Blancanieves: silent Gothic melodrama of a brief summer of shining innocence before a long winter of fascism

Pablo Berger, “Blancanieves” (2012)

In the style of old 1920s expressionist silent films, Berger’s “Blancanieves” is a witty, layered and lavish Gothic retelling of the fairy-tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Set in southern Spain in the 1920s, the innocent beauty becomes Carmencita, the daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his beautiful flamenco-dancing wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta). The child’s birth is attended by tragedy: Villalta becomes a quadriplegic after a goring by a bull (because he was forced to look away by a thoughtless news reporter flashing his camera) and Carmen dies during childbirth. Enter the gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) who marries Villalta and banishes Carmencita (Sofia Oria), who is brought up by her aunt (Angela Molina). Unfortunately Aunty dies while the child is still young so she is sent to the Villalta household where Encarna promptly banishes her to the servants’ quarters. Carmencita manages to find her father in his room and learns basic bull-fighting techniques from him. After his death, she (Macarena Garcia) is banished from her rightful inheritance and is nearly killed by Encarna’s chauffeur lover; traumatised, she suffers from amnesia when found by a troupe of bull-fighting dwarves(!) who welcome her into their nomadic way of life and christen her Blancanieves. Freudian psychology and nature-over-nurture racially based inheritance will out: Blancanieves finds her calling as Spain’s first female toreador, culminating in acclaim and recognition as Villalta’s heir in the prestigious Seville corrida. However, the wicked Encarna has found out about Blancanieves from a fashion magazine and plots the girl’s demise.

The film uses a maximalist expressionist style to tell its nuanced story: the excellent and camera-friendly Verdu camps up her role as the evil stepmother and several wonderful scenes in the film highlight Encarna’s depraved nature and fashion sense. The only thing lacking is evil cackling, as this is a silent movie. Berger employs several experimental filming techniques typical of a number of arthouse films from the early 20th century: Dziga Vertov (“Man with a Movie Camera”), Jean Vigo and Luis Bunuel are obvious inspirations. Alfred Hitchcock is also an influence in many scenes of voyeurism and the Villalta mansion, complete with Hitchcockian staircase which also becomes a murder weapon, might be a nightmare labyrinth from one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories.

Scenes are shot from different angles and the corrida becomes a microcosm of gladiatorial battles between life and death, youth and old age, and innocence and the kind of sophistication that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, embodied by both Encarna and the bull-fighting agent who cunningly takes advantage of Blancanieves’s naivety by tricking her into signing a contract that allows him to exploit her bull-fighting talents and eventually everything else she has. Berger brings a self-reflexive dimension to the reworked fairy-tale: the news media and the cult of celebrity are always present in some way, whether through the reporter’s gaffe that sets the train of tragedy, the fashion magazine as the substitute for the mirror on the wall or the freak-show exploitation of Blancanieves as she lies comatose in her glass coffin while the ghoulish queues of Prince Charming hopefuls line up to pay for the privilege of kissing her; and there are motifs of the eye-as-camera and voyeurism. The dwarves know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and with Blancanieves bill themselves as such: the fact that they’re missing a seventh dwarf bothers only one of their number but no-one else, least of all the public.

At times, the film trembles under the weight of the plot and the multi-layered symbolism and the narrative denouement does not hold up too well under the high tragedy of Blancanieves’s downfall and the creepy freak-show fade-out.

The film’s highlight is its rousing and passionate music soundtrack which includes heavy yet glorious doses of flamenco and militaristic music appropriate to a bull-fighting ritual. Something of the pagan nature of bull-fighting and its probable origins as a fertility rite and test of masculinity makes an appearance.

The subtext is perhaps obvious and banal: the character of Blancanieves represents a life-giving force that is continually thwarted by forces of evil in capitalism: the cult of celebrity, materialism and selfishness, exploitation and competition expressed through various support characters. It seems appropriate that Blancanieves should fall victim to Encarna’s wiles just before the Spanish Civil War breaks out; one presumes that she will have to sleep through General Franco’s rule to 1975 at the very least before she will finally find her Prince Charming.

The Impossible: a real human story is the ultimate victim in this pedestrian disaster movie

Juan Antonio Bayona, “The Impossible / Lo Impossible” (2012)

Someone should have told Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts before they signed up to this film the quote by W C Fields: “Never act with animals or children”. In this otherwise pedestrian film, the child actors are easily the stars and Tom Holland in particular is the star around whom the entire film eventually revolves. Based on the experiences of a Spanish family, the film retells the events surrounding the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that took the lives of over 230,000 people in Southeast Asia from a particular point of view.

