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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Vermut
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Midway through Spanish filmmaker Carlos Vermut’s mordant sophomore feature Magical Girl, Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a former prostitute in the S&M scene around whom much of the action centers, meets Oliver Zoco (Miquel Insua), a wealthy paraplegic who runs a brothel for sadists. Married to a psychiatrist who keeps her on a short leash and desperate for $7,000 to pay off a blackmailer, Bárbara has agreed to a one-off session with one of Zoco’s clients. Zoco asks her if she likes bullfighting, and they agree that neither of them has a taste for it. Zoco then offers the following analysis of the place of bullfighting in Spain.
It is curious that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is a country in eternal conflict? Because we are not sure if we are a rational or an emotional country. Nordic people, for example, act in accordance with their brains. However, the Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side without blame. Both, they know which are their strong points. Spaniards are balanced right in the middle. That’s the way we are. And what is bullfighting? The representation of the struggle between instinct and technique, between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to deal with them as if they were a bull, trying not to be destroyed by them.
This speech is the key to the quietly savage tale Vermut has put on the screen for our amusement and horror.
In sadomasochistic relations, it is the submissive who controls the action. Magical Girl shows just how much two seemingly vulnerable and submissive females control and bring about the ruin of the men in their lives. One of them is the picture of innocence—Alicia (Lucía Pollán), the 12-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter of unemployed literature teacher and single father Luis (Luis Bermejo). The close, loving relationship between them is evident in his loving names for her, the games they play, and his parental concern over Alicia’s request to spend the night with some girlfriends watching Japanese anime. Her favorite anime is Magical Girl Yukiko, and her fondest wishes are to possess the costume Yukiko wears and to live to be 13. When her father discovers her laying in her room unconscious and rushes her to the hospital, he learns that her second wish likely will not come true. He decides he will grant her first wish, even though the designer outfit costs nearly $7,000.
The second submissive is Bárbara. The opening scene of the film shows a young Bárbara (Marina Andruix) turn the tables on her math teacher Damián (José Sacristán) when he forces her to read aloud a note she was passing in class. The note reveals that she thinks “Cabbage Face” is pathetic, and when he demands the note from her, she makes it disappear through sleight of hand. The adult Bárbara is kept in luxurious bondage by her husband Alfredo (Israel Elejalde), who shoves an antipsychotic or antidepressant down her throat, checking to see if she has swallowed it, even sweeping his finger around the inside of her mouth to be sure. The depth of her disturbance shows when they go to visit friends, and after being forced to hold the friends’ new baby, Bárbara starts to laugh. Compelled, like Damián compelled her so long ago, to reveal what she was thinking, she says she was imagining what everyone’s faces would look like if she tossed the baby out the window.
At home, Alfredo forces Bárbara to take a sleeping pill, and when she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds only empty hangers in his clothes closet. She downs the bottle of sleeping pills, only to vomit them out the window and right onto Luis, who is standing in front of a jewelry store ready to smash and grab the valuable contents in the window to finance the Yukiko costume. Bárbara takes him in, washes his clothes, and while they are drying, seduces Luis, thus leaving herself open to the blackmail he sees as the only way to get the money he needs.
Both Alicia and Bárbara depend on others to take care of them. Both are sick and find ways to use that sickness to get what they want. The frivolousness of Luis’ mission forms a dead-on critique of affirmative parenting. Luis may be delusional about Alicia’s real needs—as a friend from whom he tries to borrow money says, Alicia just wants to spend time with him—but when he presents her with the dress, her reaction is underwhelming. When she starts looking through the box, he realizes he missed something—the $20,000 magic wand accessory—and is forced to extend his blackmail demand. Alicia is indeed a very entitled child who elicits our sympathy and scorn at the same time.
Bárbara finds a way to embarrass Alfredo for making her go out when she didn’t want to, and though he tries to leave her that same night, he returns the next day with an ultimatum I suspect would vanish into thin air if Bárbara ever called him on it. That she doesn’t, and indeed, pursues increasingly more dangerous sexual activities to deal with her blackmailer suggests to me that she’s trying to have her cake and eat it.
As with any good bullfight, Vermut waves his red cape and punctuates these fairly straightforward, intertwined stories like a picador with some lacerating scenes of seriocomedy, as when Bárbara splits her forehead open when she head-butts a mirror or Alicia dances in manic delight to some Japanese music, clutches her side and suddenly collapses out of the frame. The undercurrent of economic crisis in Spain adds an air of desperation, and Luis’ instruction to Bárbara to put the money in a copy of the Spanish constitution held at a public library because “nobody will read it” offers a sardonic commentary on the state of neoliberal policies in Spain. His men—all educated intellectuals—often have the mere illusion of control, but when they succumb to their emotions, their ferocity is something to behold.
Vermut offers some interesting set-ups to suggest character, and even cinematic parody. When Bárbara enters Zoco’s mansion, the formality of the setting and faux gentility of the characters echo the sleazy sophisticates of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the addition of the black lizard room, with this animal silouette hanging portentously over the door, is the kind of sly joke one would expect from the likes of Luis Buñuel. Revelation of the scars criss-crossing Bárbara’s body brings out the Spanish sense of morbidity (and incidentally, offer more erotic menace than a “sensation” like Fifty Shades of Gray  could begin to think of) and the pallor of death that permeates so many film from that country. In other instances, an overhead shot of Damián’s desk, with every object regimentally aligned with geometric preciseness, is a perfect snapshot of a man desperately trying to keep the bull locked in its pen, and the small hand reaching toward him holding the key to the cage.
When Vermut pulls his sword out from behind his cape to go in for the kill, the change is as unexpectedly thrilling as it would be in a real bullfight. Damián is the sleeper character in this film, and his obsession with Bárbara the driving force in a truly unsettling tale of revenge. Like the Spanish, Vermut moves us slyly between the poles of reason and passion. The final victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes to the bull.
Magical Girl is showing Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. The Wednesday screening will be introduced by Steven Marsh, associate professor of Spanish film and cultural studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Pablo Berger
By Roderick Heath
Silent cinema seems to be making a comeback, not to the extent that it’s likely to take over the multiplexes, of course, but as a niche of playful experimentation by adventurous filmmakers. Recent works scattered across the zones of international cinema like The Call of Cthulhu (2005), Dr. Plonk (2007), The Artist (2011), and the second half of Tabu (2012), have engaged rewardingly with taking away the crutch of dialogue. And now we have Blancanieves, a hymn to the beauty of the antiquated and to things that never were, but which retain the palpable texture of shared memory through their totemic qualities. Filmmaker Pablo Berger takes the bare bones of the Grimm Brothers’ transcription of the old European fairy tale Snow White, based in one arcane yet doggedly popular and weirdly powerful art form, and feeds it through the distorting lens of another, the silent film.
Blancanieves is a lush, dreamy, deliriously cinematic work. Following in the footsteps of last year’s diptych of Hollywood takes on the Grimm tale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Blancanieves dwarfs them (pun intended), not just in artistry but in the simple joy in telling the story and delight in the texture of the poetic. Unlike The Artist, Berger’s film is more than mere jokey pastiche; it is an aesthetically engaged and solidly dramatic work that recreates the texture of early 20th century filmic art without reducing it to mimicry. Blancanieves, which swept the Goya Awards in Spain, is Berger’s second film. His previous work, the playful Torremolinos 73 (2003), also was fascinated by the vicissitudes of period cinema, except the period was the early ’70s and the cinema was pornographic; Torremolinos 73 captured the national mood on the cusp of the death of Franco and an eruption of a suppressed bawdiness. Blancanieves is far more thorough in its immersive purpose, as Berger gives the material a specifically Iberian tilt not only in recomposing the story to revolve around a world of bullfighters and mantilla-clad doñas, but in the specifically parochial qualities of its black humour and tragedian reflexes.
Berger’s fascination for the plight of a child at the mercy of the world, and its sense of an underlying meditation on historical suffering, are aspects his work shares with Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of Spanish horror films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), whilst also harkening back to Victor Erice’s starkly suggestive The Secret of the Beehive (1973), as a distinct native strand in Spanish cinema. There are also enough hints in the mischievous humour, oddball sexuality, and wry take on class and gender battles flickering through the material to suggest the latter-day influence of Pedro Almodovar. Fittingly, Berger evokes one faded world of heroic entertainers and obsessive audiences, that of film, by focusing on another, bullfighting, as opening frames of the film find a city almost deserted because the great toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is going to duel six bulls in one day, an apotheosis for his sanguinary art. Villalta takes out five bulls, but the sixth proves his undoing, and he’s gored before his watching, pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).
Berger cross-cuts between Villalta splayed and bloody on the operating table whilst his wife goes into labour: fatefully, Villalta lives, but emerges as a quadriplegic, but Carmen dies, leaving a small daughter who inherits her name. Before his surgery, Villalta hallucinates, projecting the face of his wife onto the nurse passing anaesthetic, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Encarna is all too willing and eager to take advantage of this transference as she aids him in his recovery, and when he emerges from hospital, confined to a wheelchair, he and Encarna are married. The newlyweds promptly disappear behind the gates of Villalta’s country estate Monte Olvido, whilst young Carmen is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), and watched over by Villalta’s former manager Don (Ramón Barea).
Carmen never sees her father, pining for a visit and drawing his imagined face in flour. On her birthday, her grandmother draws her into a flamenco dance, but suffers a heart attack and dies. Finally, Carmen is taken into the care of Encarna, but far from proving a homecoming, she finds herself the target of Encarna’s sadistic degradations: Encarna cuts off her hair and makes her labour around the house, with only the pet rooster, Pepe, she brought with her and the kitchen maid as companions. With Villalta trapped upstairs in his chair, Encarna has complete control of the estate and the family fortune, and carries on an affair with her chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce). Carmen, chasing after her Pepe who sneaks inside the mansion, pursues him upstairs, where she’s been told never to go, and discovers her father, sad, imprisoned, and haunted. Carmen and Villalta connect, and she manages to visit him many times, even doing a flamenco dance for him on his birthday, before Encarna catches them. Villalta is doomed to spend the rest of his days jammed in a corner, whilst Encarna punishes Carmen by cooking and eating Pepe, before returning her to her life of drudgery.
Berger’s clever translation of the story’s motifs into a ’20s milieu, removing magic, but playing up melodrama, accords perfectly with the nature of silent cinema, which always thrived in depicting powerful emotions and rested best on a bedrock of simple, but not simplistic, plot mechanics and character reflexes, which could then drive a synergistic flow of images. One of Berger’s smartest choices was to film a tale that could very well have been an actual silent movie: Carmen is the sort of victimised waif in which Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish specialized, except that Berger then twists the story in a direction that pays a fair sop to a modern audience’s perspective, albeit one not entirely beyond the imagination of early filmmakers.
