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.

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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 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

Further Adventures in the Carlos Saura Challenge

Carlos Saura Challenge_notebook

The Carlos Saura Challenge began in February 2013 as a way of addressing a gap in my knowledge of Spanish cinema; I was familiar with Cría cuervos and the dance films, but I hadn’t seen any of the other films from Saura’s substantial career. I have made intermittent progress – my initial aim of watching all 37 of his films in the space of a year proved to be wildly unrealistic, but my viewings ground to a halt for months at a time on several occasions. Attempting to watch them chronologically was possibly a mistake – although you can see themes developing by considering them in that order – and in fact I have ended up looping back a couple of times because earlier films that were unavailable suddenly appeared on VOD or another format (his directorial debut – Los golfos / The Delinquents – was shown on 35mm as part of the Viva! film festival in Manchester in early 2014).
I have been surprised by how much I like his early films. Through necessity (to avoid the censor during the dictatorship) many of the early films are metaphorical – which can be something that I find irritating – but whereas I had been under the impression that Saura made very dry and dour films in that period, I found a mischievous sense of humour and someone who (along with producer Elías Querejeta, with whom he made a run of 13 films starting with La caza / The Hunt in 1966) had clearly done his damnedest to foil those who were restricting what could be put on Spanish screens. Censors often failed to appreciate that suggestion can be more powerful and more resonant than a direct depiction. There are also some great performances from José Luis López Vázquez (who I had previously only seen in comedic roles) and Geraldine Chaplin (a revelation) in those early films, most of them probably little known outside of Spain because they haven’t been commercially available in subtitled form (most of the DVDs that I have tracked down do not have subtitles).
I restarted again in January this year with Cría cuervos (the status of which had been putting me off writing about it) and then went backwards to watch La madriguera / Honeycomb. And then I stopped again. So basically I’ve reached the 1970s, I am 10 films into his career (barely a quarter of the way through his total filmography) and currently in a run of films where Geraldine Chaplin gets put through the mill (I’ve got 3 more films to go before they romantically and professionally parted company from what is an actor-director partnership – they made 8 films together – that merits greater critical attention). Next up will be Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Life with Chaplin and Fernando Rey – I’m going to aim to cover that at some point during September.

Saura_posters
I’m going to recap the films I’ve written about so far (and link to where I’ve written about them) and list the ones still to come. I usually list things Spanish title / English title the first time I refer to them – if the English title is in square brackets, it’s a literal translation as there is no official English language title. If a title in the list below has ‘VOD’ next to it that means that VOD is currently the only way to view it (click on ‘VOD’ to be taken to where it’s available – Filmin subscriptions can only be purchased within Spain but Filmotech allows you to pay 7€ for a month and watch almost anything on the site), ‘+VOD’ signifies that means that it is also in circulation on DVD, and nothing next to the title means DVD only (many of them are OOP but I’ve indicated if a film is completely unavailable – i.e. no DVD that I’m aware of). Cría cuervos, Blood Wedding, Carmen, El amor brujo, and Tango all have UK DVDs available. The majority of the other films were OOP but Enrique Cerezo’s current crusade to make Spanish cinema classics more readily available (Spanish DVDs always seem to have very limited runs and some disappear very quickly – I acquired most of my Saura DVDs secondhand) means that a few of the Saura/Querejeta collaborations (and some of the director’s later films including El Dorado and ¡Ay, Carmela!) are now available on DVD and Bluray in restored, no-frills editions (no English subtitles as far as I know) through the Divisa label.
01. Los golfos / The Delinquents (1962) [French DVD only] +VOD. Saura’s directorial debut but one that I saw out of sequence because it had long been unavailable in any format. A French DVD (with French subs only) was released in 2013 but I had the chance to see the film on 35mm at Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival in Manchester in 2014 – to date it is the only one of Saura’s films that I have seen on the big screen.
02. Llanto por un bandido / Lament for a Bandit (1964). Heavily censored at the time of its original release, the version I’ve seen suffers from the censor’s interventions. A lesser film in Saura’s filmography although – as with Los golfos – there are already certain elements that will recur throughout his career. It also contains Francisco (Paco) Rabal on scenery-chewing form, Lino Ventura, and a cameo by Luis Buñuel.
03. La caza / The Hunt (1966) +VOD (VOD includes an English subtitle option). Saura’s first masterpiece.
04. Peppermint frappé (1967) +VOD. The most Almodóvarian of Saura’s films (predating the man from La Mancha by several decades) and the first of his collaborations with Geraldine Chaplin (who here plays three women) and José Luis López Vázquez.
05. Stress-es tres-tres / Stress is Three (1968) [unavailable]
06. La madriguera / Honeycomb (1969) VOD. Chaplin again takes on multiple personalities in this blurring of performance, role play, dreams, and reality.
07. El jardin de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970). The blurring of dream and reality seen in La madriguera is kicked up a notch in this darkly funny (with a brilliant performance by López Vázquez) and structurally complicated film – the complex intricacy of the structure acted as a smokescreen to distract the censor from some of the more political elements.
08. Ana y los lobos / Ana and the Wolves (1973) +VOD. Chaplin stars alongside Fernando Fernán Gómez in a film where a sense of uneasy foreboding builds to a dark and horrific payoff.
09. La prima Angélica / Cousin Angelica (1974) +VOD. This is probably López Vázquez’s best performance for Saura (although he is never less than great across all of their collaborations) and it is my favourite of the films I’ve watched so far – it deserves to be better known outside of Spain.
10. Cría cuervos / Raise Ravens (1976) +VOD. Probably the director’s best-known film in the UK. Fiona Noble also wrote a guest post about it for the old site.
Still to come…
11. Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Life (1977) +VOD (VOD includes an English subtitle option).
12. Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes (1978) VOD.
13. Mamá cumple 100 años / [Mama Turns 100] (1979).
14. Deprisa, deprisa / Faster, Faster (1981) +VOD.
15. Bodas de sangre / Blood Wedding (1981).
16. Dulces horas / [Sweet Hours] (1982) [unavailable].
17. Antonieta (1982) [French DVD only].
18. Carmen (1983).
19. Los zancos / [The Stilts] (1984).
20. El amor brujo (1986).
21. El Dorado (1988) +VOD.
22. La noche oscura / [The Dark Night] (1989).
23. ¡Ay, Carmela! (1990) +VOD.
24. Sevillanas (1992).
25. ¡Dispara! / Outrage (1993).
26. Flamenco (1995).
27. Taxi (1996).
28. Pajarico / [Little Bird] (1997).
29. Tango (1998) +VOD.
30. Goya en Burdeos / Goya in Bordeaux (1999) +VOD.
31. Buñuel y la mesa del rey Salomón / Buñuel and King Solomon’s Table (2001).
32. Salomé (2002).
33. El séptimo día / The Seventh Day (2004) +VOD.
34. Iberia (2005) +VOD.
35. Fados (2007).
36. Io, Don Giovanni / I, Don Giovanni (2010).
37. Flamenco, Flamenco (2010) +VOD.
38. Argentina (2015) [due to premiere at the Venice Film Festival].