Reprint: Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerin, 1997)

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I originally wrote about Guerin’s Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows on the old blog in February 2014. I am substantially revising that post for this entry in my Reprint series because I have partially rewatched the film this evening (I watched the opening 10 minutes or so and then the last 40 minutes) and subsequently reconsidered at least one element of my earlier piece.

I originally watched Guerin’s film because it had been mentioned multiple times in relation to El Futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, and having not seen the film I wasn’t sure what was being referenced. But it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) – which I watched for the first time shortly before watching Tren de sombras – focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El Futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerin’s film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in 1930, amateur filmmaker Gérard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The intertitles also tell us that film had been in such a fragile condition that it was in no state be projected but that it has now been restored.

Back in 2014, I thought that I had misunderstood the French intertitles (there were no English subtitles on the format that I watched) precisely because I initially thought that they had managed to reassemble the 1930s family film when in actual fact Guerin recreated it (something that becomes apparent as the film progresses – so after a certain point I thought that I had confused ‘restored’ and ‘recreated’). As it happens, my French was better than I thought and the opening intertitles are a deliberate piece of misdirection on Guerin’s part. Conceived when the centenary of cinema was approaching, Tren de sombras was a manifestation of Guerin’s desire to explore the origins of filmmaking and a kind of cinematic immersion. The film’s title is a reference to a line from Maxim Gorky’s essay ‘The Kingdom of Shadows’ about his experience of watching moving pictures (by the Lumière brothers) for the first time in 1896 (there is an English translation of that text, here). It might be more accurate to say that Guerin created – as opposed to recreated (because I’m not sure that there is any Fleury family film other than the one shot by Guerin) – a realistic representation of 1930s filmmaking. It’s a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as a 1930s film – indeed a number of reviewers have taken it at face value and refer to the film as making use of ‘found footage’.
The film opens with this 20 minute ‘home movie’, showing Fleury’s extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then switch to ‘the present’ and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the 1930s segment). It is at this point that Guerin’s film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections – as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the ‘layering’ of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) – reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside – in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerin and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

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In almost a cross between Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerin slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the film to follow the sightlines of those on camera. This gives new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image and brings hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerin effectively plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a ‘witness’ to the supposed veracity of what we’re presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director (the film was degraded by hand during the post-production and editing stages). The sequences that ‘reveal’ the most (shadows of simmering passions and traces of a possible love triangle) are then performed in front of us anew in colour, which is quite jarring. The use of colour in the recreation is the point at which the fakery seems apparent – I am slightly confused that those reviewers who take the 1930s footage as genuine don’t notice that it is the same actors (namely Juliette Gautier and Ivon Orvain) who appear in colour, although with some deliberately exaggerated elements of costume and make-up. In the colour section the camera moves between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

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There is a French boxset (this one) containing Guerin’s Innisfree (1990), Tren de sombras, and Unos fotos en la cuidad de Sylvia / Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007) with optional English subtitles on all of the films.

Reprint: La madre muerta / The Dead Mother (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1993)

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This is another in what will be a series of ‘reprints’ of posts that were on the old blog. I have edited / partially rewritten this one (and played around with the images) but the original from March 2011 can be found here. I wrote two posts about La madre muerta on the old blog, and the other one – an ‘anatomy of a scene’ post that looks very closely at a specific set piece from early in the film – is also likely to be revisited on here at some point.

Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Screenplay: Juanma and Eduardo Bajo Ulloa
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Ana Álvarez, Lio, Silvia Marsó
Synopsis: During a burglary, Ismael (Elejalde) casually murders a woman and shoots her young daughter, Leire. Fifteen years later, Leire (Álvarez) is mute and has the mental age of a three-year-old. By chance Ismael sees Leire in the street and becomes convinced that she can recognise him. He decides to kidnap her…

‘La madre muerta is the story of a killer without scruples who steals chocolate from a little girl, and of how the little girl takes back the chocolate from her (now) victim years later’ –Juanma Bajo Ulloa (DVD booklet [my translation])

I first watched La madre muerta more than fifteen years ago on a Tartan Video VHS*. The scenes / aspects that I remembered most strongly before I revisited the film were: the prologue (the burglary); the scene in which Ismael tries to kidnap Leire and knocks himself out with the chloroform he has prepared for her grandmother (this is the set piece that forms the basis of the other post mentioned above); the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael pretends to be a clown to try to make Leire laugh; the intrepid investigating nurse hiding down the side of the wardrobe; and the image of Leire chained to the bed with a dog collar. Watching the DVD, I was surprised that I had no memory whatsoever of the early scene in the bar, which is incredibly violent and nasty (leaving us in no doubt, if we had any after the prologue, that Ismael is capable of anything). But perhaps the other scenes stuck in my mind because they are unsettling in a subtler fashion.