On the surface, Blancanieves has much in common with aspects of other retro-fetishist works of fantastical cinema, including the likes of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991) and the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin, in trying to recreate the ebulliently oneiric qualities of high expressionist filmmaking. But Berger enters entirely into the silent film world’s lexicon and also its populist sensibility, the sense that movie-going is, above all, an inclusive experience, one of the more sadly faded assumptions of cinema. Of course, Berger isn’t trying to proffer exacting pastiche: aspects of the story wouldn’t have flown in 1926, nor the gore and overt sexuality, and Berger happily indulges editing flourishes that would have been radical at the time. Blancanieves pays obvious homage to the world of European cinema before 1930, but resists the trap of referential obsession or film school appropriation: the aesthetics of filmmakers like Murnau, Buñuel, Pabst, Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and many others are suggested without being specifically mimicked.
The attentiveness to lighting effects, the vivid contrast between textures of flesh and wood and metal and those vibrant rays of luminosity that invested early cinema with its visualised sense of the ethereal and the earthy in close contact, is recreated by Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography. The mystical chintz of show-business crucibles like circuses and bullfight arenas, the hazy, numinous mood of foggy forests and misted rivers, the lancing strangeness of the trappings of modernity in worlds poised on the edge of transformation, and the monolithic power of wealth in largely poverty-stricken and gritty environ—all are familiar images and contrasts in silent cinema, recreated sparingly but consequentially. In this fashion, Berger places his narrative as a whole on the edge of a kind of dream-memory of the past, filled with iconography and commencing with deliriously spiritual overtones of Villalta praying before his bullfight, hanging his locket photo of his wife on a statue of the Virgin. His wife and her mother wait in the crowd, idealised images of Spanish womanhood, just as Villalta is the male equivalent, fronting up to the bulls in spectacularly confident and lissom postures. Pride inevitably presages Villalta’s fall, as he goes from superman to trapped wreck and loses everything except his daughter’s love, which survives years of longing and forced separation. Genetic links prove strong: Carmen has inherited her parents’ talents as well as character. Blancanieves isn’t a film for children, though it’s easy to imagine it being compelling for a young audience, especially considering that like the famously gruelling Pickford vehicle Sparrows (1926) or even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), it captures the unabashedly dark, phobic qualities one associates with folk tales that tap the genuine fears of emotional abandonment, isolation, and being left to fend for oneself children often have. Berger doesn’t shy away from the often fervent emotional violence in fairy tales, whilst also extracting overdrawn, blackly comic humour, like in the scene in which Encarna gloatingly devours a drumstick ripped from Pepe’s cooked cadaver to Carmen’s revulsion.
Berger’s approach hints at subtext that simmers unobtrusively, but insistently. Historical dimensions suggest historical severance and deposed hierarchies, as well as hints of a quiet commentary on the dread age of the celebrity. Villalta’s calamitous injury is induced by a photographer using a flash just as he’s readying the death-stroke for the last bull. When he’s released from hospital under Encarna’s nominal care, those photographers return to illuminate his ruination. Finally when he’s died, his family and friends have their pictures taken with his dressed corpse, a folk custom transformed into a cruel image of destroyed patriarchy, laced with political and satirical overtones. Carmen later faces grave danger, engineered by a friend turned madly envious by having the spotlight stolen from him.
The Evil Queen of the Snow White tales is defined by pathological intent to destroy a potential sexual rival, but Encarna is motivated less by immediate jealousy than by a determination to entirely assimilate the Villalta legacy, to obtain rather than retain exceptional status. Encarna is the worst kind of talentless parasite, one who attaches herself to the ruined Villalta to achieve wealth and fame. She is glimpsed leafing through fashion magazines, and desiring transformation into one of the glamorous beings she sees, poses for a magazine photo spread ensconced in haute couture—a super-bitch with a Joan Crawford-ish aspect; the film often plays like Crawford swapped parts with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1964).
The reconstruction of the Evil Queen as Encarna is one of the most inspired touches: entirely egotistical, deeply sadistic, Encarna is a delightfully unrestrained baddie. What works about the characterisation, and Verdú’s mischievous performance, is how adroitly it connects the emblematic evil of the story’s villain with genuinely troubling real-life phenomenon: her grasping greed, exploitation of her disabled husband, and humiliating treatment of her stepdaughter are all acts of evil all too easy to believe in, even as they’re pushed to absurd extremes. True to the fashion of fairy tales, too, Carmen resists being brutalised by her experiences, remaining a good-natured, if haunted girl who grows into a steadfast woman. The happy, but tragically brief reunion Carmen has with her father sees her entertain him by dancing and practising cape-swirling under his tutelage. Encarna inflicts gender reassignment on Carmen by cutting her hair, a consequential act that bends Carmen towards moving into the masculine arts of her father rather than her mother and grandmother, though the nifty footwork and postural awareness flamenco dancing imbue in her fuse perfectly with the flourishes her father instructs her in for bullfighting. Young Carmen finds herself destined to try to live up to the stature of her parents, a union of both emblematic cultural institutions—toreador and flamenco dancer—talents that combine fruitfully once Carmen grows up, and finds herself plunged into the arena.
Berger moves between the first and second parts of his tale in a beguiling sequence, as young Carmen practises her toreador moves mixed with dancing with laundry, using pegs like banderillas, suddenly moving from girl to grown woman (the luminous Macarena García takes over), whereupon she’s informed of her father’s death. Encarna, tired of pretences, has pushed him down the stairs. The minion, who, in the story, is entrusted with Snow White’s murder, was a secretly good-natured figure. Here, it’s Encarna’s chauffeur-lover Genaro, glimpsed by Carmen playing the submissive boy-toy. One hilarious vignette depicts Encarna in the act of having her portrait painted as the image of imperious fashion-plate femininity, getting Genaro to take the place of the dog she’s being depicted as holding on a chain, to the painter’s nonplussed continued labour. Of course, his willingness to be Encarna’s dog belies his own viciousness, which emerges when given the task of taking Carmen to her death. He tries to rape her, and when she manages to knee him in the crotch and make a break, he catches her and drowns her in the river, leaving her for dead—except he didn’t quite finish the job, and she finds refuge with a band of six dwarfs, who work as travelling clowns and bullfighters called Los Enanitos Toreros.
Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the best-looking and most romantic of the band, was the one who plucked her from the river on a misty bank and took her to their caravan. The others in his band, including the nominal chief, the grouchy and jealous Jesusin (Emilio Gavira) and the cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martínez), are introduced with their names flashing on screen. When, during their next exhibition in a small town, Jesusin is charged by a bull and knocked about, the other dwarfs won’t intervene because the audience finds it hysterically funny. So Carmen leaps into the fray and astonishes all with a superlative display of cape work. Carmen, who hides her identity more to escape the past, it seems, than concern about Encarna’s wrath, nonetheless finds herself bound to close the family circle, though the fact that she’s dubbed “Blancanieves” by her new friends in recognition her plight is right out of the hoary old story. Berger’s revisions to the original story’s patterns as well as setting have a contemporary flavour, as Carmen casually shatters rigid gender barriers to gain credibility as a toreador, whilst handsome prince and dwarf are no longer exclusive figures, but conflated in the ardent Rafita. Yet such tweaks only seem to solidify the fairytale texture of Blancanieves, for dramatic transformations and protean forms are so vital to such storytelling and part of the way they still capture a unique essence of human existence. The Mephistophelean promoter Carlos de Montoya (José María Pou), complete with forked beard, brings the spectre of Faustian bargains to Carmen, as the girl, who can’t read is talked into signing a lifetime contract. Montoya gets her booked in the same arena where her father met his fate, and the circular narrative is matched by circular imagery, as the same ritualised stations on the way to a duel with fate and death are counted off.
Blancanieves is a gorgeous-looking film, replete with allusive visuals and well-used silent film devices, which range from the broad, like Carmen hallucinating Pepé’s head on a boiled sparrow she’s fed for dinner, to the wittily precise. Berger uses the iris shot, one of those devices associated most insistently with silent cinema, but matches it by literally projecting one on an actual iris, as Carmen is informed of her father’s death, with the flashback dialling in and out from her eye. Berger’s vertiginous framing often adopts violently low or high angles, lending his shots requisite drama and pictorial zest, whilst also invoking the violent state of fortune of his characters. But these gruelling shifts are encapsulated most precisely in an early shot, as Carmen’s communion dress is dyed black after her grandmother dies, streams of inky blighting black flowing from the pristine gown, signalling Carmen’s oncoming date with the devil Encarna. The same note and visual motif are mirrored in a lovingly executed crane shot that later retreats from Encarna’s silvery-draped form standing over a pristine white pool, in which the corpse of Genaro, whom she batters to death after learning Carmen survived, drifts in a cloud of blood.
Carmen proves triumphant in the ring, facing down the colossal bull the infuriated Jesusin has substituted for her smaller intended opponent, proving so invigorating to the audience that they vote for the bull’s pardon. Encarna, however, has taken what was her mother’s place in the crowd, swathed in black lace in perfect Manichaean contrast, proffering the inevitable poisoned apple, a glistening orb that Jesusin recognises after he’s accidentally knocked it from Encarna’s hands. Carmen collapses in a coma after taking a bite during her victory salute, and whilst the stricken Rafita clutches her body, Jesusin leads the others in trying to chase down Encarna, who tries to elude them in the bullpens. Her beautifully dark comeuppance arrives as she finds she’s locked herself in with a monstrous bull, its huge silhouetted horns falling upon her quivering, collapsing form.
As ebullient as his film often is, Berger takes a swerve back to tragedy in his final passage. Carmen, still in a coma and exhibited by Montoya in a circus sideshow as a freak of nature. “Miracle or curse?” Montoya asks repeatedly while sideshow patrons line up for the pleasure of trying to rouse her. Rafita works for Montoya, and wheels her out for the show to lovingly tends to her backstage. The mood here moves into a zone at once ethereal and pathetic, with hints of kink in the morbid sensuality everyone invests in Carmen’s form, with Rafita tenderly kissing her goodnight before bedding down with her, and infinitely sad frustration, as the very last shot reveals a single tear flowing from her eye. The sensibility here suggests the influence not just of silent cinema but later directors’ stylised tributes to the sawdust-and-tinsel mysticism and pathos of the peripatetic entertainer’s world, whilst reconfiguring the Sleeping Beauty image to something close to James B. Harris’ Some Call It Loving (1973), the image of imperishable mystery and beauty of life found even in the seamiest and most degraded exhibition. Even flat on her back, Carmen is beholden to the crowd. That last shot, of Carmen’s tear, encapsulates everything Berger aims for, emotionally and aesthetically.
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Director: Luis Buñuel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If ever a great director ended their career on a high, prototypical note, it was Luis Buñuel. I’ve always said that everything Buñuel was about as a filmmaker is in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Among his many dreamscapes—from his early, surrealistic L’Âge d’Or to his mysterious, blasphemous Viridiana and kinky sex farce Belle de Jour—That Obscure Object of Desire must be seen as Buñuel’s ultimate dream, the final, clear telling of the story of his inner life. It recycles his trademark obsessions almost as jokes on himself and his fans and foretells that this will be the last time he and his anima will spar on camera.
We are barely into the film before Buñuel dispenses a couple of his trademark flourishes. Opening shots of Seville segue to a large home as its master, Mateo Fabert (Fernando Rey, Buñuel’s marvelously pompous alter ego in a number of films), walks through a red, upholstered door into an ornate bedroom and instructs his valet (Andre Weber) to burn a blood-stained pillow he is picking off the floor. “Burn it all!” he says in disgust, as the valet picks up and shows Buñuel’s favorite fetish objects—a pair of high-heeled shoes and a pair of lace panties.
