Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 13: Mamá cumple 100 años / Mama Turns 100 (1979)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Rafaela Aparicio, Fernando Fernán Gómez, Amparo Muñoz, Norman Brisky, José Vivó, Charo Soriano, Ángeles Torres, Elisa Nandi.
Synopsis: A matriarch’s 100th birthday is the occasion for scheming skullduggery among her extended family while an old acquaintance offers a potential lifeline.

1973’s Ana y los lobos ended with English nanny Ana (Geraldine Chaplin) being ejected from her employer’s household by Mamá (Rafaela Aparicio) – who blamed the young foreigner for sowing discord among her three adult sons (Fernando Fernán Gómez, José María Prada, José Vivó) – and subsequently attacked by the three men (they forcibly shear off her hair, rape her, and then shoot her in the head). The latter part of Ana’s departure is left ambiguous in terms of whether it is ‘real’ or ‘imagined’ (the brothers are prone to flights of reverie and the film as a whole has a fable-like quality). Mamá cumple 100 años provides the answer insofar as the same characters – including Ana – are reunited years later at the same house for Mamá’s 100th birthday celebrations, although the story is by no means a continuation of the earlier narrative and is a much more comedic take on the dysfunctional household.

The age of the youngest of the three girls Ana previously cared for – Victoria (Elisa Nandi), who seems a lot younger than her siblings, Natalia (Amparo Muñoz) and Carlotta (Ángeles Torres) – suggests that this story is set between 6-8 years later (although the age of the actresses playing the older girls could easily double that). A lot has changed: the girls have grown up; José (played by José María Prada in the previous film – the actor had died between the two productions) died three years ago; Juan (José Vivo) has run off with the cook; Fernando has moved on from levitation to trying to fly with the use of a hand-glider; Juan’s wife Luchy (Charo Soriano) is embezzling Mamá’s money with Carlotta’s help; and Ana is now married, bringing her husband Antonio (Norman Brisky) along for the party. But Mamá is still the same – omniscient (she communicates with Fernando and Ana seemingly by telepathy and can hear all that is going on in the house) and quite the character.

Mamá is aware that her extended family doesn’t view her longevity as a positive, and that in fact several of them (including her remaining sons, but marshalled by her daughter-in-law) are actively plotting her demise; Luchy is convinced that the excitement of the party will cause one of Mamá’s epileptic seizures, and is planning to administer a placebo rather than the elderly woman’s medication (hoping that she will therefore die). The family money has run out and the younger generations have caught on to the value of the land that the house sits on – while Mamá insists that the estate will stay intact while she’s alive, the others are already lining up a sale to land developers. Mamá has invited Ana to the party because as an outsider she can be trusted – she is given a vial of medication and asked to intervene if Mamá has another attack (we have already witnessed one on the day Ana arrives).

The film is anomalous within the rest of Saura’s filmography from this period. Aside from two stylised and theatrical tableaux vivant – one in the middle of a dinner when Fernando uses the remnants of his earlier mysticism to summon his wayward brother home at their mother’s request, the other in the aftermath of Mamá’s expected seizure during the party, all those present frozen in place – the film reminded me less of Saura, and more of Luis García Berlanga’s La escopeta nacional (1978). Dark humour is threaded through many of Saura’s early films, but Mamá cumple 100 años unexpectedly fits within a contemporaneous trend for bawdy post-censorship Spanish comedy (although – as with Berlanga – the bawdiness doesn’t detract from the critique or satire of Spanish society also at play) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one of the bigger films at the Spanish box office in the year of its release. It is enjoyably farcical but also laced with bitterness (few of the family members demonstrate any fidelity to each other), and Saura can still be seen as engaging in social critique as per the Spanish tradition of esperpento (a dark humour in which a distorted version of reality is utilised in order to critique it).

This was the last film that Saura and Chaplin made together. It seems appropriate that their collaboration looped back on itself to revisit an earlier character, much in the same way that Saura’s films individually play with time and memory; the revisiting allows a contrast between then and now, and captures the passing of time through Chaplin’s face. Ana is perhaps more straightforward than many of the other characters Chaplin inhabits in the Saura/Chaplin films – for one thing, she is the only character Chaplin plays in this film. Ana is the only character given the privilege of a flashback (remembering José, via a sequence from Ana y los lobos) but she also represents a warning that nostalgia for the past can blind us to current realities. By reputation Chaplin doesn’t discuss Saura, but on the BFI edition of Cría cuervos there is a documentary profile of the director (Portrait of Carlos Saura (José Luis López-Linares, 2004)) in which she is interviewed. After talking about how they came to work together (the publicist working on Dr Zhivago introduced them), she says “I have nothing bad to say about Carlos. [Pause] Now, if you’d asked me years ago!” and with a grin bursts out laughing. In interviews (old and more recent) Saura repeatedly credits Chaplin with expanding his world view (and his view of women), but very little critical attention seems to have been given to her performances / contributions in these films. I’ve said before that I’d like to write an in-depth piece about her roles and performances in the Saura/Chaplin films, and it is still my intention to do that at some point in the future.

This is the last post for the ‘Carlos Saura Challenge: 1962-1979’. I’m hoping that I will manage to wrangle the next collection (1980-1999) together by early 2018 (I think that aiming for the end of this year would be a bit too optimistic given how many films it involves and how irregular my viewing habits currently are), with 2000-2017 following on that summer.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 12: Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes (1978)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis Gómez, Geraldine Chaplin, Xabier Elorriaga, Andrés Falcón, Lola Cardona, C.E.T. actors (theatrical group).
Synopsis: Despite anonymous threats, a theatre director writes and rehearses a play based on the real testimonies of torture victims…and begins a relationship with a married woman.