McGregor and Watts play British couple Henry and Maria Bennett who take their three boys on holiday to a beach-side resort in Khao Lak in Thailand. They fuss over the usual things like who was the last to leave the house and turn the alarms on. The parents fret that they might return to find the house full of squatting hippies sleeping in their beds and (eek!) wearing all their clothes. The boys tease one another and one child refuses to sit next to big brother Lucas (Holland). After the usual problems of going through customs and convincing the inspectors they’re not sex tourists, drug couriers or fundamentalist fruitcake missionaries out to steal children for their adoption agency back in London or Wales or wherever, the parents haul the brood over to the Khao Lak where they pig out along with all the other European tourists while Thai waiters, masseurs and the odd prostitute (male, female, dog) wait on them hand and foot. After a couple of days of sheer boredom, it’s time to jack up the plot level to 11, at which point the tsunami hits and washes everything far inland.

The rest of the film is about the Bennetts’ travails in finding one another and getting Maria, severely wounded from being smacked into glass and debris and half-strangled by vines by the force of the waves, to immediate medical help. McGregor and Watts do all they can to play fairly one-dimensional and stereotypical characters and infuse them with some character without making them look histrionic. Unfortunately Watts has perhaps played too many “brave and stubborn mother” characters for her portrayal to appear credible and her best acting is all done in bed under a respirator. McGregor is better in his role as the desperate father searching for Maria and Lucas while keeping the other boys together and in his despair making dumb decisions that endanger his life. Indeed, the film appears to privilege the Bennett children over their parents. Lucas is forced very quickly to mature in order to protect his mother and get medical help, and to occupy himself in the makeshift hospital; he reunites a Swedish man with his son and sees to it that a toddler he and Maria have saved finds his parents. Lucas’ siblings Thomas and Simon (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) cope with the aftermath of the tsunami with stoic and innocent good humour and cheer up a Scottish lady (Geraldine Chaplin) with their wonder at the stars in the night-sky.

One problem with this film is its underlying ethnic bias in appealing to a Western, and in particular an English-speaking, audience. Why did the original Spanish family have to be made over into a white British family? The family members’ first names were kept and I would have thought that if the film were pitched at an American audience (a considerable percentage of whom is Spanish-speaking by linguistic background), the family should have remained Spanish. There would be additional problems for the family in trying to communicate with the Thai authorities and other tourists, and we would see Lucas turning from boy to man in five seconds flat trying to act as impromptu interpreter as well as carer. Although the film portrays the Thai people quite sympathetically, it is odd to see mostly faceless Thai people in positions of servitude again while white people are lolling about horizontally, just in a different context. Indeed, given that the vast majority of people who died in the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in Thailand were Thai, I’m astonished that the film omits any mention of their tragedy, even in the end credits.

The plot feels very manipulative and rather top-heavy with its first half dominated by Watts and Holland fighting the waves and managing to find each other, scramble to safety, save a small child and get help. The switch to McGregor and the younger children seems just a bit too rushed and glib – it seems the littlies saved themselves by grabbing fronds attached to palm trees in waters rushing at over 100 km/ hour – and the second half of the film pales in comparison with the first half. The climax is of a classic multiple-shot “will they find each other? will they miss each other?” plot device that scrambles around looking for a set of coincidences that will bring everyone together. The little guys need to pee so they delay their transport driver, another transport driver has problems starting his engine and Lucas thinks he’s spotted Dad.

The cheesiest and most manipulative part of the film is in the dream sequence in which Maria, under anaesthetic, relives being hit by the waves and smacked into a brown watery hell in which she gets cut after cut on her body. Predictably the dream experience pushes her towards a light and the audience wonders whether reaching the light means she dies on the operating table or not …

When all was said and done and the lights came on in the cinema, it was telling that the mostly middle-aged and affluent audience started bolting for the doors instead of staying for the credits: what we had just seen was little more than a disaster movie with disaster movie narrative elements (dramatic music, strong and stubborn parents, one family member in dire straits needing emergency treatment, resourceful teenage son, cute little kids who all manage to survive with no cuts, wounds or psychological trauma) and nothing more. Everything is reduced to the banal and the film offers no great insight into the characters and how much they might have changed, how closer they might have come as a family as a result of the disaster. The pity is that there was perhaps a real human story in that film if the film-makers had taken a little more liberty with it in a different direction: spoiled teenage son thrust into a situation where he must look after mum after she has saved his life, being forced to grow up, making friends with strangers and in the process learning something about the Thai people, and acknowledging that he and they share a common humanity.