Mateo has decided to leave for Paris, and climbs in his large American car to be driven to the train station. We see another man get into a chauffeur-driven car and a close-up of the car ignition. With one turn of the key, the car explodes in a ball of fire. “They’re even here,” Mateo says, in a “there goes the neighborhood” manner, of the terrorists who will plague the film. As he boards the first-class train carriage, it fills with people he knows—a neighbor (Milena Vukotic) traveling with her young daughter and a judge (Julien Bertheau) who is a friend of his cousin’s. Last into his car is a dwarf—a psychologist whom the judge knows from the courthouse, where he gives expert testimony. As Mateo looks out the window, he sees a woman (Carole Bouquet), black-eyed and forehead bandaged, striding along the platform looking into each carriage. We see him hand some money to a reluctant train porter, who goes into the toilet and emerges with a bucket. When the woman reaches Mateo, the object of her search, he dumps the full bucket of water on her head. She brushes at the water with disgust, throws her suitcase to the ground, and boards the nearest carriage. This act provokes the curiosity of Mateo’s carriagemates, and they listen with relish as he relates the story of “the worst woman on the earth.”
Mateo met Conchita when she was engaged to serve as his maid. She knew nothing about being a maid and had hands too delicate to have done serious housework. Smitten, Mateo made plans to seduce her that very night, but was politely rebuffed by Conchita (now played by Angela Molina). Upon arising the next day, he learns that the object of his desire has quit and left for parts unknown. He loses her and runs into her by chance a couple of times, first in a nightclub, where she is working as a coat checker, and later, in Lausanne, when he is robbed of exactly 800 francs by a couple of young men, and finds out Conchita was behind the robbery to get them only what they needed to buy train tickets back to Paris. He tells her to keep the money she tries to return and extracts her address in Paris, a humble flat on an ancient block of buildings that she shares with her religious, widowed mother, Encarnación (Maria Asquerino) who is too bourgeois and useless to work.
Mateo becomes their benefactor, and eventually the coy Conchita agrees to be his mistress in his rarely used home on the outskirts of Paris. Their encounter at his estate is a teasing comedy in which Conchita is disturbed by the photo of Mateo’s late wife in the bedroom they are to occupy and insists on another room. Once there, Conchita tantalizes Mateo by exposing her breasts, only to reveal that she is wearing a garment that amounts to a chastity belt. They take up residence in the villa, but Mateo catches her sneaking one of the young men with whom she was traveling into her bedroom. For the rest of the movie, Conchita will toy with Mateo, dancing naked for some tourists in a cabaret where she is employed, and wheedling the deed to a lavish home in Seville, only to lock him out, curse his very existence, and make love to a young man in the courtyard while Mateo watches briefly in fascinated horror.
And perhaps predictably, even after relating the entire story to his captive audience, he and Conchita disembark the train and go off together on a shopping spree. After viewing yet another Buñuel trademark, a seamstress sewing a rend in a lace garment Conchita has left with her (reminiscent of Arturo de Córdova’s character’s plan to sew his wife’s vagina closed to prevent her from straying in El), the pair walks off, only to be obscured by the smoke and debris of the explosion that ends the movie.
In his wonderful autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes at length about his lifelong fascination with dreams and imagination. That Obscure Object of Desire is, I believe, his most completely realized dream. Despite the resemblance to reality that is Mateo’s train journey, Buñuel has populated it with the ultimate dream cliché—a dwarf, who, humorously, is a psychiatrist trying to analyze Mateo’s experiences with Conchita—as well as people he knows in some way, as we all do in our dreams.
Buñuel, born in Spain, adopted France as his home and returned to work there in his last years after many years in Mexico, during which he became a Mexican citizen. The director actually has two mistresses—France and Spain—to which he feels affinity, if not fidelity, creating an unstable situation. But it seems to me that what he is really trying to do is to join harmoniously his male aspect and his female anima; this explains why he can’t just break with Conchita with resolute finality, for which of us can truly escape ourselves.
He doesn’t understand his female aspect. She is constantly changing, signified not only by the two actresses who share one role, but also by their different levels of refinement. Carole Bouquet, the face of the most chic couture house in the world, Chanel, is effortlessly beautiful, sophisticated, and importantly, French. Angela Molina is earthy, more brazenly sensual, and Spanish. The language Buñuel chooses for the film is French, but he dubs both actresses with a third one, confusing the issue even further. Buñuel dubs Rey with Michel Piccoli to bring perfection to Mateo, who is called Mathieu in many reviews and subtitling, though we can clearly hear Conchita call him Mateo. The duality of Buñuel’s expatriate status, therefore, also is acknowledged.
For once, Buñuel gives his antipathy toward the Catholic Church a bit of a rest, even though he ascribes most of the terrorist attacks to the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Again, this seems like an in-joke, a way to get one of his trademark themes out of the way so he can focus his attention on his main project of reconciling the duality in himself.
His anima entices him with words of love, pursues him when he rejects her, deceives and berates him, and tells him she doesn’t need his money and can’t be bought. When he calls her the worst woman on the earth, he is actually chiding himself, seeing the native intelligence, integrity, and mischief in himself in terms of his feminine aspect. Does he want to dominate her? Would he if she yielded to him? That, Buñuel seems to suggest, could never happen. The final scene—the closing of the symbolic vagina—leads to an explosion we can assume causes Conchita’s and Mateo’s annihilation. Perhaps this is Buñuel closing the book on his career and life, feeling that a final reconciliation of the anima and animus can come only in death—or at least, he won’t be making any more movies trying to work on the problem.
Otto Rank is one of the many psychologists whose theories come up frequently when looking at Buñuel (much to the director’s amusement, claiming his imagination was not a subject for psychoanalytic study). In looking at this Wikipedia passage about Rank, however, you don’t have to be Fellini, so to speak, to figure out Buñuel:
On a microcosmic level, however, the life-long oscillation between the two “poles of fear” can be made more bearable, according to Rank, in a relationship with another person who accepts one’s uniqueness and difference, and allows for the emergence of the creative impulse—without too much guilt or anxiety for separating from the other. Living fully requires “seeking at once isolation and union” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 86), finding the courage to accept both simultaneously, without succumbing to the Angst that leads a person to be whipsawed from one pole to the other. Creative solutions for living emerge out of the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, “originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life” (1932/1989, p. xxii).
That Obscure Object of Desire moves in a dreamlike way, its flashback structure encouraging the mixture of reality and imagination (as Buñuel said “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories”) that becomes a dream truth. The switching between Molina and Bouquet is confusing, disorienting, further plunging the viewer into the undersea world of the unconscious. That’s when the great director is most effective in weaving his magic, a truthful untruth we are seduced into following to its illogically logical conclusion.
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Director: Jésus Franco
By Roderick Heath
Venus in Furs is one of Jésus Franco’s personal favourites from amongst his colossal roster of wild and woolly films. In spite of its widely known English title, it only shares that title and the name of the anti-heroine Wanda with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s infamous founding tome of masochistic literature, Venus in Furs. In fact, Franco’s film was inspired by a conversation Franco had with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker about counterculture mores, and was, in its early drafts, an interracial romantic drama. That aspect is still present in the narrative, and yet unenthusiasm by the producers caused Franco to rewrite the story along the lines of the theme he returned to obsessively in this phase of his career: the sepulchral femme fatale consuming her tormentors and lovers.
Venus in Furs was one of Franco’s close-to-mainstream works, sporting a fairly high-profile cast that included James Darren, Klaus Kinski, Franco regular Dennis Price, and singer-actress Barbara McNair. But it can’t be mistaken for anything other than a work by the era’s most wayward trash auteur. Structurally, Venus in Furs resembles many horror films exemplified by Dead of Night (1945), in its cyclical storytelling and bookending gimmick of an irrational, closed circuit-like entrapment in the zone between life and death. Whilst relatively restrained in terms of the sexuality that infests Franco’s later works like Vampyros Lesbos, there’s still plenty of sex and sadism here, albeit contoured more into the film’s oneiric, lapping, inherently fetishistic textures. Venus also contends with some familiar problems of low-budget European cinema of this era, particularly in the dubiously employed location footage of Rio de Janeiro and Carnivale, with Darren’s drippy voiceover droning on to give the dancing girls relevance, with such lines as, “Man it was a wild scene. If they wanted to go that route, it was their bag.”
Darren plays Jimmy Logan, a jazz musician who awakens from what is apparently a long drug binge in a seaside bungalow in Istanbul. He flees to the beach and digs in the sand, pulling out his buried trumpet case and blowing a few rusty licks before he spots a body rolling in the surf and pulls it onto the shore. He’s stunned to recognise the corpse as that of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm). Addled by drug flashbacks and unable to properly discern hallucination from memory, Jimmy still seems to recall Wanda from some of the parties he played at, including one thrown by a kinky, wealthy art dealer Ahmed Kortobawi (Kinski), and his sensualist friends Olga (Margaret Lee) and Percival Kapp (Price). Jimmy had a crush on the beautiful, flighty Wanda, but one night, he happened to glimpse a terrible scene in which Wanda was cornered and brutalised by the sadistic trio, with Olga and Percival whipping and raping her and Ahmad cutting her with a dagger to drink her blood. Months later, Jimmy, now in the employ of Hermann (Paul Muller), a rich man who keeps him and a band on permanent party hire, is in Rio, back on an even keel and playing well. He’s soon startled not only to find Percival and Olga in town, but also to see Wanda walk into a gig of his one night.
Jimmy’s subsequent delirium-soaked trysts with Wanda are barely kept in check by his soul singer girlfriend Rita (McNair), as he ponders the metaphysics of the situation: “How can you run from a dead person unless you’re dead yourself?” Wanda keeps reappearing clad in furs and lingerie, drawing Jimmy into bed with her, commencing a completely corporeal affair, and yet the hysterical jazzman keeps fleeing her afterwards, utterly bemused as to what’s going on. Wanda’s casual presence at Hermann’s parties seems to reassure him that she’s very much alive and that he must have been mistaken about the body he found on the beach.
One night, Wanda appears to Percival and seems to taunt him with her ghostly, erotic presence, filling his mirrors and finally appearing in her mangled, post-mortem state, causing Percival to expire from a heart attack. Later, at one of Hermann’s parties, Jimmy is startled by both Olga’s and Wanda’s presence and positively alarmed when they start making out. But when Wanda later turns up at Olga’s photographic studio, she again transforms in her brutalised corpse, driving Olga to cut her own wrists in guilty sorrow. When Rita walks out on Jimmy, he and Wanda flee back to Istanbul, where Wanda soon enough appears to Ahmad.