The impetus for Los ojos vendados stemmed from two events in Saura’s life: he participated in the Bertrand Russell Tribunal, which documented evidence from victims of Latin American state torture; and his eldest son, Antonio, was beaten by a group of right-wing youths. The film’s protagonist – Luis (José Luis Gómez), an acting teacher and theatre director – is therefore positioned as a kind of proxy for the director. In the opening sequence he likewise sits on the panel of a tribunal publicly denouncing state torture, and finds himself unable to shake the words of one witness (the film’s title comes from her testimony) from his mind – in response, he writes and begins to rehearse a theatrical production based on the witness testimony heard by the panel, but receives anonymous threats warning him to stop what he’s doing (which he ignores).

This was brave subject matter to tackle during the Transition. Although censorship was technically finished at this point (my 2014 article on documentary and censorship during this era points out that the State could still disrupt and obstruct filmmakers in other ways), this period was the beginning of ‘the pact of silence’ – the consensus of the Spanish Establishment being that in order for the country to move on from the dictatorship, everyone needed to forget what had happened in the past. The balance of power within this obviously sits with the victors of the Civil War – the losing side had been silenced during the dictatorship, unable to publicly mourn their dead (in numerous cases not even knowing where the dead were buried), and were now being told to let sleeping dogs lie. In this febrile social context Saura chose to make a film in solidarity with victims of state torture, and which contains the implicit suggestion that the past is inescapable – via his recurring theme of memory, he shows that we carry our ghosts with us (as symbolised by Luis’s visions of coal dust – a reminder of another life – in the bathroom sink). Los ojos vendados therefore offers a continuation of Saura’s longstanding political focus, but also coalesces with his obvious interest in performers, their inner lives and creative processes.

If Luis is a loose proxy for Saura, Geraldine Chaplin’s character – Emilia – is in some ways a continuation of Elisa from Elisa, vida mía. Like Elisa, she doesn’t know who she is or what she wants to do with her life, and is distressed by her lack of purpose; her relationship with her husband (Xabier Elorriaga) fractures because of her attempts to find herself through artistic endeavour (by joining Luis’s drama workshops). When this results in domestic violence, she flees to Luis for help. But despite his understanding some of her angst – he also questions whether he has done anything of real worth in his life – their subsequent affair doesn’t alleviate her existential anxiety (although their danced mutual seduction/striptease is easily the most joyful sequence Chaplin has in any of Saura’s films). However, Luis guides her towards self-expression and – although Emilia seems too self-conscious to let herself go during the acting exercises – her vulnerability creates a point of connection with the part she plays in the production, and she becomes a different woman onstage (in the double sense of playing a part but also becoming a more certain version of herself).

Luis gives Emilia the role of the woman with mirrored sunglasses, the woman whose testimony inspired him to write the piece. Chaplin doesn’t play the woman in the opening sequence (although the woman has been deliberately anonymised by the glasses and headscarf) but as the woman’s words echo around Luis’s imagination, it is Emilia (or Chaplin, at least) who he sees in her place – and I think that there’s some deliberate visual slippage in these sequences. Different versions of the testimony are reenacted at different times during the film’s narrative (effectively because Luis can’t shake the testimony from his mind) – sometimes Chaplin/not-Emilia is dressed in casual clothes similar to those worn by the woman during her testimony (specifically jeans and a khaki jacket), but at others the figure in Luis’s imaginings is clearly Emilia (her hairstyle, make-up, clothes and jewellery mark out Emilia as a different social class to the other actors in the workshops and are specific to her within the film’s narrative world – e.g. we don’t see anyone else wearing the pearl necklace or trench coat – so these are deliberate markers of her identity). The witness testimony relates to Latin American countries (and although as far as I could tell none are specifically named, the woman with mirrored sunglasses speaks with an Argentinian accent) but to me the visual slippage/blurring posits two things: this happened here (Spain); and this can happen here again. The latter is perhaps a fear lodged in Luis’s subconscious by the anonymous threats (but also arguably relates to the attack on Saura’s son) – I’d have to watch the film again to work out whether Emilia’s clothes specifically appear in sequences that follow a threat arriving, or whether this is something that builds up as the narrative progresses – but the film ends in a series of violent events, giving credence to that unconscious fear.

This is an occasion where writing about a film has revealed more layers to me than I was aware of while watching it. I’d like to re-watch Los ojos vendados, not least because I saw it without subtitles and was aware that in a couple of instances (mainly scenes where Luis seemed to be talking about the past) whole conversations were unintelligible to me (a combination of poor sound and poor comprehension – if I can pick up the gist of the topic, it’s easier to follow), so I know that there were things that I missed. It seems to be one of Saura’s lesser-known works, probably due to availability issues (it doesn’t appear to ever have been released on DVD), which is a shame because the way in which it brings together many of the director’s favourite themes gives the impression of someone refining his vision of the world. It’s a densely-layered film, possibly deceptively so – you could probably watch it just on the surface and still get a similar overall impression, but there’s a lot going on in relation to performance and memory (and more besides) that I’ve barely touched on here.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 11: Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Love (1977)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura
Cast: Fernando Rey, Geraldine Chaplin, Norman Brisky, Isabel Mestres, Joaquín Hinojosa, Ana Torrent.
Synopsis: A man estranged from his family for twenty years is visited by his youngest daughter, who is escaping her own marital crisis.