The Diadem / MiniKillers: two trashy films that highlight how good a good actor can be

?, “The Diadem” (1966)

Wolfgang von Chmielewski, “MiniKillers” (1969)

Two curious short films from Germany and Spain respectively, both feature the English actor Diana Rigg in the starring role of an unnamed spy – the films have no dialogue – carrying out a mission for an unnamed employer or agency. Quite why and how the actor ended up in these shorts, both very low budget films and the later one with a very cheesy look and music soundtrack, is unknown since Rigg apparently does not talk about them and she made them at times when her career was ascendant on television and film respectively. It’s possible that Rigg agreed to appear in the films as the lack of dialogue meant that the focus would be on her acting to carry them all the way. The films will be of interest mainly to diehard Rigg fans who know her work in the TV series “The Avengers”.

In the first film “The Diadem”, Rigg’s action-girl spy rather carelessly loses the key to her safe where she is protecting a valuable diadem. Naturally a crook who’s been following her nicks the key, goes back to her house and tries to steal the box but Rigg wallops him and takes the box off him, only to discover that a piggy bank is inside. She then finds a map with a route to a derelict house and goes there. She discovers the diadem at last but has to evade three more crooks who try to kill her with a venomous snake.

The plot is very flimsy and one scratches one’s head at why Rigg is so careless with the key but at least the film is fairly well made and edited. The night-time setting for Rigg’s investigation of the abandoned house adds some suspense and justifies one scene where Rigg blows out a candle and fights a crook in the dark. Close-ups of characters’ faces and the use of unusual angling in the camera work assist in bulking up what tension can be wrung out of the plot. At least Rigg has the authority and style to bring off a forgettable short and make it believable as a sort-of promotional film for “The Avengers”, even though her character is not named.

“MiniKillers” is a 28-minute film divided into four parts in which Rigg’s action girl, on holiday in the Costa Brava region of Spain, stumbles across a bizarre murder in which a tourist is killed by a cute toy doll. She quickly discovers that the doll shot poison at its victim and sets out to find the man’s killers. She is trailed by the bad guys of whom the most notable are the Boss and his No 1 henchman (played by Jose Nieto and Moises Augusto Rocha). They try to kill her with a doll, ambush her on a beach with mannequins and a net, put a booby-trapped doll in her car (which she tosses back at them) and trap her under a cliff-hanger device (a stone wine-press). Coolly our heroine wriggles out of danger each and every time with the most improbable (and for male viewers, the most memorable) scramble being in the second part where somehow she slips out of her dress and the trawler-net and swims to a boat; she hauls herself into the boat clad in underwear. She discovers in the course of her investigation that the man killed is an Interpol agent on the trail of the crooks for drug-running and that another Interpol agent (Sali), masquerading as a flamenco dancer, is next on the crooks’ hit-list.

The plot barely exists with holes large enough for a pod of humpbacks to swim through. Fight scenes at least are well choreographed though highly improbable: you can’t tell me a skinny English woman can beat off four or five very hunky bodyguard types with a few judo chops and flip-overs. Although a rifle with sights appears in the first part of the film, no shots are ever fired. One would think also that if you stick your victim into a wine-press, you should make sure she never wakes up or at least stand by to see that the lady does not stop the cogs with her ring and stall the wine-press. The quality of the film is bad with washed-out colours but not so bad that we can’t see Rigg’s luminous face express subtle feelings and thoughts. Music is of the trashy Europop sort with bubbly acid-toned church organ melodies that go through the ears and brain like annoying muzak poison.

The film’s saving grace is its lead actor who at least looks as if she’s enjoying herself and glows throughout all four parts of the film. Rigg adds humorous touches such as wagging a stern finger at one minikiller doll when she discovers it’s carrying drugs and the No 1 henchman even throws an exaggerated look of exhaustion when the Boss tells him to go after Rigg for the umpteenth time. With no dialogue and hardly any substance to the plot which turns out to be fairly mundane – Rigg discovers an underground drug-running racket – the film relies heavily on its lead actor to carry it. Suffice to say that Rigg does an excellent job of salvaging her character and acting reputation, if not the film. The bad guys are hammy but the actors seem happy playing support to Rigg.