Superfluous dialogue and clumsily inserted travelogue footage aside, Franco’s filmmaking here, when his luxurious visuals have a chance to play out, is boisterous and continually dazzling, replete with disorienting edits, slow motion, reflected images, ultra close-ups, and distorting effects, to conjure a fervent, dreamlike tone. In the bookend sequences that see Jimmy running along the beach to retrieve floating bodies, Franco utilises slow motion to offer a numbing study of the dreamland sensation of travelling without moving, as he closes the narrative’s looping structure. Franco’s intriguing fondness for dispelling standard gothic tropes, in favour of bright sunlight and lush colourings, is in full flower. His work benefits from a seemingly higher budget than he often gained, sporting fine photography and careful lighting that results in a truly sensual visual experience, a sprawl of bold reds and blues, hallucinatory daylight shots and inky darks.
Like few films I’ve ever seen, Venus in Furs captures the heady atmosphere of two underground artistic strains—fragments of S&M comics interwoven with a feeling of hipster alienation captured in effective visual terms (as opposed to the cornball hip-isms Jimmy speaks), reminiscent in places of other fly-on-the-wall period documents like Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966). That Darren’s Jimmy Logan is based on Baker is patently obvious, and the film seems to well directly from within Logan’s addled perceptions. Particularly the early scenes, as Jimmy claws at a window or digs into the beach to retrieve his instrument and conjure the drowned Wanda from the waves, possess a flavour that communicates a genuinely strung-out mind. Franco himself was a jazz musician, and his impressionistic scenes from the milieu of Jimmy’s playing are evocative (Franco even appears briefly as one of Logan’s pianists), whilst the totality of the film has an intricately musical structure.
The mostly jazz-inflected score, by Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann, is as striking as that for Vampyros Lesbos, and is more integral to the film, as musical motifs blend with and define the on-screen drama. Jimmy’s intimate, somehow solipsistic performance style—he’s often hunched over, lost deep in his solos—evoke his drifting out of touch with reality. Sequences of him and his band’s performing punctuate the story’s deaths, with the ghostly Wanda continuously returning to confront Jimmy on stage after her vengeful visitations, signing him to a kind of artistic contract to witness, evoking a shaman or bard, or the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, as he plays out Wanda’s death chant. Wanda’s killings are punctuated by a memorable soul theme that recurs like a dark mantra, with the promise that “Venus in furs will be smiling”, before McNair sings the full song as a triumphant hymn in the conclusion.
Although the resulting film isn’t fixated upon portraying a tragic, boundary-pushing new-age romance, as was his original notion, Franco’s initial idea is still present and important, realised in the failing romance of Jimmy and Rita, with Rita attempting to sit out Jimmy’s obsession with Wanda like very much the “black angel” of another alternate title, and yet finally driven off by his obsession. The intimacy between Jimmy and Rita is warmly, tenderly convincing, and stands in contrast with the rather less healthy intimacy Wanda engages in. Delicately yet feverishly erotic, Wanda’s killings are fascinating because rather than visiting her tormentors with violent wrath, she approaches them like a lover, giving them exactly what they want before reflecting the truth of their twisted psyches (Franco’s love of mirrors gets a workout), particularly in her tryst with Olga, which plays out as a tragic romance. Ahmad greets Wanda like he’s been waiting for her, and gets her to enact a part he thinks she has been conjured to play for him, the slave girl who turns the tables on her sultan, which leads to him dying in a perfect masochistic paroxysm, dangling from the ceiling. Rohm’s frigid beauty intrinsically suits the character’s passive malevolence.
Fascinating images abound, like a nearly naked Wanda descending a staircase painted in vivid white and stepping onto a floor carpeted in saturated red, leaving behind Olga in her white coffin of a bathtub, her lifeblood slowly staining the water, expiating her sins whilst begging Wanda’s forgiveness. This scene’s mix of conveyed physical pain, powerfully transgressive emotion, and expressionist use of décor clearly predict some of David Lynch’s pet effects, and confirm for me the impression I had in other Franco viewings of his influence on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This sequence’s visual motifs are predicted by a most bizarre and gorgeous moment: Olga first encounters Wanda at one of Hermann’s parties sprawled on a red couch, caressing a female statuette’s thigh, and encouraging Wanda to kiss her. Several party guests gather to watch, and one bends down to paint their cheeks, and another showers them with white pillow feathers as if sprinkling confetti on the newly-weds or spreading petals on his priestesses. The Olga-Wanda sequences in the centre of the film are almost a short film in themselves, a classic of sapphic-surrealist erotica.
Finally, when the police track Wanda to the hotel she’s sharing with Jimmy, the lovers flee, leading to a memorably off-kilter car chase. Wanda soon slips away and enters a cemetery, leaving her fur coat lying upon her own gravestone. Jimmy returns to the beach in the same frazzled state and discover another body in the surf: his own. Wanda and he were both ghostly remnants. By this point, the narrative form completely shatters, saturated colour effects infect the frame, and fragmented shots of Olga, Ahmad, and Percival locked in a red room (another Lynchian image) with Wanda’s savaged corpse, perhaps invoking their damnation. Franco zooms away from Jimmy’s discovery of his own body and quotes the same John Donne passage as an epigraph as was used in the Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim, leaving us to ponder a weird and ragged gem of subterranean cinema.
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Director/Screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar
By Roderick Heath
After the high-wire act of All About My Mother (1999), Pedro Almodovar seems have been attempting a return to the artist he was before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987) established him as everyone’s favourite cuddly genre-and-gender-warping Spaniard. Truth of the matter is, Pedro’s always been a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and the distance between his best and worst movies seems less a matter of the ingredients he puts in—which are more or less consistent—and more of the confidence with which he attacks them. This confidence can make his wildest fancies seem organic rather than contrived to keep ahead of expectations. Thus, Bad Education and Volver finished up as occasionally interesting, but finally rambling, clumsy concoctions, the work of an artist trying to feel his way out of his usual affectations but only chasing them around like a dog after its own tail. His efforts to emulate Hitchcock are painful to me.
Likewise, Dark Habits, his fourth feature-length film, and Law of Desire, his seventh and the one that gained him some international repute, are both looking older than they actually are. Part of that’s obviously because of their low budgets, but it’s also because Almodovar the filmmaker wasn’t yet up to pace with Almodovar the ideas man. Both films are provocative in a playful, dated fashion and disappointingly slack in the pacing and lack of zesty design that make films like Women on the Verge or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) seem to float like silk in the wind. Nonetheless, although they never quite catch fire, they’re both intriguing and absorbing in their own right, and reveal glimmerings of Almodovar’s best instincts.
Dark Habits follows a Yolanda Bel (Cristina Sánchez Pascual), nightclub singer, junkie, and former teacher who runs from the police after her sometime boyfriend Jorge (Will More) dies from injecting a bad batch of heroin she bought. She finds in her purse a card given to her by the Mother Superior of a skid row mission who is a fan of hers, so she decides to head to the mission and hide out there. The mission itself has fallen on times as hard as her own: once a shelter for the desperate demimonde, now no self-respecting junkie or prostitute will come there, and the money promised by a wealthy, fascist Marquess to sustain their operation has dried up because his widow, the Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), glad to be free of her asshole husband, doesn’t want to pay up. The Abbess, Julia (Julieta Serrano), has given her nuns absurdly penitent names: the irascible Sister Rat of the Sewer (Chus Lampreave) writes trashy but widely beloved novels based on the lives of the women who used to come to the mission. She publishes these through her sister, who happily keeps all the money and acclaim. Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) raises a pet tiger. LSD-dropping Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) is a murderess for whom the Mother Superior lied on the stand to protect, causing the guilty sister to feel bound in everlasting repentance to her. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) is in love with a priest (Manuel Zarzo), who’s a musical fan.
Abbess Julia herself is the film’s dominant character: a drug-abusing, conniving, closeted lesbian, she’s as lovable and intriguing as she is two-faced and occasionally cruel. In love with Yolanda, she’s haunted by two other women. One is Merche (Cecilia Roth), a former nun who returns to the Mission briefly, on the run from the cops, and is taken away the next day. The other, Virginia, was the Marquesa’s daughter, a wayward girl who became a nun herself, and ran away to Africa and was thought to have been eaten by cannibals. The obvious joke—that these ladies of mercy and religion are variously crazed and depraved—is leavened by Almodovar’s genuine interest in them as people, and his delight in the hazy boundaries between sin and sanctity, a purgatory where Julia is the queen. This dialogue of impulses is a key to Almodovar’s whole oeuvre. His inability to hate anyone sees the initially obnoxious Marquesa become a figure of sympathy, and Yolanda, to aid her, must finally outwit Julia, who, desperate to keep her mission going, tries to blackmail the Marquesa into coughing up funds in return for information about Virginia’s fate: yes, she’s dead, but her son has been brought up, Tarzan-like, by apes.
In much the same way, neither Almodovar nor the main protagonist of Law of Desire, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), can bring himself to hate Antonio Benítez (Antonio Banderas), who kills Pablo’s former lover Juan Bermúdez (Miguel Molina) in a crazed effort to secure Pablo’s ardour. As the title indicates, Pedro feels that desire has its own laws, and adherence to such laws will occasionally have such a result. Pablo is a writer and director, and his transsexual sister Tina (Carmen Maura) often acts in his erotic movies and stage plays. Juan, Pablo’s long-time lover, is flirting with girls, feeling uneasy with the uncommitted Pablo and finally moving away to reconsider his life. Pablo, as an artist, struggles to assert control over the strange gaps and absences in his life by inventing personae on the page, and dictating for Juan the perfect kind of letter he’d like to get from him. Enter Antonio, a shadowing, shadowy momma’s boy who claims to be largely straight, but aggressively seduces Pablo. Right at the point when Pablo finally realises he really loves Juan, Antonio get onto his motorcycle one night, and travels out to the coastal bar where Juan is working. Their confrontation concludes with Antonio pushing Juan off a cliff into the sea.
A constant motif of Almodovar’s is the act of writing, of creativity, and its intricate relationship to sexuality, fellowship, and coping with life. So many of his protagonists are scribbling out sketches for stories that invoke the past and set a template for the future, often scrabbling to rewrite basic matters of identity and history. Just as often, these creations take on a life and velocity of their own. Simultaneously, the commonly accepted boundaries between real-life individuals become as porous as in the imagination. Families are composed on the spot, sexuality reaches an ecstatic flux, and biology comes in a constant second to love. Pablo’s on-the-page character, whom he adopts as a pseudonym for writing letters to Antonio to fool his mother, is mistaken for a real person by the police investigating Juan’s death, and they believe she may have killed him.
Pablo finally is so horrified by the way his fantasies and life become intertwined and result in two deaths that he hurls his typewriter from the window of his apartment, and the infernal device explodes in flames. On the other hand, Julia berates Sister Rat for stealing the lives of their mission’s former charges for fiction, and yet Rat’s books simply reflect how Julia and all her kind are people who withdraw from life and rely on other, engaged, passionate people to supply them with a purpose. The characters in Almodovar’s films rewrite their lives with perpetual energy. A major subplot in Law of Desire is Pablo’s relationship with Tina, whose teenage affair with her own father before her sex-change has left a gaping hole in hers and Pablo’s lives, a yearning that Pablo expresses through his plays and films. Antonio becomes almost an aggressive personification of the emotional mines that keep detonating under Pablo’s life.