The first film Saura made after Franco’s death – and only the second where he has the sole writing credit – Elisa, vida mía grew out of the director’s desire to make a film with a more personal resonance. In an interview given to Positif at the time, he said:

“There has always been in Spanish cinema a kind of fear of showing one’s sensitivity. […] I now feel liberated from a number of moral obligations, of certain social responsibilities, let’s say. Since Franco’s death, I’ve felt free of these obligations and I decided to focus on other aspects of my life which seemed essential to me.” (Brasó [1977] 2003: 47)

No longer feeling compelled to address themes that would lead to battles with the censors, Saura turned inwards, although he maintained the opaque style that requires the viewer to put in some effort. Elisa, vida mía is an introspective film: the central themes are solitude, the difficulty of sharing your life with someone, and self expression through artistic endeavour.

An avuncular Fernando Rey plays Luis, a writer/translator/teacher who twenty years earlier abandoned his family and moved to an isolated house in the countryside. On the occasion of his birthday (and in reported ill health) he is visited by his two daughters – Isabel (Isabel Mestres) and Elisa (Geraldine Chaplin) – and having not seen Elisa for a number of years, he invites her to stay with him for a few days. Elisa is considering the same course of action taken by her father several decades earlier; although no children are involved, she is struggling to make a decision about whether to leave her husband, and sees the visit as an opportunity to give herself space to consider the matter. It’s worth mentioning that divorce wasn’t legalised in Spain until 1981. Elisa is therefore aware that if she leaves, she will be in a kind of limbo (voiceover reveals that her mother – also played by Chaplin (with Ana Torrent playing Elisa’s younger self in the flashbacks/dreams) – was unable to make a new life for herself after Luis left them, and would have found it easier if he’d died) and this contributes to her general sense of aimlessness.

While Elisa is attempting to take control over her life and ‘find herself’, the question of who has control of the story is muddied from the start; the opening voiceover appears to be from the perspective of Elisa, but is spoken by Luis. The latter claims to be writing a memoir – and Elisa surreptitiously reads pages that detail Luis’s growing preoccupation with death (a preoccupation that she shares) – but the audience is privy to the fact that some of his writing is an account of the past from Elisa’s point of view. As he becomes familiar with her dilemma there’s something slightly vampiric in how he co-opts her words and her evident distress into a writing exercise for himself. There are also junctures where Saura deliberately obscures whose perspective we’re being given. For example, Elisa tells Luis about an anonymous caller who informed her that her husband was having an affair with her best friend. Elisa set out to confront her best friend, but was thwarted by the concierge telling her that the woman must be away because he hadn’t seen her for weeks. Elisa’s words stop at this point but the images show her entering her friend’s apartment and finding a putrefying corpse in the bedroom. Is this what really happened? Or is Luis’s imagination embellishing the story? That the audio during the unspoken sequence – the sound of men’s voices and a metallic clanking (which doesn’t fit with what we’re seeing) – reappears during a nightmare Luis has when his health deteriorates further (the sounds seem to relate to a meat market – we see haunches of raw meat skidding down a metal chute) suggests the latter.

Likewise, Chaplin playing dual roles causes confusion during a brief sex scene (featuring Luis and one of Chaplin’s characters) that occurs immediately after Elisa has definitively broken up with her husband. Has witnessing his daughter’s marital strife caused Luis to flashback to an erotically-charged moment from his own marriage, or is this an incestuous projection by father or daughter (the subsequent cut suggests that if the woman is Elisa, it is not meant to be taken as an event occurring in the present)? In the same interview, Saura suggests that the question of perspective in relation to this sequence ‘brings together all the central themes in the film: is this Luis’s story or Elisa’s? Does the story belong to a character who is double, half Luis, half Elisa, which in the final analysis would be me, the filmmaker?’ (p.50).

It’s a strange film. On the one hand, the doubling between father and daughter – they identify with each other because they share certain experiences and outlooks, but that identification seems partly misplaced and slightly out of alignment (there are secrets and misunderstandings) – creates an empathetic portrait of family bonds. But although the film is sympathetic to Elisa’s desire to ‘find herself’, some of her hysteria – a recurrent fantasy about being stabbed to death in the manner as befell a woman whose corpse Luis once found near the house, and her histrionic meltdown after she tells her husband that she won’t be returning home with him – seems incredibly overwrought to these modern eyes, and it is an occasion where (for me) Saura’s deliberate ambiguity is frustrating.

References:
Brasó, E. ([1977] 2003) – ‘Interview with Carlos Saura on Cría cuervos and Elisa, vida mía‘, Positif, no.194, pp.3-8, reprinted in Carlos Saura: Interviews, edited by L.M. Willem, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 10: Cría cuervos / Raise Ravens (1976)

Director: Carlos Saura
Writer: Carlos Saura
Cast: Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Mónica Randall, Florinda Chico, Conchita Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Héctor Alterio, Germán Cobos, Mirta Miller, Josefina Díaz
Synopsis: An eight-year old girl believes that she has poisoned the authoritarian father whom she blames for the death of her mother.

