read to him.
Aimée, a full-blooded Frenchwoman in the prime of life, was
consigned to a life of chastity. Selim was totally uninterested in his harem, and died
childless. It seems impossible that after Abdul Hamid's death they did not become lovers.
And there was another curious fact. Why did the mother of Mustafa the heir virtually
disappear from the scene during Selim's reign? Since Selim was the only man in the way of
her son's accession, one would have expected her to have plotted against him; yet history
tells only of Aimée's selfless influence. It is pleasing to hope that the innocent
golden-haired French girl who became a slave was not only a loyal wife and a devoted
mother, but (as some recompense for her misfortunes) was also the passionate mistress of a
good-looking intellectual who adored her to the exclusion of every beautiful woman who
could have been his at the snap of a finger."
Indeed, the film makes reference to Selim's lack of interest in the
harem. He is also shown learning the French language from Aimée,
especially in a scene where they go off in public, overhearing what the people truly think
of him (the people have a low opinion).
The kid better
not be screaming, "Hands off"!
A boy (Joe Elrady) is accused of
stealing, and his hand gets chopped off... in yet another bow to how the Western world
enjoys perceiving the Ottoman ways. (We see the action in gory glory. Maybe this is why
the film was rated "R," since there is next-to-no nudity.) The spunky Aimée
attacks the Janissary guard. Selim steps in to save her from the guard, and when a second
guard confronts him, Aimée
comes to his rescue. As they run away, she asks why didn’t he do anything? and he
replies that It’s been this way for centuries.
She refuses to bear him a son, and Tulip
suggests that she can then pick out another child-bearer. After a candidate is selected
from the harem, she has a jealous fit.
He can’t do anything against the
Janissaries, he tells her, but she disagrees. Aimée suggests he get guns from the French.
May I have
this dance, Monsieur?
"I want you to know your place” Selim
orders, after she bursts in on a conference with a French representative about an arms
deal. “You are, after all, a slave and a woman.” Once more, to get the idea of what a
firecracker she is, in the very next scene she has put on a Western gown and asks
the Frenchman, Sebastiani (Laurent Le Doyen) to dance with her. (He is the handsome
noble at the beginning of the film who had already made kissy-face with her. In an amazing
coincidence, of course, it would have had to be him to cross paths with her again.)
Selim's green eye roves, as he watches.
As the Frenchmen departs, he suggests she come
with him; “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life with savages,” he reasons.
“I can’t leave,” she responds. As she enters the Sultan's chamber, Selim declares,
“I didn’t think you were coming back.” “Neither did I,” she replies, as
(In July 1798, Napoleon would invade Egypt, a
province of the Ottoman Empire, forcing Selim to go to war with France.)
Janissaries storm in and corner Selim, Aimée and Mahmud. He abdicates, saying Mustafa is the new sultan. Aimée is at a loss to understand why, and the dwarf servant explains he did so to protect her.
(Barber tells us Mustafa, Selim's
half-brother, prevented Selim from committing suicide after his abdication. Selim
could have lived in "the Cage," if not for forces still loyal to him. When
a pasha named Bairactar marched to the city with 40,000 troops and demanded to see
Selim, Sultan Mustafa realized the only way to safeguard his life would be to kill
both Selim and Mahmud, leaving Mustafa the last of the Ottoman race.)
In their holding
room, they are attacked. Selim is strangled, Aimée and
Mahmud barely escape on the rooftops, and when
the guards pursue, the dwarf gives his life to save the others.
(Barber tells us
Selim killed two of this attackers, fighting a delaying action in order that Mahmud
might escape. "Aimée grabbed him and together they
escaped, but only by seconds. As the murderers raced down the Golden road, one of Aimée's slaves, a formidable Georgian woman known in the harem as 'The
Strong' blocked their way." She performed a delaying action, permitting Mahmud
the time to creep through a chimney and hide.)
Mustafa (played by
Glenn Scarpelli, who used to appear in "One Day at a Time"... I thought
that grating voice sounded familiar) calls them down from the rooftop the following
morning, assuring them that he means no harm. However, in true "I,
Claudius" fashion, Aimée finds a way to make sure he will never harm them,
and Mahmud becomes the new sultan. (The film makes it appear Mustafa IV's reign was
considerably shorter than what it was, from 1807-1808.)
kicked Selim's body into the courtyard for Bairactar to witness, and the weeping
Pasha raced to avenge the death. "As Bairactar and his men prepared to kill
Mustafa, there was a dramatic interruption. Mahmud appeared, his clothes in tatters,
his face blackened with soot; but in this, almost the first moment of his
thirty-one-year reign, Aimée's son
displayed all the dignity that was to earn him the title of 'The Reformer.' His
first order on his accession was to consign Mustafa to the Cage." One of
his many reforms would be to replace the turban with the fez.)
Aimée, “a French
schoolgirl born in Martinique, ruled the harem of the sultan of the Ottoman Empire
for fifteen years," we are told at film's end. The narrator continues:
“The reign of her
son, Sultan Mahmud the Second, was to continue for an additional fourteen years. His
rule was marked by the destruction of the Janissaries, and by internal reforms that
brought new rights and freedoms to his people. Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry lies buried
in a tomb in Istanbul, which is inscribed by the name given her in the harem —
Nakshidil — ornament of the heart. There is no other name on the tomb.”