Law is fondly recalled as a landmark of both gay cinema and the early cult of Antonio Banderas. Banderas, dripping charisma and other bodily fluids, tackles his part with a raw gusto, bringing to his character a boyish enthusiasm that counteracts his noxious acts. The comparison with the prissiness of his relationship with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993) isn’t complimentary. Almodovar’s highly un-Moral Majority outlook is delightfully realised in scenes such as when Tina’s adopted daughter Ada, (Manuela Velasco), left in her charge after her mother, who had an affair with Tina and then left the country, finds Pablo’s gay porn and dismisses it as a comic book. Law’s unabashed homoeroticism and nuanced feel for gay relationships is still amazingly rare on the mainstream screen (it’s streets ahead of all the yearning canoodling of Brokeback Mountain, too). Even Almodovar hasn’t really pulled it off in his later works, hiding to a certain extent in the loopy Sirkian colours and comedy. But Law is never quite as tight or tense as it wants to be, and the attempt to build Hitchockian dread anticipating when things will turn sour doesn’t come off. One scene in Law anticipates his later, troubled Bad Education (2003)—when Tina encounters a priest who had an affair with her when she was still a teenager—confirms that the relative inertia that afflicts both films is founded in an anxious appraisal of some vividly personal themes.
Both films are loaded with Almodovar’s expertly weird supporting characters, like the two cops who investigate Juan’s death, one of whom is a prissy young homophobe and the other an older, grizzled, laissez-faire dude. There are also the nearly inevitable moments of cabaret-mime: in Dark Habits, Yolanda lip-synchs a saucy ditty, with several of the nuns pretending to back her up, for Julia’s entertainment at her climactic birthday party (“It was so obscene!” Julia congratulates Yolanda gratefully), and in Law, Tina and Ada do the same in a staging of Cocteau’s The Human Voice. These are amongst the flourishes that make Almodovar seem like the almost caricatured paragon of queer aesthetics. Law’s funniest moment is its opening sequence in which a young man on a bed is directed by an unseen voice to undress and act as if masturbating, and then the camera finally cuts to the two actors who are actually post-dubbing this scene, pretending to be in the throes of passion. It’s a seemingly irrelevant, but funny moment that Denys Arcand stole for his Jesus of Montreal (1989), but it neatly introduces an ironic dialogue that conflates watcher and watched, artist and subject, film and audience, top and bottom.
Law of Desire is by far the most interesting and well-realised of the two films. Dark Habits never quite focuses its narrative, remaining a bunch of amusing ideas in search of a story. Almodovar’s distrust of story would crystallise into something far richer, and Law of Desire’s hesitancy seems in part informed by how unsure he is to play the material—as psychodrama or black comedy? Carmen Maura is present in both films, and though she doesn’t get much to do in Habits, she hits the screen with authority as the quick-witted, two-fisted Tina in Law, where her self-determining spunk contrasts Pablo’s more passive self-indulgence. Other members of Almodovar’s stock troupe who appear in small roles include Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes in Habits and Rossy de Palma in Law. The major weakness of Law is Poncela, who’s a drippy and uncharismatic presence. It’s hard to believe all this bother revolves around him, really. l
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Director: Jesús Franco
By Roderick Heath
What better way to start the new year than with a psychedelic lesbian vampire freak-out?
Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) and her boyfriend Omar (Andris Monales, billed as Victor Feldman) attend an erotic cabaret show one night in Istanbul, where they watch a kinky stage act in which a dark-haired woman straddles a prostrate, wooden blonde. Linda is transfixed: the brunette exactly resembles a figure that keeps appearing in her dreams, calling to her incessantly from a mysterious island amidst a plethora of repetitive, fetishist images, for example, droplets of blood dribbling down a pane glass door, a sky-flailing red kite, and teeming scorpions.
Linda works as an agent for an Istanbul real estate firm. Soon she is sent off on a mission to negotiate a real estate deal with Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda, billed as Susann Korda); Linda is overseeing the transfer of assets of a Count Dracula and his family to Carody. On her journey to the Mediterranean coast, she is put up in a hotel where she is warned by the sleazy porter Memmet (director Franco) about the dangers of going to the Countess’ private island; she soon finds that Memmet himself is a crazed killer collecting corpses in the basement. Linda flees for the presumed safety of the Countess’ island, but things don’t get much saner there. She is astounded to encounter the images from her dreams, and the reclining, bikini-clad form of the Countess, who invites her to bathe nude within a minute of meeting. In the night, the Countess enters her room, seduces her, and then bites her in the neck. When she awakens in the morning, Linda is dazed and has a vision of the Countess floating dead in a pool, at which point she blacks out and awakens later in a private psychiatric clinic.
Jesús Franco, born in Madrid in 1930, wanted to be a jazz musician, and gained his first film credits as an assistant director and composer for Juan Antonio Bardem’s (uncle of Javier) Comicos (1954). A sometime trash novelist and all-around busybody, Franco made a breakthrough in the grindhouse universe with Gritos en la Noche (The Awful Dr. Orloff, 1962), an adaptation of his own book and a rip-off of Eyes Without a Face (1959). Franco has directed more than 180 features and stands today as one of the gods in the pantheon of Eurotrash sex-and-horror auteurs of the late 1960s. He gained mainstream visibility by taking over the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series.
But Franco maintained his sideline as an erotic-minded surrealist, one part Luis Buñuel, one part Marquis de Sade (whose works he has adapted several times), and with Necronomicon (1967), gained the praise of no less a personage than Fritz Lang, who called it the only sex movie he’d ever watched all of because of its intoxicating beauty. In that golden age of semi-underground cinema, Franco worked between the poles of respected filmmakers like Buñuel and genre director Mario Bava, and gruesome hackmeisters of the ilk of Antonio Margheriti and Adrian Hoven. Along the way, he accumulated, by the IMDb’s count, some 69 pseudonymous credits.
Vampyros Lesbos is quintessential of its era: infused with a decorative, meandering lushness in its designs and cinematic effects, casual perversity, pseudo-psychedelic style, and a striking experimental music score by Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab (Franco did the score for the heavily edited Spanish cut), alternating sonorous, trippy organs with saucy jazz-pop, such as that accompanying some pointless sunbathing scenes. It’s an uneasy mixture of oneiric, splintered-narrative surrealism rendered as a pop-art, and a seamy whack-off flick. Franco loves his zoom lens. Picturesque Istanbul sunset? Zoom shot. Naked sunbathing scene? Zoom shot. Moth crawling up a window? Zoom in, baby. Cheesy as these effects can be, Franco nonetheless labours to weave a totality of style, a restless, oneiric sensibility that’s genuinely entrancing. Or, as a friend put it when I played her a snatch of the soundtrack, ‘This makes me feel like I’m tripping!’
Vampyros Lesbos’ plot moves according to a fitting dream logic, and melds two highly disparate mythologies to evoke a no man’s land of sexual and moral confusion. Earlier in 1970, Franco had directed an attempt to make a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker with Christopher Lee entitled El Conde Dracula (which also starred Soledad Miranda as Lucy); Vampyros is its semi-sequel, but it executes a perverse spin on Stoker, with Linda as Harker and Countess Nadine as Dracula and entwining the legend of Sappho, with its predatory anti-heroine inhabiting a sun-struck Grecian isle, her irresistible call cutting through Linda’s defences even when she lies in bed with her boyfriend, bringing home a peculiarly literal vision of the call of the forbidden. Carody herself was a childhood victim of rape by soldiers defiling her native Hungary, from which she was rescued but then vampirized by Count Dracula. This led to her rejection of men in general, except for her silent, loyal servant Morpho (Jose-Martinez Blanco). Her last lover was Memmet’s missing wife, Agra (Heidrun Kussin), who is in the same clinic that Linda washes up in, completely mad, psychically linked to the Countess, writhing ecstatically and howling in pain according to what signals she receives from her mistress. How Linda got from the island into the clinic is never explained, but she is soon reunited with Omar. He becomes the target of the Countess, who has followed Linda to Istanbul determined to take her back.
Franco’s recurring fascinations—apart from hot chicks making out with each other and killing guys—include a blurring of the borders between dream, life, and performance. As in other Franco films like Necronomicon and Venus In Furs, the villain is a cabaret artiste, taunting with and disappearing within her ritualised erotic acts. Vampyros begins with a lengthy performance sequence in which Nadine performs, enacting her narcissistic seduction of her prey (she makes love to herself in a mirror before turning her attention to a passive, naked blonde). But the second time she gives this performance, she actually feasts on her partner, to the audience’s wild applause. Nadine’s servant, like that of several of Franco’s villains, is named Morpho, cutting right to the heart of their perfervid confusion of dreams, identity, desire, and the way these elements intertwine. The script is so dodgy in points (immortal dialogue: “Can you tell me more about Count Dracula and his family?”) that credited cowriter Jaime Chávarri denies having anything to do with it. But it’s also essentially superfluous: Vampyros Lesbos tells a story of a sort, but it’s better taken as a fugue, and works superbly as a surreal meditation on the nature of unconscious desire.
There’s the inevitable soft-core clinch of Linda and Nadine, actually the flattest scene in the film, at least until Nadine bites her, a moment that carries real corporeal punch. Elsewhere, Franco’s images are deliriously fetishist in bent, for example, the visions of the Countess calling to her would-be lover with arms outstretched like a primal priestess, her red scarf wavering in the breeze, to her final demise. Nadine is associated visually with both a catcher of fish (her dinnertime seduction of Linda is backgrounded by a great net) and a venomous scorpion waiting to sting. Franco conjures an unsettling mood, although he indulges none of the more familiar gothic touches. The Countess’ island abode is hyper-modern; Franco’s surrealism is closer in mood to Resnais than to Murnau, and even Nadine’s family castle is hardly a cobweb-strewn dungeon. The action almost always takes place in radiant, delirium-inducing daylight, emphasised by the sunstruck lushness of its Turkish settings. This film seems to have influenced likes the of Tarantino, who openly admires Franco, and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (which always showed signs of ’60s and ’70s Euro-horror, underneath its deadpan Kubrickian obsessiveness), particularly in the orgy sequence and its weird music.
Lurking within this trippy vision are dashes of psychosexual satire. Linda’s psychiatrist listens to her account of her dream whilst drawing doodles and recommends she have more sex. Spurned husband Memmet turns into a savage serial killer, trying to enforce a perfect sadomasochistic control over women. Dr. Alwin Seward (Dennis Price), the private clinic’s director, pretends to want to cure and expel the evil and madness that has claimed the women under his care, but actually eagerly wishes to embrace the possibility of eternal supernatural life. When he meets the Countess, he begs her for this, but she contemptuously has Morpho kill him instead. Given that only a few years before this film was made homosexuals were being given electric shocks in aversion therapy by men of science, Franco’s cynicism about it is understandable and prescient. Omar and his father, evoking the revenge of the patriarchy, set out to bring down their Sapphic enemy.
But in the end, it’s Linda who euthanizes the hopeless Countess by jamming a pin in her eye, after almost giving in to the temptation to feast on Nadine and become the new vampire queen. Agra drops dead and Morpho commits suicide. The vision Linda had of the Countess dead in the pool is reconfigured as the image of one of the island’s teeming scorpions drowned by the tide. If Franco reveals his lack of courage, it’s that he plays the game of neatly tidying up his film with a finale that returns us to stable, familiar male-female relations and morality.