Link: My Eye for Film review of the film from 2014.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

Probably Carlos Saura’s most celebrated film outside of Spain – which I would partly connect to the fact that it is one of the few to have been widely available in subtitled form – Cría cuervos (the title refers to the Spanish proverb “raise ravens and they’ll peck out your eyes”) won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. This was the only one of Saura’s films – apart from the dance films and ¡Ay, Carmela! (1990) – that I had seen before I started the original run of the Carlos Saura Challenge. I first saw it 15 or 16 years ago on VHS, at a point when I had seen very few Spanish films. In common with another Spanish classic from the same era – El espíritu de la colmena (Víctor Erice, 1973) – it’s a film that I find easier to admire than to like. Less elliptical than El espíritu de la colmena, Saura’s film nonetheless likewise acquires much of its lasting power from the combination of Ana Torrent’s dark-eyed, solemn gaze and its representation of how an impressionable child can have their imagination activated by events they don’t fully understand.

Eight-year-old Ana – Torrent, in a role that Saura wrote specifically for her – overhears her military father (Héctor Alterio) having sex with a family friend (Mirta Miller) and subsequently dying, with the woman fleeing the house. The little girl believes that she has caused her father’s death after putting an unknown white powder – which she has been told is poisonous – into his drink. She holds him responsible for the prolonged illness and painful death of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) a few years earlier. Saura effectively uses a child’s perspective to depict Spain in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship.

Saura manages to capture some great scenes of sibling interaction, including general squabbling and evidence of the gullibility of younger siblings. The three sisters (Torrent, Conchita Pérez, and Maite Sánchez) delight in music – if you didn’t already have Jeanette’s Porque te vas stuck in your head, you do now – and general silliness (such as when they dress up in Aunt Paulina’s (Mónica Randall) wigs and make-up, and enact hysterical scenes of domesticity), which acts to momentarily lighten the mood in what is otherwise a sad narrative of loss and suppression. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Paulina arrives to put the house and girls in order. She is of the belief that children should be seen and not heard, forgetting that that implies the presence of silent observers – and that grievances fester when they are left unspoken. Ana doesn’t take to her aunt’s disciplinarian ways and begins to plot her death as well.

The camera makes no distinction between the past, present, or future – the blurring is assisted by Chaplin again playing multiple roles, here the dead mother as well as Ana some 20 years later, talking straight to camera about the sadness of her childhood – and therefore we experience the narrative as Ana’s own stream of consciousness. Her belief in something is enough to make it true, a continuation of Saura’s repeated attempts to represent in a tangible form how the present is shaped by our understanding and memory of the past. Filmed while Franco was dying, death permeates the narrative – whether Ana’s obsession with death and dying, or the deaths of her father, mother, and the much-loved Roni the guinea pig. But despite the suffocating atmosphere of the house, the camera also repeatedly insists on showing the noise and bustle of life in the busy streets beyond the walls of the grounds. Along with Ana’s defiant stance, this glimpsed outside world suggests that the regime’s days are numbered.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 9: La prima Angélica / Cousin Angelica (1974)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona, based on a story by Carlos Saura and Elías Querejeta
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Lina Canalejas, Fernando Delgado, Lola Cardona, María Clara Fernández de Loayza, Josefina Díaz, Encarna Paso, Pedro Sempson, Julieta Serrano.
Synopsis: 1973. Luis travels from Barcelona to fulfil his late mother’s wishes to have her remains interred in the family crypt in Segovia. The trip brings him face to face with the family members he stayed with during the Civil War and leads him to confront the memories and ghosts of his childhood.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

My favourite of Saura’s films from this 1962-1979 period, La prima Angélica returns to the issue that preoccupies so much of his work: memory, and how it inflects our understanding of the past and present. As in El jardín de las delicias, José Luis López Vázquez portrays the lead character (Luis) in both adulthood and childhood, as familiar places and faces cause Luis to relive events from more than thirty years ago. Family ties set events in motion in both time periods: in 1973, Luis is travelling from Barcelona in order to fulfil his mother’s wish for her remains to be interred in the family crypt in Segovia; in the 1930s, Luis is taken to the safer Segovia to stay with his mother’s family (on the right, politically) while his parents return to Barcelona. We first see Luis-as-child when Luis-as-adult pulls his car to the side of the road when he sees Segovia in the distance, and he becomes lost in the memory of the first time he was at this roadside: his father’s car pulls up behind him, and his mother (dressed in 1930s attire) comforts Luis, trying to reassure him about his stay with her side of the family. As the Civil War developed, Barcelona became cut off, and Luis will see out the war separated from his parents and in the midst of a family from the ‘victorious’ side. His return to Segovia as an adult in his 40s shows how those war years shaped the person he became and why he now feels the need to confront the past.

Still living under the dictatorship, any discussion of the Civil War that diverged from what had become the official narrative was a taboo in Spain and the losing side was rendered invisible by the silence. In this context, Marvin D’Lugo observes that La prima Angélica stands as ‘the first compassionate view of the vanquished’:

‘In choosing the theme of interdicted history – the Civil War years as remembered by the child of Republican parents – Saura pursues more than just the external demons of censorship that had suppressed all but the triumphalist readings of the war. He confronts the psychological and ethical traumas that the official distortions of the history of the war years in public discourse had conveniently ignored but that had scarred and even paralysed a generation of Spaniards’ (1991: 115-116).

In the context of Spain today – where the contentious issue of ‘historical memory’ has been openly fought over for some time – Ángel Quintana argues that Luis ‘gains symbolic force as the first fictional character that recovers the power of memory as an act of resurrection of the hidden and of justice to that which is silenced’ (2008: 95).

