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.

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Watched in May

All watched at home on either DVD or VOD.

In relation to documentaries, I have discovered that PBS has a documentary strand called Independent Lens (it’s a bit like the BBC’s Storyville strand insofar as the films don’t appear to be specifically made for the channel), which puts films online for a limited time period after they’ve been broadcast – and they’re viewable outside of the U.S. One note of caution: they edit the films to fit a specific time slot – so although The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is 90 minutes, the version I watched was only an hour long. Still worth keeping an eye on though.

Also: where Doc Alliance has become a subscription service (you used to be able to rent individual films but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore – a subscription gets you access to everything on the site), they seem to have expanded their collection. I watched Deborah Stratman’s Illinois Parables on there but they also have films like The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, 2015) and Toponymy (Jonathan Perel, 2015) – and in many cases you have the option of paying to download a permanent copy of the film. I haven’t fully explored their catalogue yet, but if you’re into documentaries, I’d recommend taking a look.

Ramón Lluís Bande’s Equí y n’otru tiempu (2015) is available on subtitled DVD directly from the production company – here. Between 1937 and 1952, armed resistance to Franco continued in the Asturian mountains with many of the resistance fighters dying within that landscape. Bande’s film ‘proposes a cinematographic shift from the document to the monument, by filming in the present the places in which the major figures of the Asturian Guerrilla Group were killed’ (taken from the publicity material). I’m intending to watch his subsequent film – El nome de los árboles (2015) – which is available as VOD on Filmin. The 2nd film forms a diptych with the 1st, this time switching to oral history as the witness testimonies of those events need to be captured before they disappear from living memory.

The Carlos Saura Challenge: I had a fit of enthusiasm, rewatched a couple of the films and watched two others for the first time. I’ve re-written the nine posts that were part of the original run of the challenge on the old blog, and also written a completely new one for an early film that wasn’t available then…and then I thought “You’re still not even a third of the way through his filmography!” and got a bit disheartened. I had seen it as a possible way of kickstarting getting back into the habit of writing again, although – given that I’ve always struggled with momentum on this particular project – maybe that’s not a good strategy. I don’t want to give up but was thinking that simply watching the films would have to be my way of completing it because writing about them as well ends up making it into (what feels like) an epic endeavour but also something of a chore.

However, having mulled it over, I think I’ve found a way of breaking it down into stages of a more manageable size. I’m going to divide his filmography into three almost-equal periods: 1962-1979; 1980-1999; 2000-2017. I am aware that the first period might be better to end in 1981 (which is when he ended his run of thirteen films with Elías Querejeta) but 1979 represents his last film (of eight) with Geraldine Chaplin – and I’m not actually arguing that these are ‘phases’ in his career (the break with Querejeta is a dividing line in that respect); I just want to divide the time span up, and grouping by decade seems easiest. I need to write about Elisa, vida mía / Elisa, My Love and Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes but that then leaves me only one film away from completing the first period (Mamá cumple 100 años / Mama Turns 100 is the one I haven’t watched yet). So I’m intending to have a fortnight dedicated to Saura’s 1962-1979 films probably in early July (I’ve got other things going on this month), with a post on each of the thirteen films from those years. I will then move on to watching and writing about sixteen of the seventeen films (one is completely unavailable) from 1980-1999 (the films aren’t equally shared between the periods, but there’s not much I can do about that) with the intention of posting that collection over two weeks towards the end of the year – but there’s obviously a strong chance that it’ll be early next year instead. I won’t give an ETA on the last period until I know how long the middle one takes (only nine films in the last collection at the moment – Saura’s still making films – so that should feel easy-peasy in comparison). Dividing the thirty-nine (and counting!) films into smaller collections feels more do-able.