Franco’s no-name cast allows him to push the boundaries without actually approaching porn. Stroemberg is a nonentity, and the presence of aging, ill-looking Price, the gay blade of Kind Hearts and Coronets, dubbed into German no less, is just weird. Miranda is the film’s core—the tragic cult actress, who died the same year in a car crash shortly after being offered a major studio contract, plays the wicked lady with the right mixture of distance, severity, sensual knowledge, and a hint of the tragic.
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Director: Alejandro Amenábar
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The questions of identity and the nature of reality have penetrated deep into the world zeitgeist in the past 10–15 years, if we are to judge by the movies that have been made. From the visually dazzling juvenile entertainments like the Matrix films and genre-bending films by Quentin Tarantino to perceptually distorted horror films like Identity, it seems that the new generation is trying to figure out who they are in the same way my generation used drug movies, genre benders of the various New Waves around the world, and perceptually demented horror films to mirror our confusion. The year 1997 saw the release of two superior examples of this class of identity thrillers—the American independent film Habit and ace Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes.
In both films, the main characters are men in their 20s dealing with loss. Habit’s Sam is grieving the death of a father he barely knew and a relationship that has ended. César (Eduardo Noriega), the main character in Open Your Eyes, is grappling with a drastic change in his body. Both men are plagued by vampiric women and a hallucinatory existence that keep them separated from ordinary existence.
The film opens onto a black screen with a woman’s voice gently urging, “Open your eyes. Open your eyes.” An alarm sounds, waking a young man. We see his naked back as his outstretched arm silences the alarm. We next see him staring drowsily at himself in the mirror. We see him through frosted glass as he showers. Then, his hand wipes away the steam on the mirror as he regards himself again. Now dressed, he races down the stairs of his exquisite, modern home and out the door. He drives his vintage VW bug through the streets of Madrid and notices that absence of people. He pulls over, gets out of his car, and wanders into one of the city’s main drags. He is the only person there.
After this stunning, empty cityscape, the film repeats the same sequence as the opening credits roll and extends it. This time, the streets are abuzz with life. The young man, César, stops on street corner to pick up his best friend Pelayo (Fele Martinez). “You own three cars. Why do we always have to drive in this piece of junk?” asks Pelayo. César is an orphan made rich by his inheritance of his family’s catering business. Pelayo complains that César‘s extraordinary good looks and money help him get any woman he wants, that he basically leads a charmed life, doing exactly as he pleases. The pair play a hard game of racketball. After one intense point, the scene shifts. César, sitting on the floor with his head down, is being questioned by Antonio (Chete Lera), a psychiatrist at the prison for the criminally insane where César is being held. César has killed someone, and Antonio is trying to determine if he was legally insane when he committed the crime. Antonio is drawn to helping César, who hides his face behind a mask.
Slowly, the events leading to César’s incarceration are revealed. César is a playboy who never sees a woman more than twice. This doesn’t sit well with his latest conquest, Nuria (Najwa Nimri). She crashes a birthday party César is throwing for himself. To get away from her, he begins to chat up Sofia (Penélope Cruz), the beautiful woman Pelayo has brought to the party as his date. César tells her he is in catering; she says she’s an actress. “I don’t like actors,” says César. “They’re so skilled at hiding their true feelings.” Nonetheless, César begins his seduction of Sofia—much to Pelayo’s disgust. They leave the party and go to her place. César looks at pictures of a happy and clowning Sofia surrounded by friends and loved ones; he’s touched. They sketch pictures of each other. Sofia’s picture is a caricature that shows César surrounded by expensive cars and bags of money. He’s offended by it, then shows her the beautiful sketch of her he has done. They watch TV, on which a man is being interviewed about cryostasis. It is light when he finally leaves her apartment, but their night has been a chaste one.
He is greeted on the street by Nuria, who convinces him to let her drive him home. Jealous, she accuses César of sleeping with Sofia. She starts speeding and then asks César if he believes in god. She intentionally plunges off the road and down an embankment. The car hits a solid wall and crumples. The horrific crash kills Nuria and grossly disfigures César. Surgeons work on his face to allow him to breathe and talk normally, and they give him the good news that he has suffered no long-term neurological impairment. But they can do nothing to rescue his face. He is outraged. They provide him with a mask, which they only offer in cases of “extreme rejection” of their cosmetic efforts. César is shunned, particularly by Sofia. He confronts her in the park where she earns extra change as a mime/statue. She agrees to meet him at a nightclub, but when he arrives, he finds Pelayo is there at Sofia’s request to provide a buffer between her and César. César gets drunk and passes out on the street.
Luckily for César, Sofia has a change of heart. She finds him in the street in the morning, kisses his disfigured face, and tells him she loves him. A few months later, the doctors call and say they have new, experimental technology that could restore his face. About a month after the surgery, Sofia approaches César, who is sitting in a chair with plastic molds on his face. She pulls them off one by one to reveal César as he looked before the accident. They make love in a scene of touching beauty. It is then that César’s mind begins to play tricks with him in scenes of confusion and terror, with Nuria and the man from the cryostasis commercial popping up where they are not expected, and César’s appearance randomly changing from gruesome to woosome and back again.
Amenábar’s nightmarish thriller weaves us through César’s experience, confusing us along with him, and providing Antonio as our guide through César’s dreams and experience every bit as much as he is one for César. The cinematography and art direction of brothers Hans Burman and Wolfgang Burmann are flawless. I was particularly struck by the nightclub scene; it’s bluish glow a ghostly metaphor for the unconscious, it quite reminded me of another nightclub in another movie in part about madness—Sean Penn’s The Pledge. César’s despair over his change in appearance is so profound that we realize that he is lost to himself without his good looks. Indeed, his struggle has larger implications for the surfaces of life we all maintain like a smooth, but fragile layer of skin. Would the people in our lives be willing to accept us if our status changed drastically? Were our existential masks to crack, we might go into the self-annihilating despair César experienced.
Eduardo Noriega is one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen; he’s also one of the best actors around. He knows how to radiate confidence as a birthright and anger at his loss of control in all its many shades. Those who may first have been introduced to Penélope Cruz in Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s remake of this film, will see how good an actress she really is when able to use her native language. She has since developed more as an actress in English, but I still prefer her work in Spanish. Chete Lera is a wonderfully compassionate psychiatrist whose fate is unbelievably heartbreaking.
Slowly, the film reveals its secrets in ways that any thriller/scifi fans will love. The ending is both shocking and satisfying as it returns to César control of his life. The film’s opening is repeated at its end, after we, too, have opened our eyes. l
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Director: Isabel Coixet
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Kathryn Ware
Two damaged souls find each other in the most unlikely of places, aboard a near-abandoned oil rig off the coast of Ireland. Josef has been severely burned in an accident and requires a nurse’s care before he’s well enough to be moved to a mainland hospital. Hanna, an immigrant factory worker on a company-imposed holiday (her first in four years), volunteers to care for the patient. So begins one of the most unromantic romances committed to film in years.
As the downbeat story plays out, these two strangers open up to one another, revealing deeper scars within. Hanna (Sarah Polley, in a powerful performance) is withdrawn and taciturn. She has her set routine, eats only three foods (rice, apples and chicken), has no friends, and doesn’t quite know what to do with herself on vacation. Aboard the oil rig she has a purpose and joins a skeleton crew of eccentric loners who also prefer to be left alone. Josef (Tim Robbins), confined to bed and in much pain, is temporarily blinded and he carries on a constant monolog trying to draw out his silent nurse with flirtatious patter. Over time, Hanna opens up, culminating in a powerful confession scene that reveals a painful past.
The Secret Life of Words scores unconventionality points for both its setting and as a dramatic romance, and Robbins and Polley (despite a wavering accent) give strong anchoring performances, but as a whole, the film comes up short. Some of the dialog is stagy, suggesting a more effective two character stage play. Characters aboard the rig (including a squawking goose) provide much needed relief from the intense chamber drama playing out in Josef’s sick room, but they don’t really add much to the story. The soundtrack, punctuated with tunes incongruous with the rest of the film, misfires more often than not. Julie Christie, as a woman in Denmark with a tie to Hanna’s past, has a big scene late in the film that comes off as preachy—a message inserted by the director, that while valuable in its own right, stops the story cold.
Finally, The Secret Life of Words is puzzling and not in a good way. Questions are raised that are more frustrating than thought-provoking. Whose strange voice (think of the slightly grating voice of Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies) narrates the beginning and end of the film? What exactly does it signify? Why does Hanna sound as if she’s from Ireland in the first half of the movie and Eastern Europe in the second? And in the relating of her traumatic past, whose tale is she really telling? The more I thought about Secret Life afterward, the less satisfying I found the experience. l
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Director: Luis Buñuel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In his excellent autobiography, My Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel said, “When I was younger, my so-called conscience forbade me to entertain certain images—like fratricide, for instance, or incest. I’d tell myself these were hideous ideas and push them out of my mind. But when I reached the age of 60, I finally understood the perfect innocence of the imagination. It took that long for me to admit that whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone.”
Luis Buñuel was 61 when Viridiana premiered, and his tale of sexual perversion and the deflowering of a would-be nun bore out his philosophy to a tee. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, as you might imagine, was not as amused by the imaginative freedom of the over-60 director. Despite Viridiana‘s selection as Spain’s official entry into the Cannes Film Festival, Buñuel was forced to flee to Mexico to escape reprisals by Franco’s fascist regime. He remained there the rest of his life, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. (Ironically, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who must have been inspired by Buñuel, took up the cause of examining Franco’s Spain in both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.)
Many of Buñuel’s films rail against the hypocrisy and uselessness of the bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church, and the State. While these themes remain fairly constant throughout his genuine oeuvre (as opposed to the dozens of films he made for a buck in Mexico as a journeyman director), some of his films are informed primarily by his surrealist philosophy, and reflect his lifelong fascination with dreams. Viridiana is just such a film.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a novice in a cloistered convent. Shortly before she is to take final vows and be locked away from society forever, the Mother Superior suggests that she pay one last visit to her uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), who paid for her schooling. Viridiana strenuously resists this suggestion, but says that if ordered, she will go. This scene is the first to suggest the dreamlike structure of the film, with a resistant consciousness obeying an order to plunge into the irrational.
The scene shifts to an estate, where we see the fancy footwork of a young girl jumping rope under a tree. She is Rita (Teresa Rabal), the sassy daughter of Don Jaime’s maid Ramona (Margarita Lozano). When the camera pulls back, we see Don Jaime watching her in delight. He even surprises her with a new jump rope that has real wooden handles. He seems to revel in her innocence and liveliness. His own life has been a lonely one since the death of his wife.
Viridiana arrives into this sweet scene, but Don Jaime’s warm greeting to her is met with a distinct chill. Viridiana doesn’t really remember him and still considers him something of a disgrace for fathering a child out of wedlock and abandoning the mother and child, though Don Jaime claims that was the way the woman wanted things. He assures her that his son will be provided for after he has died. He also comments on how much like her late aunt Viridiana is, right down to her walk.