The past is not simply evoked, but reenacted. Although it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is being ‘relived’ because these are not the theatrical stagings of El jardín de las delicias, but rather Luis weaving in and out of the present and the past as the return to the family apartment envelops him in memories. As with his habit of having Geraldine Chaplin play multiple roles, here Saura has several actors play more than one character: Lina Canalejas plays Angélica’s mother in the 1930s segments and the grown-up Angélica in the present; María Clara Fernández de Loayza plays Angélica in the 1930s and the grown-up Angélica’s daughter (also called Angélica) in the present; and Fernando Delgado plays Angélica’s father and later her husband (although the grown-up Angélica shows Luis a photo of her father to prove that there is no resemblance to her husband). This ‘doubling’ obviously aids the transition back and forth in Luis’s memory onscreen, which occasionally becomes confusing when Luis loses himself in the past, and the lines between the two eras become deliberately indistinct.

López Vázquez is the only actor to play the same character in both eras. Luis-as-child is distinguished by voice, body language, and facial expression: for example, López Vázquez tucks his chin down so that he is looking up (his eyes wide), serving not only to indicate the shy and withdrawn nature of the boy, but also to make the actor seem physically smaller. One particular sequence that I like comes almost halfway into the film, at the point when Luis has carried out his mother’s wishes and is now driving back to Barcelona. He stops at the same roadside that we saw at the start of the film, and the same memory plays out again. But this time, instead of being immersed in the memory, reliving it, he observes it from the other side of the road; in revisiting the sites of childhood trauma, he has acquired some of the distance required to review the past objectively. He turns his car around and heads back to Segovia to confront the past head on.

References:
D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Quintana, À. (2008) – ‘A Poetics of Splitting: Memory and Identity in La prima Angélica (Carlos Saura, 1974)’, in Burning Darkness: A Half Century of Spanish Cinema, edited by J.R. Resina, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, pp.83-96.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 8: Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (1973)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura, based on an idea by Carlos Saura and Elías Querejeta
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Fernando Fernán Gómez, José María Prada, José Vivó, Rafaela Aparicio, Charo Soriano, Marisa Porcel, Anny Quintas, María José Puerta, Nuria Lage, Sara Gil.
Synopsis: An English nanny, Ana, arrives at a house in the Spanish countryside to look after the children of one of three brothers living with their mother. All three brothers become captivated by Ana, who finds herself living in an increasingly dangerous situation.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

Note: the post below is largely the same as my original one from 2013.

From the first appearance of the men in the film – José (José María Prada) entering the newly-arrived Ana’s (Geraldine Chaplin) bedroom and insisting on seeing her passport / inspecting the contents of her suitcase – there is the unsettling sense that the foreigner has wandered into something beyond her ken. Her passport may show her to be much-travelled but she is naive. Soon enough she has José showing off his collection of military uniforms to her and commanding dominance of the household, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez) explaining his pursuit of a union with God (or at least levitation) in the whitewashed cave at the bottom of the garden, and the children’s father, Juan (José Vivó), making amorous advances and sending her erotic letters with international postmarks (by using stamps from the family’s stamp collection). The men essentially represent three taboos of Spanish culture at the time – the military, religion, sex – but in a more neutered form than they might have taken (José isn’t in the military, he just collects uniforms, and Fernando isn’t a priest) and living a kind of stunted adolescence. Or rather, in still living with their mother (Rafaela Aparicio), they have managed to avoid maturing into adults; there’s something quite childlike about their enthusiasm for their respective ‘interests’.

But the doll is an indication that what is going on is not just harmless fantasy. The three children (María José Puerta, Nuria Lage, Sara Gil) dig up a doll that has had its hair cut off before being wrapped in a shroud, tied with string and buried in the garden. Ana intuits that there is something disturbing at play (the children say that ‘the wolves’ have done it) and insists that Juan tells her who has ‘tortured’ the doll, but seemingly takes no further action (or precaution) on being told that it was Fernando. It’s interesting that Virginia Higginbotham – in her book Spanish Film Under Franco – refers to the film as a ‘grim parable’ (1988: 86). There is something fairytale-like about it, and it also carries the sensation that certain sequences could be being dreamt by one of the characters; the parallels between Fernando’s ‘vision’ of the various members of the household early in the film and the set of events leading up to Ana’s eviction from the house and the brutal finale (several characters – most pertinently, Ana – are wearing the same clothes in both sequences) suggests that not everything we see actually happens.

In the final sequence Ana is expelled from the house when Mama realises how much discord she has sown between the brothers. As she leaves the grounds, the wolves pounce: Juan rapes her, Fernando cuts off her hair, and José handcuffs her before shooting her in the head. The film ends on a close-up of her agonised face. Saura has said that he saw the final sequence as imaginary, which explains how the family (and Ana) can be revisited in Mamá cumple 100 años (1979).

The film made me feel uneasy, mainly because of the extent to which Ana plays games with the brothers, teases them, and plays the coquette, apparently unaware that she is seriously out of her depth. There is a creeping sense – heightened after the doll is found – that something terrible will occur (which it does – whether imaginary or not).

References:
Higginbotham, V. (1988) – Spanish Film Under Franco, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 7: El jardín de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Francisco Pierrá, Luchy Soto, Lina Canalejas, Esperanza Roy, Charo Soriano.
Synopsis: Important businessman Antonio Cano is left partially-paralysed and an amnesiac after a car crash. His family and friends try to recreate key moments in his life in order to give him an emotional jolt and aid his recuperation.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

In structural terms El jardín de las delicias was by far the most complex film Saura had made to date. A deliberately intricate structure was intended to act as a smokescreen for the more political aspects of the film in an era when censorship by the Franco regime was becoming increasingly arbitrary. The original script was passed by the censors – with one writing in his evaluation that ‘the advantage of such an intellectualised plot is that nobody can grasp the key to it, and the set-ups are so extremely limited in meaning that nobody can identify with anything’ (D’Lugo 1991: 106) – and although specific cuts were later made to the film by the censors, the excised sections have either been reinstated or did not undermine the overall whole. The shooting script identified five temporal planes, which we move between without transition (following Antonio’s own amnesia-befuddled consciousness): the recreated past; the evoked past; the present; the hallucinated world; and the future. [see my original post for more detail as to how these planes have been interpreted by different writers].