Here is proof if any is needed that it’s not good films that make good actors shine … it’s actually bad films that prove whether actors are good or not. A good actor can at least make his/her character look credible and salvage a good part of a bad film.

28 Weeks Later: film has more Swiss-cheese holes than the zombies make in their victims

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, “28 Weeks Later” (2007)

On paper it looked like a good idea: a sequel to the original zombies-on-the-run flick “28 Days Later” by Danny Boyle – but “28 Weeks Later” turns out to be more Swiss-cheese in plot and character development than the monsters themselves can make of their victims. Supposedly an exercise in forcing viewers to experience vicariously London as a deserted city in lockdown after an experiment in rehabilitating its refugees goes awry and the returnees are abandoned in a virtual prison, the film descends into cliche and a tatty plot in which two children, a soldier, a scientist and a few others play survivor against a horde of zombies and trigger-happy US soldiers.

Two kids, Andy and Tammy (Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots), are among the survivors of the first zombie outbreak caused by a mysterious virus called Rage. The survivors are taken away from Britain and the entire island, caught up in the mass zombie contagion, has had to be sealed off from the rest of the world, purged of its infected people, made squeaky-clean and off-limits to human penetration for six months. A few tears may have been shed for the loss of whatever passed for modern British culture before the Rage virus took over; the Russians are probably upset that there is no longer an educated enemy spy agency to match wits against but apart from that, few are sad to see the culture and society that produced Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron snuffed out. The Americans decide to allow a few hundred refugees to return to London, Andy and Tammy among them. They are reunited with Dad (Robert Carlyle) and almost immediately the three fall into trouble: the kids discover their lost mum (Catherine McCormack) who is infected with the zombie virus but hasn’t undergone the transformation to rabid brute. The Americans pick her up and install her under supposedly tight security in a medical facility and put the children under close observation. Dad however sneaks into Mum’s supposedly sealed room and ends up infected with the zombie virus; mayhem ensues and Andy and Tammy once again find themselves on the run, befriended by a scientist (Rose Byrne) and US soldier Doyle (Jeremy Renner) as they try to avoid being shot down by the US Army or chewed over by Dad’s army of frenzied fiends.

The film depends a great deal on dark shadows and night scenes that can be shot in infra-red camera so that viewers don’t see the straining seams that barely keep the story together. The plot depends on people doing the most gobsmacking idiotic things: the US Army commander (Idris Elba) fails to keep the children’s mother under strict surveillance, enabling the father to gain unhindered access to her room; the father himself kisses her and she bites him for betraying her in the film’s opening scenes and leaving her exposed to the zombie threat; Andy wanders off and gets lost much of the time; and American soldiers are ordered to try to shoot zombies milling in a crowd of panicking people from afar! Characters are stereotyped or act in ways inconsistent with what they’re supposed to be: Andy sometimes is brave and resourceful but is also incredibly stupid when the plot goes flat and a nail-biting scene of suspense and terror is called for; Tammy either hyperventilates or screams for much of the film’s second half but stays amazingly calm for the climactic scene (because, hey, the film is PC so it allows girls to kill!); and the soldier Doyle plays heroic and self-sacrificing in a spectacular fiery scene.

The handheld camera technique becomes tiresome in a film of this nature: critical scenes become merely blurry and when one scene of pointless gore follows another, the jumpy film ends up playing a curiously censorious role – viewers have little idea of how much blood is actually split when the camera is bouncing everywhere.

If there is a theme, it’s weakly developed: the Americans should have been portrayed as more cynical in allowing a resettlement experiment to proceed with the refugees as obvious guinea pigs; the US Army is merely brutal but the film should also have shown Elba’s character and others as panicky and incompetent at controlling the experiment and containing the new zombie outbreak. There could have been a sub-plot involving the cynical use of Andy and Tammy as guinea pigs in another bizarre science experiment involving the development of a vaccine for the Rage virus but this would have been beyond whatever little intelligence the plot possesses.

Worst of all, the film paves the way for a second pointless sequel which will take place in Paris in France. Now we really have to cry over the loss of what passes for modern Parisian culture – or celebrate more like, come to think of it.