Viridiana goes to her room to change and rest. The camera moves into Don Jaime’s bedroom, where he has a white, high-heeled shoe slipped over the top half of his foot and a veil draped over a dressing screen. He picks up a corset and starts to model it in front of his mirror, quickly tucking it out of sight when the loyal Ramona comes in. He tries to persuade Ramona to speak to Viridiana on his behalf, to ask her to stay on at the house indefinitely. Ramona demurs, suggesting Don Jaime speak to her himself. He moves to her room, but hides out of sight when he sees Viridiana disrobing. In one of Buñuel’s patented leg shots, she removes her thick, dark stockings to reveal a very shapely leg.
With Ramona’s assistance, he eventually persuades Viridiana to do him one last favor—don his dead wife’s wedding gown. Apparently, Viridiana was moved by the story of his wife’s death in his arms on their wedding night. However, she is repulsed when he proposes marriage to her. This refusal is Ramona’s cue to drug Viridiana’s tea. Don Jaime lays her out on a bed, intending to rape her. He unbuttons her top and kisses her passionately, but shies from the deed itself. When she comes to in the morning, however, he lies to her and tells her he has ruined her so that she can never return to the convent. Her disgusted rejection of him pushes him to suicide. In a scene of obscene hilarity, Rita is shown playing with the same jump rope Don Jaime used to hang himself.
Overcome with guilt, Viridiana determines that she cannot return to the convent after all. To carry out her pious mission in the world, she invites local beggars to live in Don Jaime’s mansion. She hopes that with religious instruction and useful tasks to perform, they will be uplifted and their souls will be saved. Most submit themselves to her requirements, but as with many religiously based missions, the unfortunates endure the sermons primarily for the food and shelter. In a move that Princess Diana would mirror several decades later, Viridiana touches a “leper” (actually, a syphilis victim) whom the other beggars shun. They agree to suffer his presence, but only if he sleeps in the shed and ties a can to himself so they will know when he is around. When one of the beggars applies himself to painting a religious picture, he asks the lovely Viridiana to pose for him as the Blessed Virgin. When she does so, her vanity becomes all too apparent.
To pick away at this chink in the saintly armor enters Viridiana’s bastard cousin Jorge (Francisco Rabal). He unashamedly brings his mistress with him and sets about turning the neglected estate to useful growing and industry. His mistress notices his undue interest in the indifferent Viridiana, and leaves him. He then takes up with Ramona.
One night, the owners of the estate must leave for town. The beggars become curious about the main house and sneak in. They kill a couple of goats and have a feast, soiling the expensive lace tablecloth, breaking the crystal and china, and making love behind the furniture. In a grotesque parody of Don Jaime’s earlier scene, the syphilitic beggar dons the dead wife’s corset and her veil and dances an obscene jig. One of the women urges them to assemble for a photograph. The tableau they create is one of the greatest visual gags in cinematic history. When the masters of the house return, the beggars vanish from the house or remove themselves to other rooms. Two of the beggars overpower Jorge and rape Viridiana. With her ideals in tatters and her sexual nature awakened in an archetypal way, Viridiana is both freed and imprisoned by her new, worldly impulses.
This film dwells in the unconscious as easily as an ant dwells in its underground tunnels. The death of Don Jaime’s wife on their wedding night is a shadow cast over the rest of the film. Could the rich man have murdered her so as not to have to consummate the marriage? He certainly has done nothing to find another mate or sexual partner. Perhaps she, too, was drugged, but with an accidental lethal dose. Clearly, Don Jaime’s sexual perversion sets the stage for the beggars’ orgy and Viridiana’s fall and rebirth as a sexual creature with warped tastes. The way the story unfolds reminds me of the progress of a dream. Viridiana’s close resemblance to her aunt sounds like the “you were there, but you weren’t you” episodes that friends often hear from dreamers. Viridiana’s dress-up date with her uncle reveals incestuous impulses in her as well, to come to full flower by the end of the dream.
Luis Buñuel’s darkly humorous films stand up extremely well for new audiences because they tap archetypes and primal impulses we all have and find the need to suppress at different times for different reasons. His discovery that “whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone” was a terrific benefit to younger moviegoers looking for that same release.
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Director: Guillermo del Toro
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The cinephile world has gone wild over Pan’s Labyrinth. The film has earned a phenomenal 99% positive rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s hard to know what more there is to say about it—but I’ll try. While Pan’s Labyrinth is a must-see among cinephiles and has strong support from the fanboy demographic who flocked to see two of Guillermo del Toro’s previous films, Blade 2 and Hellboy, the moviegoing populace at large is going to ignore it in droves because it’s in Spanish and too violent for family viewing. That’s a shame, because this is as fine a bit of storytelling as the best Steven Spielberg narratives. Despite its realistic, graphic violence and buckets of blood, the movie rides a wave of enchantment by weaving its overt fairytale storyline subtly, but powerfully, into its real-world storyline to create a sublime sort of hybrid.
As a sort of follow-up to del Toro’s 2001 feature The Devil’s Backbone, a bleak and chilling ghost story set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a rural area of Spain shortly after Franco’s fascist regime has taken power. Rebels still hope to unseat Franco, so military outposts continue their gruesome job of exterminating the opposition. To one such outpost travel 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who has married the outpost’s leader, Captain Vidal (Sergi López).
As del Toro sets the scene at the beginning of the film, a voiceover narration tells of the princess of the underworld who, out of curiosity and boredom, went up to the physical world and lost all memory of her identity in the rays of the sun. Her father searched for her, and never gave up hope that she would return to his kingdom one day and reclaim her identity and place. Already, del Toro has very simply put us into “tell me a story” mode, piquing our interest and riveting our attention to the tale he intends to unfold. Further, he concentrates our attention on Ofelia, who is shown in close-up reading this fairytale in a book as she rides in the car with her mother. Carmen becomes nauseated, and her driver must stop the car for her. This is an arduous trip, and Carmen is having a difficult pregnancy. She is, however, obeying her new husband, who believes a baby boy should be born near his father. In the captain’s mind, there is no chance the baby will be a girl.
Their late arrival to the outpost annoys the Captain. His greeting to his wife is perfunctory and includes an order for her to sit in a wheelchair for transportation to her new quarters. Ofelia does not like him, but she is far beneath his notice. Looking after her will be Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the chief housekeeper. It is Mercedes who goes to retrieve Ofelia after she wanders off to explore the grounds and finds an ancient stone maze in the rundown garden.
Carmen meets Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), who will be attending her during her pregnancy. He seems kind and concerned; Ofelia learns that he is providing medical supplies to the resistance through Mercedes, whose brother is one of its leaders. Mercedes sees Ofelia watch her take the supplies from the doctor and worries about the security of her secret. Ofelia reassures her; her hatred for the Captain guarantees Mercedes’ and Dr. Ferreiro’s safety. We come to hate the Captain, too, when we watch him commit a heinous act of brutality just to teach one of his officers a lesson.
Ofelia looks for an escape from her unhappy world. She finds it when a praying mantis that has followed her car transforms into a fairy and leads her out of the house to the maze. She comes to a circle with a staircase leading deep below ground. When she reaches the bottom, she meets a half-human, half-ram faun (Doug Jones)—perhaps it is Pan himself. He instantly recognizes her as the long-lost princess and convinces her that she must complete three tasks to prove that her essence is still pure and take her rightful place in the underworld kingdom. He hands her a book and tells her to read it and complete the tasks before the next full moon, which is fast approaching.
Ofelia examines the book in private. Its pages are empty, but when the light hits it, words and drawings magically appear. Her first task is to go to the base of a very old tree that is being strangled by a giant toad. There she is to place three rubies in the toad’s mouth, which will kill it and free the tree. She runs out in a beautiful party dress her mother has gotten her to wear to a special dinner party the Captain is having that night to introduce Carmen to his friends. She carefully removes the dress, although she has muddied her party shoes, and crawls inside the tree to confront the toad and complete the task. Enormous beetles writhe all around her, and she is slimed by the toad before conceiving a clever way to complete her task. When she emerges from the tree with a magic key the toad coughed up, her party dress has blown into the mud. Her mother, who has already been shown a cold shoulder by her husband at the dinner party, expresses her disappointment that Ofelia has missed the dinner and ruined her dress.
Soon thereafter, Carmen’s pregnancy takes a bad turn. When Ofelia looks in her magic book for her next task, the pages reveal only a red and spreading stain. She runs to her mother and finds her hemorrhaging badly, in a scene of graphic horror. The Captain tells Dr. Ferreiro that if a choice must be made, to save his son over his wife. Ofelia overhears this conversation. She knows that if her mother dies, she will be utterly expendable.
Ofelia is given her second task. She must use the key to open a safe in a banquet hall and retrieve its contents. The faun admonishes her not to eat from the banquet table under any circumstances and to return to her home before an hourglass he gives her runs out of sand. He gives her a piece of chalk to draw a door to the banquet hall, which is the only way to reach it from her room, and three of his fairies to help her. A creature called Pale Man (also played by Doug Jones) slumbers at the table. She goes past him and retrieves the contents of the safe easily. But she pauses to eat two grapes, rousing Pale Man and sending him in pursuit of her. He eats two of the fairies, but Ofelia manages to escape. She hands the faun the item she brought back, an ancient dagger, but hands him back only one of the fairies in the box her gave her. The faun is furious that she did not listen to him and ends the trial.
Back in the real world, the hunt for the resistance fighters is on. The Captain has decided to starve them out of hiding and confiscates all of the food in the area and locks it away, taking the only key to the storeroom from Mercedes. The insurgents blow up two trains to create a diversion. When the troops return from investigating the explosion, the storeroom has been unlocked, and all of the food is missing. The Captain follows his hunches to uncover the conspirators in his household. A new doctor is put in charge of Carmen, and she dies in childbirth. In the meantime, Ofelia has been forgiven and allowed one more chance to complete her trial. She is instructed to bring her newborn brother to the faun. Unfortunately, the Captain sees her, and follows her into the maze where the film climaxes.
Pan’s Labyrinth spends as much time in the real world as in its fantasy world. Del Toro toggles between the stories expertly, relieving some of our tension at the horrible acts of cruelty perpetrated by the Captain by letting us escape with Ofelia. But he never allows the suspense to dissipate completely; this is no Disney fairytale. The trials are frightening, and Ofelia is put on her guard when Mercedes tells her that fauns cannot be trusted. Del Toro has shown his complete ease with make-believe in other films; therefore, he finds it unnecessary to decide whether Ofelia’s fantasy world is real or not. This decision frees the audience from worrying about this detail and allows it to surrender completely to his story. All directors could learn a lesson or two from del Toro’s less-is-more approach to CGI. The effects, CGI and otherwise, in this movie are sophisticated, subtle, and appropriate. They don’t seek to reinvent the wheel with regard to a fairytale look, yet still manage to be original and surprising, particularly the Pale Man creature.