Although the structure of these temporal planes appears complex when written out (which is no doubt why the script censor thought that nobody would be able to follow what was going on), it is perfectly comprehensible when watched onscreen. Some confusion/disorientation is intentional – it is a point of connection between Antonio and the audience – but differing levels of theatricality are utilised to mark out the different planes. For example, there is some wonderful over-acting by the actress hired to impersonate Antonio’s late mother in the scenes from his childhood, whereas his wife Luchy (Luchy Soto) is more subtle in her manipulation of ‘reality’ – we see that she is playing ‘mood music’ on a cassette player when she takes Antonio for a walk (the film is often darkly funny).

In terms of the way moments in Antonio’s life are shown to parallel key episodes in Spanish history, you don’t need to be aware of all of the references to know that a point is being made. For example, I didn’t know until reading up on the film that Antonio’s car crash was inspired by the 1962 death (in a car crash) of Juan March, an industrialist who had helped bankroll the July 1936 military uprising against the Republic. There are enough parallels with that story to see Saura as deliberately baiting the censors, but even without being aware of the specifics, the backgrounds and social status of the characters are sufficient to signpost their alignments within the political landscape of the time. Tatjana Pavlović argues that the moments of historical significance that parallel (and interrupt) the restaged moments of Antonio’s life clearly indicate that his ‘identity is inseparable from a broader historical context. […] These national “traumas” give rise to personal ones, showing how the individual is an inscrutable product of the nation’ (2006: 156).

Meanwhile the ‘ideal’ family, so deified by the state, is shown to be anything but: not only are they collectively a suffocating and repressive force in Antonio’s life, but we eventually find that their interest in his recuperation isn’t motivated by love and affection (his father needs to know the number of the Swiss bank account, and his wife wants the combination to the safe in the bedroom). This mercenary – rather than therapeutic – intent behind the need for his recovery explains why some of the events that they chose to recreate to jog Antonio’s memory include childhood traumas: being locked in a dark room, aged 5, with an enormous pig that you’ve been told will eat your hands off, seems an horrific thing to inflict on someone twice in their lifetime (although, again, in keeping with the thread of dark, esperpentic humour that runs through the film). The final sequence of the film, another of Antonio’s hallucinations – each family member in their own wheelchair on the vast lawn – has been taken as a contemporary approximation of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Delights. But with his family in a similar state to Antonio (who having made progress, is now regressing), I read it as representing the wilful amnesia of people avoiding their own culpability, and also (as they are all facing in different directions) unable to see things from alternative viewpoints.

The impression that we get of Antonio as he recovers what he was – before he seemingly consciously rejects that vision and slides back into oblivion – is that he was not a likeable man. But when we first meet him, he is a blank slate and as confused as we are by the events being staged in front of him; I think that the audience remains on his side because of that initial blankness (the innocence of a child), and also because of the associated affability of López Vázquez, who is quite brilliant in the role.

References:
D’Lugo, M (1991) – The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pavlović, T. (2006) – ‘Allegorising the body politic: Masculinity and history in Saura’s El jardín de las delicias (1970) and Almodóvar’s Carne trémula (1997)’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 3:3, pp.149-167.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 6: La madriguera / Honeycomb (1969)

Director: Carlos Saura
Writer: Rafael Azcona, Geraldine Chaplin, Carlos Saura
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Per Oscarsson, Teresa del Río, Julia Peña, María Elena Flores, Emiliano Redondo.
Synopsis: Five years into their marriage, the arrival of a collection of inherited furniture puts a strain on Teresa and Pedro’s relationship.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

The third of Saura’s eight cinematic collaborations with Geraldine Chaplin is an odd film, but it’s interesting that Chaplin gets a writing credit for the first of their films where her character is essentially the lead. Teresa (Chaplin) and Pedro (Per Oscarsson – dubbed and looking like a permanently-peeved Jon Voigt, which is to say decidedly un-Spanish) have been married for five years and are settled in a routine, and a rather sterile home. He manages – and possibly owns – a factory, while she is a lady of leisure. The arrival of a collection of furniture from Teresa’s childhood family home triggers a nightmare and subsequent sleepwalking, followed by regressive and childish behaviour. Teresa replaces their furniture (in keeping with the modern – verging on Brutalist – architecture of their house) with what has arrived, which is distinctly different in style (dark wood and richly coloured fabrics). The film then settles into a series of extended role play ‘games’ between husband and wife that gradually get out of hand.