From the beginning of the film director Juanma Bajo Ulloa plays with both genre conventions and perspectives – i.e. the (physical) angle from which we view events is used to radically alter our perception of what we have seen – to continually wrongfoot the viewer. As Mark Allinson observes, the prologue has all the hallmarks of a thriller and the viewer’s ‘generic expectations’ (2003: 147) initially cause us to think that the woman we see being woken up by the intruder’s noise will be the protagonist of the film. But we barely have time to register the woman’s presence in the same room as the intruder – we hear her, rather than see her (she says “No hay dinero” [“There is no money”]) – before the intruder raises and fires the shotgun, and the woman (and mother of the title) drops to the floor (Ismael steps over her with barely a glance). Allinson suggests that our assumptions then turn to the possibilities of the investigative crime thriller, but that is also not to be – and the character who later thinks that she is in a detective film (Blanca – played by Silvia Marsó) does not triumph in her endeavours (Bajo Ulloa chirpily comments on the audio-commentary at the ‘end’ of that narrative strand that “in real life, the good don’t win” [my translation]).

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In Sight & Sound, Leslie Felperin pointed out that ‘throughout the film, an edit or a camera angle obscures a view’ (1996: 46) with the intention of making events and motivations ambiguous; there are several sequences in the film where the camera takes on a character’s POV in such a way that the viewer is misled. The most infamous of these is the sequence where Blanca – the nurse who cares for Leire at the medical daycare clinic – breaks into the house to rescue Leire but then finds herself trapped. She hides down the side of the wardrobe in the room where Leire is chained to the bed. When Ismael enters the room, the camera continually returns to Blanca’s POV. Initially she cannot see him but leans forward when she hears a zip being undone and sees Ismael’s back as he stands alongside the bed, with Leire kneeling on the bed in front of him: from Blanca’s POV it looks as if Ismael is forcing Leire to perform oral sex on him. The camera then cuts to what is effectively Leire’s POV (in front of Ismael) and – in a darkly comic ‘reveal’ – the audience sees that he has been surreptitiously feeding her a bar of chocolate (both of them have a sweet tooth) that is hidden in the front of his jacket (the source of the zip noise). As Leire sits back on the bed and Ismael takes a seat, we then see a shot of Maite’s (Ismael’s girlfriend, played by Lio) eye at the doorframe – she is seeing the same scene in a mirror angle to Blanca (she is also behind Ismael but on his other side). Both women then clearly see Leire eating chocolate and come to the same conclusion as to what has transpired out of their line of sight (they take the chocolate to be a ‘reward’ – both mutter “hijo de puta”, although for slightly different reasons).

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That sequence not only misleads the viewer for a comic payoff but also plays on the deep unease felt by the audience on account of the ambiguous ‘attraction’ that Leire holds for Ismael. When he goes in search of her (after his accidental sighting), his initial perspective is through a hedge and the above shot encapsulates how Ismael treats Leire as something to be looked at and watched – the framing through the gap in the hedge gives the image a peep show quality. Likewise, Maite also finds the manner in which Ismael watches Leire to be disquieting – she becomes increasingly jealous and questions Ismael’s feelings for the girl when she discovers him asleep in a chair opposite Leire’s bed. His excuse (he was worried Leire might escape) leads Maite to suggest chaining her up, which only increases the tension: as Nigel Floyd said in his review, ‘the fact that Leire, a helpless child trapped in a woman’s body, is fetishistically manacled to a bed lends a dangerous, almost perverse erotic edge to some scenes’. This comes to a head in the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael tries to make Leire laugh – he is preoccupied throughout the film by the fact that she does not smile or laugh – by putting on silly voices, making noises and painting his face like a clown. In a somewhat desperate final attempt, he decides to tickle her during which he grabs her breast, an action that was innocently intended (consciously, at least) but which visibly shocks him because he is confronted by the fact that Leire may have the mind of a child – and Álvarez’s performance of wide-eyed wonderment during the sequence is brilliantly observed – but she has the body of a woman. Although she has previously shocked him by returning his gaze – in a second sequence where he looks at her through the hedge at the clinic, a noise attracts her attention and she looks straight at him (in response, he runs off) – this scene is the first time that he acknowledges to himself that he views her as something more than a child (he furtively looks over his shoulder after he touches her breast, as if someone might catch him in the act – also an acknowledgement that what he’s doing is wrong) and also as something more than a hostage. He looks at her sadly, and then moves away from her: he is unable to look at his own reflection when he sits back down in his normal chair / observation post, and he slams the mirrored wardrobe door shut.