There are a few over-the-top moments that knock this film off its masterpiece pedestal, but nonetheless, add to the audience’s enjoyment. The Captain’s villainy is poured on with a bit too much relish. One wince-inducing scene (the man in the seat next to me was doubled up and moaning in agony watching it) demonstrates that the Captain, far from being completely cold, relishes pain. It reminded me of a scene from Urban Cowboy (1980) in which the no-good Wes (Scott Glenn) is shown full-face, playing with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle he just emptied, twisting it between his teeth in a leer of pure evil. In another scene, Mercedes’ desperate run from the outpost ends in a far-too-pat moment designed strictly to provide a payoff to the audience.
Ultimately, we are left with a nagging question that melds the two stories together. Was the final test in the trial completed the way we are led to believe it was? I think that to win a kingdom, enormous sacrifices must be made. The resistance fighters understood this and were willing to lay down their lives to be free. In the end, Ofelia’s essential purity may have been what the faun was always after.
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Director: Luis Buñuel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If you asked me who I thought was the best director of all time, I’d answer Stanley Kubrick. I love every one of his films because they are epic in both the size of their stories and the scope of their ideas, visually stunning, and exquisitely edited. His films were made with the studied slowness of a master craftsman, compensation for his small output. Stanley Kubrick appeals to my sense of grandeur, beauty, and wonder.
Now if you asked me to name my favorite director, I would answer without hesitation Luis Buñuel. He is almost the polar opposite of Kubrick. His interest is in the disorderly darkness of small minds, and he is virtually indifferent to production values. From film to film, his ideas are repetitive and personal. He made films quickly, including a lot of hack work. He is anything but studied. But he has what Kubrick lacks—an irrepressible and irresistible glee!
Those familiar with Buñuel know his films linger on sexual obsession and perversion, an almost superstitious rejection of the Catholic Church, and the hypocrisy of the upper classes. You will find women strapped into fuck-me shoes in many of his films. He also enjoys mannequins and prosthetic legs, which his ridiculous male protagonists tend to fetishize. His clergymen seem to do more harm than good; for example, Nazarin (1959) shows a despised priest set off into the countryside to spread Christ’s good word. Why despise such a humble man? Because he causes trouble wherever he goes, from labor strikes to premature death! Buñuel also likes to fill his scenes of bourgeois life with farm animals or have his well-heeled characters walk endlessly to nowhere.
You’d think that seeing him lampoon his favorite targets in familiar ways would get old after a while, but I never tire of his vision. His films are filled with joy, his targets richly deserving of the pantsing they get, and his ideas truly unique. It was with great anticipation, therefore, that I viewed L’Âge d’Or.
L’Âge d’Or is Buñuel’s second film with Salvador Dali. The two surrealists made a sensation when their maiden film together Un Chien Andalou (1929), a compilation of dream images, shocked Paris audiences with the slicing of a woman’s eyeball in the opening sequence. The French surrealists gave it a standing ovation and hailed it as the first true surrealist film. L’Âge d’Or could be considered something of a sequel by the pair, at least in its refusal to make much sense and in the overall dreamlike quality it creates. But Buñuel directed this film alone, placing more emphasis on narrative than Dali was likely to impart.
The film starts with a nature treatise on the scorpion. We are instructed in the structure of a scorpion’s tail, the nature of the venom it injects when stinging its victims, and how handy it is in overpowering rats. We see scorpions fight amongst themselves, and sting a rat on the nose, causing it to scratch furiously at itself. Are we being fed an allegory for the rest of the film? Not really. Luis just likes showing insects on screen.
Next we see a half-dead Spanish partisan (Max Ernst, the founder of the surrealist movement) trudging from a craggy shore. He sees four bishops praying on some coastal rocks. He returns to a hovel where his comrades are wasting away. He informs them that the Majorcans have landed. They go off to fight, but one by one they fall in their tracks. Boats land and a strange assortment of gentry climb onto shore, where the rotted bones of the bishops are strewn among their clerical garb. Next, we learn that the great city of Rome was founded, and get postcard views, deliberately called out like a tour guide.
Other odd ceremonies ensue, but the pivotal moment is when a man (Gaston Modot, a painter and friend of Picasso, later a full-time actor) is pulled off a screaming woman as he attempts to rape her in the mud. Handcuffed, he is marched into—and all over—town. The man is enraged by things of nature—kicking a barking dog and squashing a beetle. He ends up at a fancy ball where he encounters the lover (Lya Lys) about whom he has been fantasizing. A donkey cart wheels across the ballroom floor unnoticed by the partygoers. The man slaps his lover’s mother for spilling sherry on him. The partygoers are outraged, but the woman is thrilled. The lovers meet for a tryst in the formal gardens, but the man is grabbed away from the woman. Still in the throes of sexual ecstacy, she sucks the toes of a statue.
It turns out that the man is a goodwill ambassador in whom much trust has been placed. Those who would have taken him away are forced to release him, baffled. The film ends with a story of sexual debachery and murder in a fortress, showing us several members of the gentry following a man who looks like Jesus out of the castle gate.
Watching this film was like looking at a sketchbook, with all of Buñuel’s iconography coming into being—the sexually obsessed man, the insects, the clergy, the livestock. At one point, the woman walks into her bedroom and angrily shoos a cow off her bed, as though it were a house pet. This linking of livestock with gentility reminds us that we are animals, too, particularly in bed. In Buñuel’s films, the women generally are very refined (in Viridiana, the main character is a novice at a convent) but are shown to be as sexually obsessed and twisted as the men who pursue them. But they all seem to be such happy perverts that I can never condemn them, no matter how outrageously they behave (for example, in El, the insanely jealous bourgeois husband attempts to sew his wife’s vagina closed).
A few scenes have a painterly touch that only Dali could have created, for example, one in which we see the back of the woman’s head like a madonna in an ethereal heaven as she gazes into her mirror that dissolves into a cloud tableau. Despite the artistic success of the film, L’Âge d’Or ended the Dali-Buñuel collaboration. Buñuel went on to make Las Hurdes (Land without Bread), a socialist documentary and other more politically charged films before settling into his fictional critiques of society with such scandalous and brilliant films as The Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour, and his last and best film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Peculiar as some of his ideas may seem, here was a man who knew what he wanted, pleasing himself behind the camera and, in the process, pleasing so many moviegoers, too.
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Director: Carlos Saura
By Marilyn Ferdinand
French author Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella about the free-spirited Spanish Romy (Gypsy) Carmen has inspired more than 50 film adaptations and, famously, one stupendous opera by Georges Bizet that itself has been filmed several times. In this installment of his filmic odyssey through the world of Latin dance (including Blood Wedding and Love the Magician, which form a trilogy with Carmen; Tango; and Flamenco), Spanish director Carlos Saura has collaborated with celebrated dancer Antonio Gades to reinterpret this tragedy in Spanish terms, in a sense, “returning” Carmen to her country from the fictional Spain of Mérimée’s imagination. It is Saura’s genius to effect this transformation by having the lives of his characters imitate the art of Mérimée and Bizet, thus wholly internalizing the legend of Carmen and giving it new, Spanish, life. (The fact that this transformation occurs in a fictional film further complicates the history of Carmen, making this film more a borrowing of intellectual property than a repatriation of a cultural artifact.) Whatever its geopolitical implications may be, as a film, Carmen plays like a palindrome, as Gades, who plays himself, choreographs a flamenco “Carmen” with an unknown dancer named Carmen (Laura del Sol) assuming the title role.
The film opens with Gades auditioning female dancers. His consummately talented assistant Cristina Hoyos, playing herself, leads the hopefuls through some combinations. Gades singles two or three out to perform alone. Commiserating with famed guitarist Paco de Lucía (who composed all the dance music for the film) after the audition, he says, “Some of them are good. But none of them are Carmen.” Then the opening credits roll to the strains of Bizet’s opera.
We move on to a huge dance studio, where dancers are lounging, talking, and trying out steps on each other. The camera pans across de Lucía and other musicians, who are jamming, and settles on Gades, who takes a reel of tape from a messenger, threads it into his tape recorder, and listens. “Pres des remparts de Seville,” Bizet’s waltz to be sung by Carmen, flutters on the air and then grows louder and louder as Saura zooms in on Gades’ face, watching him absorb the musical strains and try to visualize them in dance. This device of amplifying Bizet’s score will be used again to telegraph Gades’ state of mind and creative process.
The musicians begin to riff on the aria and come up with a boleras treatment. De Lucía plays it for Antonio, easily convincing him that this version is better suited for dance. Inspired by the new Spanish rendition of the French approximation of Spanish music, Antonio is immediately inspired to begin choreographing his “Carmen.”
Gades’ biggest problem is trying to find his Carmen. He goes to a dance school to look at some of the students. He sits in, watching the raw dancers work their castanets and growing restless until one student, Carmen, runs in late to class. He later visits her at the nightclub where she dances for tourists and asks her to audition at his studio. During the audition, Gades guides her through a pas de deux he has choreographed for Carmen’s seduction of Don José. A series of spins brings them close, face to face. Carmen gazes at him with a sweet insolence; he returns a gaze of helpless lust and fascination. Needless to say, she gets the job.
Cristina is disappointed that she did not get the role as she works with the amateurish Carmen, blasting her off the dance floor with her skill. Antonio tries to calm her but further injures her by saying he needs someone younger to play Carmen. Slowly, Carmen finds herself in the role and in her own skills. When we see del Sol show what she actually can do, it’s stunning!
The stage is set for the first dance, in the Seville cigarette factory where the fictional Carmen works. A brilliant score that makes full use of the almost animalistic chanting of the flamenco singers works to bring this confrontational dance of insult and murder to its fever pitch, when Carmen picks a knife off a table and slashes at the throat of her coworker, played by Cristina. This and all the dances are the best I’ve ever seen committed to film, disproving Fred Astaire’s theory that dance must be shot full body. In the hands of a master director and cinematographer, tight angles, stark lighting, and circular motion communicate perfectly the enmity of the two women—but which women? The dancers or the characters they are playing?
The blurring of fiction and reality starts with this astonishing dance and continues to play out as Antonio becomes embroiled in an affair with the untrustworthy Carmen in a scenario that parallels Mérimée’s tale. Dances appear that have little to do with the story and everything to do with Gades’ jealousy at being confronted by the reality of Carmen’s marriage, which she swears she intends to end. A card game involving some of the dancers, Gades, and Carmen’s husband devolves into a shouting match and then a furious dance duel between Gades and Carmen’s husband—that is, a dancer made up to look exactly like her husband. Saura and Gades, who wrote the script of the film together, delight in putting viewers in among the funhouse mirrors and challenging them to distinguish the real from the reflection.
In the end, Antonio follows Carmen off the dance floor, which she has left in disgust as he, as Don José, has been challenge-dancing the bullfighter for whom the character of Carmen has rejected him. She repulses him, appearing to be speaking to him as Antonio, not Don José. She disappears into a doorway, and we see only Gades pleading and arguing into this hidden space. Gades removes a switchblade from his back pocket and stabs into the space. Carmen crumbles back into the frame. The camera pans back across the dance studio, where the rest of the cast is milling about, indifferent to what has happened in the corner of the room. Was this a “real” event or an invention of Gades the choreographer? In fact, it is neither. It is Saura completing his version of Carmen with a question mark.