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

The Skin I Live In: tricked-up film about identity change misses some deep lessons about obsession, control and revenge

Pedro Almodóvar, “The Skin I Live In / La Piel Que Habito” (2011)

Georges Franju’s sci-fi horror classic “Eyes without a Face” was overdue for a remake with updated cosmetic surgery and stem cell technologies and, seeing as how these days the Spanish are making the arthouse flicks that the French used to be so good at, it’s fitting that Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has remade that film in his own wacky Almodóvar way. Familiar motifs such as the narrative posing in flashback form, family skeleton secrets falling out of closets and reconciliations between mothers and children flesh out the original “Eyes …” plot and break every known moral convention to explore issues about identity, especially identity based on superficial criteria such as facial appearance and beauty, and stereotypes about gender.

Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon whose wife was disfigured in a fire when her car caught alight. Although he saves the wife’s life and repairs what damage has been done to her face, she later kills herself by defenestration in front of their daughter Norma. Norma becomes psychotic and stays that way for years until doctors judge her well enough to attend a wedding and its reception with her father. The girl meets Vicente (Jan Cornet) and the two sneak off into the garden for a pash. While making out, Norma hears the wedding singer warbling the song that had been playing when her mother threw herself out the window and the girl has a severe reaction. Vicente, frightened, runs away and Ledgard, searching for Norma, finds her catatonic in the garden. With the girl regressing permanently to her psychotic state, Ledgard hunts down Vicente, imprisons him and subjects him to a series of cosmetic surgery operations that include castration, a sex change and other changes: the result is the lovely Vera (Elena Anaya) who becomes the focus for Ledgard’s obsessive desires and manias.

The script is skilfully written and proceeds at a fast pace yet by using a narrative structure of a series of introductions followed by flashback history, it sets before viewers a bunch of characters of whom we form first-impression opinions; all of these impressions are undermined by the film’s second half which takes the form of memories seen through Ledgard and Vera’s dreams. We begin to understand the true horror of Vera’s experience at the hands of Ledgard who experiments on her as much out of curiosity and thirst for career fame and advancement of scientific knowledge as for vengeance. There could have been some very instructive lessons delivered about the seductive nature of scientific inquiry and how it can blind people to issues of ethical responsibility, exploitation of subjects (especially human subjects) and abusing their freedom and rights, and about the nature of freedom itself: can a person experience freedom and individuality even while imprisoned in an unwanted body and sexual identity and surrounded by another beautiful prison layer (Ledgard’s palatial home)? We see Vera educate herself with yoga and art while trapped in her beautiful jail; would Vicente have become a more educated person if he had not been captured and tormented the way he has been? Who is actually more free, Vera or Ledgard? – Vera believes herself the prisoner but Ledgard, in thrall to his obsessions and desire for vengeance, may actually be the less free of the two. But this movie being an Almodóvar movie, deep lessons about obsession, revenge and power and control over other people are avoided; we get instead a moderately convoluted story that piles shock upon shock and laugh upon laugh while the background reverberates with the invisible noise of shattering moral conventions and continuous breaches of audience tolerance.

Visually the film is beautiful and, despite the use of muted blues and green, flamboyant in that distinctive Almodóvar way: there is an added clinical precision that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cronenberg film, thanks to the subject matter and its treatment in the plot. Banderas does an excellent job as the quietly manic doctor / researcher who is as reasonable as a mad man can be, and Anaya acquits herself well as his victim. Maria Paredes as Ledgard’s housekeeper (and secret biological mother) Marilia helps to keep the plot going smoothly. Minor characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs; even Vicente rarely rises from ardent young would-be lover and wronged prisoner.

“Eyes without a Face” was a deep, thoughtful film, efficient and almost minimal in its delivery, turning on the issue of free will; “The Skin I Live In” may be more glamorous and arty in appearance, and the plot may twist and turn effortlessly with the skill and grace of a dancer, but I find this effort an inferior film compared to Franju’s effort. Tricksiness in plot and themes is never a good substitute for substance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L’Age d’Or: cheeky and hilarious attack on religious, social and political repression and corruption

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “L’Âge d’Or” (1930)

On the heels of “Un Chien Andalou”, a short film, comes this proper full-length surrealist feature by Buñuel and Dali in which they cheekily send up everything prim and proper in Spanish society. These days “L’Âge d’Or” gets plenty of laughs and is seen to be the comedy it is but over 80 years ago, it was definitely seen as subversive and dangerous and was banned not only in its native Spain but elsewhere. The film revolves around two lovers who try to get it on but circumstances, society, the Roman Catholic Church and ultimately their own inhibitions, drummed into them by their upbringing, prevent them from consummating their passion.