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That he is given a moment of self-awareness is an illustration of the film’s humane treatment of its characters; although Ismael is not allowed off the hook, he is offered the chance of redemption. The film has a fairytale quality – something that it shares with two of Bajo Ulloa’s other films (Alas de mariposa / Butterfly Wings (1991) and Frágil / Fragile (2004)) – but Ismael is allowed to be something other than just a monster. Karra Elejalde’s performance is central to this. In an introductory piece in the DVD booklet, director Nacho Vigalondo – who cast Elejalde in his directorial debut, Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (2007) – describes the actor and his performance as “creating a character that, like the rest of the film, is a balancing act between ‘costumbrismo’ [something very specifically local] and impossible cliché, summed up in the red painted face that is as much circus-like as it is demonic. Your father’s friend, and an extraterrestrial. At the same time” (my translation). Bajo Ulloa says on the audio-commentary that his main problem after writing the script was finding the right actors to play the two central roles. Álvarez is outstanding as Leire, and utterly believable as the child trapped in a woman’s body (you do not see her ‘acting’ at any point), but Elejalde has to walk a tightrope of charm and menace while also carrying off some darkly comic sequences. The film was not warmly received by Spanish critics (the El País review – here – is so scathing that it will make you wince), but the English reviews that I have found (in Sight & Sound [not available online – but in the March 1996 issue], Time Out and Empire) took a more positive view of the unsettling combination of the tender and the twisted that the film manages to pull together through plot, character, and performance.

*There is no UK DVD but the re-mastered 3-disc ‘edición coleccionista’ – released in Spain in 2008 – has optional English subtitles for the film.

Reprint: Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

As I mentioned last week, over the course of the next month or so I’m planning to (re)post some pieces that were written for the original Nobody Knows Anybody blog. It was only really in late 2013 that I started to be happier with my writing – almost all of the pieces that I’m planning to reuse were written in 2014 or later. I will be rewriting/editing some of them, but this one is actually untouched (it was originally published in February 2014) apart from the fact that I’ve taken the opportunity to learn how to make GIFs and have replaced some of the original images accordingly. The only thing that I’ve changed my mind about in relation to Aita is in the penultimate paragraph – I don’t think that the bedroom within the footage is necessarily the room that the image is projected in, but because the way in which one image flickers over the top of the other that was how it seemed to me on first viewing.

The film relates to my recurring fascination with architectural spaces that are presented as repositories for memories, or that otherwise have their history written into the fabric of their construction (a theme that will reappear in a couple of the other posts that I’m planning to revisit), but its play of light and shadow also results in a magical and slightly otherworldly film (and one of my favourites that I’ve seen in the course of writing the blog).

 

Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010)

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This film casts a spell as a once grand, still-impressive house is depicted as a repository of memories that sporadically flicker into life on its faded and peeling walls.
Aside from a group of schoolchildren being shown the house part way through the film, we learn little of its history or the specifics of the people who once lived within it. It is old and has been expanded at various junctures with different historical tastes and styles being integrated into what nonetheless feels like a coherent space. That said, we do not really gain a sense of the geography of the house; rooms are shown in isolation and it is difficult to work out where they are in relation to each other. Likewise, the film is made up of a series of windows, mirrors, and doorways that frame the interiors but reveal little: they frame what we see inside but offer no outer view (we only see the grounds from the outside, although they are sometimes half glimpsed through shutters or net curtains), and the sense grows of the house as an enclosed, hermetically-sealed, entity. The passing of time has marked its surface, as nature has reclaimed every nook and cranny, vines like veins that take life rather than sustain it (and add to the sense of the house being sealed); a scene where the caretaker (Luís Pescador) starts to remove them from the facade seems like it is breathing life into a suffocated surface even while bits of cement audibly crumble and fall away. Renewal and death. Death and renewal.