I didn’t hear an explanation as to why Teresa was receiving the furniture now (there are no subs on the VOD, so something may have flown past me), but it seems like an inheritance. The nightmare triggered by the arrival of the furniture and childhood mementoes appears to be a recollection of being at boarding school, woken by two nuns in the middle of the night and taken to an office (I took it to be the memory of being informed of a death)…at which point Teresa sits up in bed screaming but doesn’t wake up. During the subsequent sleepwalk she unpacks the first of the furniture – an armchair and a rug – and proceeds to act as if her father is sitting in the chair: she implores her father not to send her away, says that she wants to stay with him and the rest of the family, and begs him not to make her marry Pedro. Pedro – who has followed his wife during her sleepwalk – at this point sits in the chair and takes on the father’s role (and this is as creepy as it sounds), asking what Teresa wants to do instead of getting married (“go to college” is her reply). Later in the film when Pedro goes through some of Teresa’s possessions he finds photos of her as a child (contemporaneous with her appearance in her nightmare), a child’s drawing of a plane crash (with ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ written next to two bodies) and a funeral notice – the suggestion is that Teresa’s parents died when she was a child (supported by her nightmare), but that doesn’t really fit with the conversation with her father during the sleepwalk.

The next day Teresa has no memory of the night’s events – and is visibly embarrassed when Pedro tells her some of the things she said. But she becomes increasingly giggly and childish as she continues to unpack toys and mementoes – she glues her milk teeth and a keepsake loop of her infant hair onto a photo of herself as a child – and seemingly decides to use what Pedro has told her about the sleepwalk in order to force her husband to play with her (he thinks that she is sleepwalking again but the audience knows that she has deliberately woken him up). From this point on, the role play games blur the lines between dream and reality (the blurring of dream, performance, and reality would be something Saura would develop in much greater detail in El jardín de las delicias (1970)) and Pedro’s perception of reality is also altered. At the same time, the question of who is ‘playing’ whom (in the double sense of who they are actually meant to be, but also which of them is in control of the game) fluctuates. There’s a caustic humour and an undercurrent of violence to many of their interactions – Pedro bites Teresa’s ankle while he’s pretending to be a St Bernard rescue dog (long story) but doesn’t take kindly to her smacking him in the face with a mop handle as a result – and as in the later Ana y los lobos (1972), there is an uneasy sense of foreboding to the games.

The house is central to the story; all of the scenes between Teresa and Pedro take place either inside the house (designed by Javier Carvajal and located in Somosaguas, an affluent neighbourhood in Madrid) or the surrounding garden. The sense of a limited and clearly defined space gives the film a theatrical feel, as do the curtains that they pull across the floor-to-ceiling windows, and overall it is quite a stagey production. It also picks up the recurring motif in the Saura/Chaplin collaborations of the actress playing multiple roles or personalities (whether real or imagined) within the same film, or the idea of women performing different versions of themselves to different ‘audiences’. The expressiveness of Chaplin’s face – not to mention her gameness in throwing herself into various outlandish scenarios – is put to full use, but she again also clearly delineates the different women she performs through gesture and body language.

Overall I found the hysteria somewhat forced and Oscarsson a bit wooden (although that may not be entirely his fault given that he was dubbed into Spanish) – but the film has a curiosity value given how difficult it is to get hold of (like Stress es tres, tres, it is included in the expensive French DVD boxset of early Saura films but it doesn’t appear to have been issued separately and it has never been released on DVD in Spain – I watched it on Spanish VOD site, Filmotech).

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 5: Stress es tres, tres / Stress is Three (1968)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Angelino Fons, Carlos Saura
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Juan Luis Galiardo, Fernando Cebrián, Porfiria Sanchíz, Humberto Sempere.
Synopsis: A husband’s jealous paranoia poisons his relationships with his wife and a family friend when the three take a road trip into the Spanish countryside.

This is one of those films where I’ve struggled to find a way ‘in’ to writing about it. Not because there’s nothing there to discuss – for example, the fractures and tensions in the social identities of the Spanish bourgeoisie as they grappled with the contradictions between urban modernity and the social/religious/familial ideals promoted by the Franco regime – but because I didn’t connect with it, and therefore feel that I have little to say about the elements Saura was trying to weave into his fifth film. I think that it’s one of his slighter works, although it gives further evidence of both his refusal to be pigeonholed and willingness to experiment. Its lack of reputation is probably in part because it is virtually impossible to see – a couple of years ago it was released as part of an expensive French boxset of Saura’s early films but wasn’t available on its own. I found it on YouTube with English subtitles in 2016 (since taken down) and although I managed to buy an individual French DVD early in 2017 (French subs only), I think I bought it from someone who had decided that they could make more money by selling the films secondhand individually rather than selling the collection as a boxset because I haven’t since seen the film listed anywhere on its own. So if you spot it online, watch it before it vanishes again.

Saura apparently felt that Peppermint frappé‘s narrative was too conventional (in an A to B to C sense) and Stress es tres, tres was his experimentation with something more free-flowing, using a road trip to set up a series of scenarios that don’t need to be held together by a concrete plot. Taking place over the course of a day, married couple Fernando (Fernando Cebrián) and Teresa (Geraldine Chaplin) travel with friend Antonio (Juan Luis Galiardo) by car through the countryside to the Almería coast, with the aim of visiting the site of a project that Fernando is trying to persuade Antonio to oversee. From the start, tensions between the men are apparent (although somewhat one-sided because the easy-going Antonio isn’t easily riled) and there are signs that all is not well between husband and wife either (Fernando taking a drag of Teresa’s cigarette without asking leads her to immediately stub it out when he hands it back) – the thread that ties the various scenes together is Fernando’s jealous paranoia and the increasing sense that violence is imminent.