The gags are hilarious yet stinging at the same time: crippled soldiers hobbling on rifles for crutches rally to the war cause against the Majorcan enemy; an Imperial Roman delegation, dressed in modern clothes, pay their respects to four dead bishops (they died from total uselessness); and the male lover of the doomed pair hates dogs so much he’d rather kick them and send them flying long distances than pat them. The narrative divides into three unequal parts: the first part revolves around the soldiers on crutches; the second encompasses the delegation’s founding of modern Rome and saluting the bishops, and the male lover’s arrest by police whom he eventually outwits by handing them a map then hailing a taxi and kicking a blind man; the third part which is the major part takes place at a fancy high-society party. Strange things take place there: some peasants detour their ox-drawn cart through the dining-room and a maid flies from the kitchen and crashes onto the dining-room floor while a burst of flame rips out from where she’s just come. In scenes highlighting social hypocrisy, all too reminiscent of modern mass-media-directed selective attention-mongering, the guests studiously ignore her and the peasants but when a man in the gardens OUTSIDE the mansion shoots his young son for disobedience, the attendees hurry out onto the balconies to gawp at the scene. In the meantime, the lovers find each other at the party and sneak outside for a kiss, cuddle and maybe a quickie.

The male of the pair turns out to be a diplomat for the humanitarian International Goodwill Society; he shirks his duties in pursuit of the lovely lass and as a result several zillions of innocent children, women and elderly folk in distant parts die violently and his boss has to commit suicide out of shame. While the two men shout each other down the phone, the diplomat’s amour greedily sucks a statue’s toes and the camera hilariously shoots a glance at the statue’s face as if to check for a reaction! Later the diplomat discovers his love is unfaithful and in anger he storms into her bedroom and flings out through the window her pet objects: a priest, a giraffe doll and a giant Christmas fir on fire!

Religion, the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, authoritarian modes of bringing up children and the snootiness of high society all get a skewering here: these are themes that Buñuel would revisit throughout his career. The dinner party scene is a motif that repeats in other famous films like “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. Dream sequences are important and make more impact against the conventional narrative than they do in “Un Chien Andalou”: in one early unforgettable scene the diplomat day-dreams about his lover, a toilet next to which something slithers up the toilet roll, and huge chunks of liquefied lumpy brown lava rolling and slurping against each other to the sounds of flushing toilets – lovely! Another important aspect of the movie is its use of overly melodramatic music especially during the party scenes in which the lovers scrap at each other without achieving much (the scenes are highly erotic even though no clothing is shed) and the passion and climax are provided by a garden concert: the climax turns out to be an anti-climax though as the conductor gets a headache!

The really blasphemous part of the film comes at the very end after a short retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” (more famously represented in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s shocker “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom”, reviewed elsewhere on this blog):  the figure of Christ is lampooned as a plaything of the depraved rich. This says something about religious hypocrisy among the wealthy and the corruption of religion itself, that its standard-bearers prostitute themselves before representatives of worldly power. There is no connection between this part of the film and what’s gone on for the past 55+ minutes but I say there’s no need to look for connection other than that this section expresses Buñuel’s low opinion of Catholic doctrine.

So many laugh-out-loud moments abound here that to absorb them all, you need to watch “L’Âge d’Or” (the title itself is highly satirical – who would associate a Golden Age with religious, social and political corruption?) at least twice; repeated viewings will also help you get a foothold onto what the narrative might be saying. There is no right way of viewing the film and seeing what its main issues are, so multiple interpretations of what’s really happening and what Buñuel might be saying are possible.

No wonder Alfred Hitchcock once named Buñuel as his favourite director: Buñuel dared to express his obsessions and hang-ups in direct ways that Hitchcock could only envy.

 

 

Un Chien Andalou: a special once-in-a-lifetime visual experience

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “Un Chien Andalou” (1929)

Famous surrealist film that never fails to shock and surprise despite having been made over 80 years, “Un Chien Andalou” is that special once-in-a-lifetime what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see?! picture that you must treat yourself to, to say that you have truly lived. No plot or narrative to speak of, this is a series of scenes mostly unrelated to one another except by a dream logic in which Freudian free association of dream images determines what happens next after each scene. No point in looking for hidden messages then: but there are messages a-plenty in the objects that appear throughout the film, many of which represent ideas and themes that were to recur in Buñuel’s films throughout his career.