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Little by little we work our way into the inner life of the house. The film starts outside with a discussion between two archaeological workers about the neglected state of the house and garden, which ends with the observation that there are signs of someone trying to take on nature and reclaim the house from its grasp. The rest of the film follows this caretaker as he commences a concerted effort to bring the house back to life (to what end, or why now, is not something we discover). It is a film with many textures as almost every wall we see is peeling or is in some way marked, the remnants of lives and previous incarnations left on the surface: the house is littered with tactile reminders of times past. Director José María de Orbe unfurls the house for the spectator, utilising layered spaces within single shots that are revealed or concealed by light and shadows (the use of light is beautiful) via the very deliberate opening and closing of doors and windows as the caretaker makes his way around the building.

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The film largely unfolds in silence apart from the diegetic sound of the local environment and the physical actions of those onscreen, and a series of short conversations between the caretaker and the local priest (Mikel Goenaga). Those conversations – about bones found in an archaeological dig in the grounds of the house (which is next door to the church), the senses that last longest after death, and a terrible white light (unseen by us) that starts to plague the caretaker – point to what the house will reveal as its layers are peeled back and raise the issue of whether some things are better left undisturbed. To begin with, it seems that ‘breathing life’ in to the house just involves repairs and sprucing it up, but about halfway through the running time something unexpected happens and the house becomes a living entity in and of itself, a repository of memories (of the house, its inhabitants, and the locale). As a storm lashes the house in the dark, and the rain running down the window ripples down a tiled wall in shadow form, making it seem as though the wall is trembling, the house suddenly flickers into life (the sound of the rain still on the soundtrack).

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The images projected onto surfaces of the house – mainly the wall of the grand hallway and that of a small bedroom – are history of the house (which can be seen within the footage) and its locale. Blending archival footage of the Basque Country (which is where the house is although only the archaeologists at the start speak in Basque; the caretaker and the priest converse in Castilian Spanish) with film of the house and the eponymous Aita (the Basque word for ‘father’) (Pedro Mayor) shot in the same style, the deliberately degraded and manipulated film stock (Antoni Pinent has the credit ‘manipulación de 35mm’) recounts sadness, suppression and the hidden, and the forgotten ghosts that populate the interstices of history. In the booklet that accompanies the DVD, the director says that they wished to create a new dialogue between the fragments of archival film and the house. Images that you would expect from early cinema (people enjoying themselves – we see a beach and later men dancing) are interspersed with sights that have a sinister undertone (priests and men in white coats seeming to torment children and young people in different contexts) and those of destruction. Looking at the end credits, the sequence showing men consumed by smoke (which finds an echo of the sequence where the caretaker smokes the woodwork of a grand fireplace) as they vainly attempt to tackle an enormous fire, may be footage from the bombing of Guernica (the town is named but there is no date given – if the fragments are listed in the order in which they appear, then ‘Guernica’ matches this section); if it is footage of the aftermath of the bombing, the deliberate degradation of the celluloid (the warping of which ripples, tremulously, across the surface of the image), with the effect of seemingly layering fire over fire, obliterating the past, is an eloquent and elegant indictment of the act.

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But the footage that specifically relates to the house is both mysterious (we are given no context) and threatening (the small bedroom, which already generates a sense of foreboding, is seen within the footage); the spectral beings that appear in those ‘memories’ seem to relate to the white light seen by the caretaker (who sleeps in that bedroom when he stays at the house). In one sequence the ‘light’ obscures a girl’s face, rendering her anonymous and denying her an identity (again, a suppression), but in the sequence relating to the bedroom, it passes from the spectre to the man in bed, engulfing his head (an attack). The lack of contextualisation lends the images an almost stream-of-consciousness poetry: vestiges of the past witnessed by the house are replayed on its walls without an obvious narrative structure. The related short film (50 minutes) Aita, carta al hijo (2011) is essentially a reworking of the feature but shorn of all conversation scenes and adding a voiceover (as well as some additional shots such as rooms viewed from a different angle and a few more inserts of archival footage). The voiceover (performed by the director himself) is that of the current owner of the house, who has been sent the papers found by the caretaker in the aftermath of a break-in, and takes the form of a letter written from a father (the father / aita we see in the fragmented archival footage?) to his son asking that he try to break from the cycle of violence and hate propagated in the region as if it is a tradition to be handed down through the generations. The lack of human interaction in the short (although it does include the footage of the atheist caretaker apparently finding some solace in listening to the harmonies of the church choir) adds an additional layer of melancholy.

But the mystery and melancholy are not affectation and neither is the poetry of the film. It is rare that a film feels utterly original, but that was how Aita felt to me. I recommend watching it in darkness because the play of light and shadow is magical.

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