That this jealousy creates different ‘versions’ of Teresa – in the sense that Fernando interprets her actions in a manner that contradicts the reality, or imagines her behaving otherwise – also connects to the idea of a trilogy with Peppermint frappé and La madriguera. Via Fernando’s voyeurism (spying through a crack in the bedroom door when they stop off at a farm owned by his family), we see what initially appears to be a confrontation between Teresa and an unseen second person – confirming Fernando’s suspicions of an affair – but actually turns out to be her rehearsing how to confront her husband about his behaviour. As Fernando bursts in, the camera reveals that Teresa is looking in the mirror while she practises what she wants to say, and the use of mirrors in combination with an acknowledged performance (by which I mean that the character is aware that they are performing, whether there is an audience beyond just the camera or not) is a recurring motif in Saura’s later films.

So Chaplin is afforded another opportunity to play versions of the same woman (and switches from blonde to brunette again as well) but the difference here is that Teresa perhaps has more agency than the women in Peppermint frappé; although some ‘versions’ of Teresa only exist in the eye of the beholder (i.e. her husband), she nonetheless can be seen to choose how she presents herself on other occasions (e.g. practising in the mirror – when she pointedly states “I am not an object” – or the scene on the beach where she and Antonio humorously consider how much he would pay for her). Maybe a different way of viewing Teresa is to take her to be multi-faceted; distinct aspects of her personality – rather than delineated ‘versions’ – come to the fore at different moments of the narrative. Chaplin is not yet the lead (this is Fernando’s story) but it feels like she exerted influence over the development of her character, and managed to create a woman who has more to her than simply how she is seen by men.

Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 4: Peppermint frappé (1967)

The woman from Calanda

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Carlos Saura, Angelino Fons, and Rafael Azcona
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, José Luis López Vázquez, Alfredo Mayo.
Synopsis: Julián’s childhood friend Pablo returns to their hometown with his new wife, Elena. Julián becomes obsessed with Elena, who reminds him of a woman he saw beating a drum during the famous Holy Week ritual in Calanda. Although rebuffed, Julián continues his pursuit while simultaneously remodelling his assistant, Ana, in her image.

Link: My original post on the film, from the old version of the blog.

Peppermint frappé is dedicated to Luis Buñuel (and there is a lot of Buñuelian sexual fetishising going on) but the director who most sprang to mind from the opening credits – with Julián (José Luis López Vázquez) assiduously cutting out images from women’s fashion magazines and pasting them into a scrapbook – was Pedro Almodóvar. Except, of course, Pedro’s career didn’t start until more than a decade later. Obviously Buñuel also had a strong influence on Almodóvar, but the central conceit of Peppermint frappé – a man is driven mad by jealousy and sexual obsession, and attempts to mould one woman into the image of another before moving on to murder – and the way in which the women are effectively reduced to the accoutrements of femininity (false eyelashes, lipstick, lace stockings), struck me as being particularly Almodóvarian. I wasn’t expecting to see connections between Saura and Almodóvar because they’ve always seemed to me to be very different filmmakers in both style and content, but it would appear that their common influences allow for some crossover.

The film marks Saura’s first collaborations with two actors who would be key figures in his films of the next 10-12 years: José Luis López Vázquez and Geraldine Chaplin. I personally think that López Vázquez’s best performance for Saura is in La prima Angélica (1974), but he is never less than great. Longstanding director/actor collaborations – and the idea of directors having what the Spanish call an actor fetiche (not necessarily a lead actor, but an indispensable member of the director’s habitual team) – often receive a lot of critical attention, but I have yet to encounter any writing that specifically examines the Saura/Chaplin films from that perspective. Chaplin and Saura’s professional (and romantic) relationship lasted for eight films: Peppermint frappé, Stress es tres, tres (1968), La madriguera (1969), Ana y los lobos (1973), Cría cuervos (1976), Elisa, vida mía (1977), Los ojos vendados (1978), and Mamá cumple 100 años (1979).

Peppermint frappé forms a trilogy of sorts with the pair’s two subsequent films – Stress es tres, tres and La madriguera. Collectively the three films explore dysfunctional relationships, with the later two focussing on duplicitous games between husbands and wives. But this first film also begins the recurring motif of Chaplin playing multiple women within the same film, or multiple versions (either real or imagined) of the same woman – this is a common thread across most of the films she made with Saura. Here she plays three characters within the narrative: Elena, the new wife of Julián’s boyhood friend, Pablo (Alfredo Mayo); Ana, Julián’s assistant in his medical practice; and the unnamed woman in Calanda, who made such a powerful impression on Julián. The last woman is ‘performed’ (or impersonated) by both Elena and Ana in different contexts, but Chaplin delineates all three women through her performance(s) – body language, voice, facial expressions – as well as costume.

Watching the film again, four years after the first time, there were a couple of things that stood out. I was struck by how spiteful Pablo and Elena are to Julián; the sly digs are there from the start, but before long they openly mock him and his foibles. Also, the degree of manipulation being applied to Ana is more open to interpretation than I remembered: she knows that she is being shaped to resemble someone else, and by the end of the film is complicit in her transformation (and Julián’s other actions). Chaplin often portrays a kind of ‘new woman’ in the Saura films, and her foreignness (or non-Spanishness) is key to how he positions her as representing the arrival of modernity in Spain – highlighting the resulting discord when the modern is juxtaposed with the social norms favoured and promoted by the Franco regime. Her characters are often disruptive forces within male worlds, and the three women she plays in Peppermint frappé encapsulate certain elements that she and the director would refine over time. The film also shows Saura’s aptitude for experimenting with style and pace – it is very different to the three films that precede it, although certain elements are constant (e.g. the elegance with which he frames actors within defined spaces within the frame – windows and mirrors are frequently used in this film – and the centrality of music as expression of character).

Elena
Ana