The short memorably opens with a scene in which a man (Buñuel himself), mesmerised by the full moon, prepares a razor and cuts into the eyeball of a young woman (Simone Mareuil) who sits calmly on a chair. The film cuts abruptly in time and space to a man (Pierre Batcheff) dressed in nun’s clothing with a box around his waist riding a bicycle and coming to grief on the road; the young woman we met earlier sees him from her apartment window and rushes to help him. There then follows a series of scenes in which it’s not clear whether Batcheff is playing one man or two men or even two cloned representations of the same man with perhaps one of them being the real thing and the other something imagined by Mareuil’s character. Batcheff studies his hand from which ants crawl out of a hole, attempts to seduce Mareuil whom he imagines in various stages of undress and manages to haul out from nowhere in particular in the apartment two grand pianos with animal carcasses draped over them and two dazed padres (Jaime Miravitilles and Salvador Dali) attached to the lot with ropes.

The film jumps around in the temporal dimensions – we go back in time, forwards in time, whatever – and spatially as well: “narrative” flow moves from the apartment to meadows without an intervening transition from urban to suburban to rural landscapes; and Mareuil steps out from the apartment straight into a beach scene. Books turn into guns, moths carry grinning skulls on their backs and if someone’s mouth disappears, be careful not to apply too much lipstick to your own mouth or your smelly armpit hair ends up on the other person’s face.

There’s probably a vague over-riding theme about human relationships and the ritual of courtship and many visual ideas in the film were to recur in later Buñuel films: bashing priests and religion generally, fetishism, lust and desire, rebellion, to name some. Everything is played straight and matter-of-fact and this is an unexpected paradox for a film about dreams and free associations of ideas and visual images. The shock value may have disappeared but the film’s playful and cheeky manipulation of narrative, plot and montage still threaten a major rearrangement of one’s brain cells with every viewing.

 

The Awakening: tasty little film of death and how suddenly it comes

Ignacio Cerdà, Ethan Jacobson, Francisco Stohr, “The Awakening” (1991)

This 8-minute short is the first of three films forming a trilogy about death and how we are subject to elements beyond our control. In this short, these elements include time, objects and our own bodies. A student dozes off in class briefly and when he wakes, he finds the teacher and all his classmates frozen in time and space. He investigates and discovers the roll call has his name left off. He realises he is trapped in the classroom. Strange images of crucifixes and an eye atop a pyramid (this latter image appearing on a US dollar bill the student is observing when the film opens) and snatches of childhood memories flood his mind. His mind clears and he sees a commotion: someone is on the floor, apparently dying, and people are trying desperately to revive him. The student leans over and recognises the victim.

The whole film is very dream-like and surreal especially with the image of the eye and the pyramid suddenly appearing in full and precise detail on the blackboard and the student aware that the frozen figures before him are looking at him and through him. There is no dialogue and the music alternates between overly melodramatic and glitchy-electronic, reminiscent of crickets making a constant clicking and buzzing noise, creating a creepy mysterious atmosphere throughout the film. The student, wandering warily around the still classroom, starts to panic and his face twists under the strange images invading his mind. His face expresses startled horror as he realises what has happened to him. All the terror and suspense that appear are expressed in the student’s body language which up to the climax was very effective indeed; at the climax, the full horror doesn’t appear to hit the student, at least not in his face anyway, and he retreats into a dazed, passive state that continues to the end.

Although the setting is very ordinary and banal, and the student is no-one special – the teacher, played by Cerdà, even hands him an assignment marked “F” – the whole short is very unsettling with a sinister mood. Excellent camerawork which immerses viewers into the plot by assuming the student’s point of view at several points during the short including the horrific climax and its brief denouement helps to infuse suspense in what is otherwise a predictable little story. Experienced horror fans are sure to see the film’s revelation a mile away once the student wakes up from his snooze.

The music does tend to overwhelm the film especially during its most dramatic parts and viewers are left to wonder at the significance of the image of the eye and the pyramid in the film. According to Wikipedia, this is a representation of the Eye of Providence and in Christian mediaeval lore symbolises the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in other ideological contexts and belief systems such as Freemasonry, it also symbolises the all-seeing God who observes our thoughts and actions. Is it possible that in communing with the dollar bill, the student actually does see God or something of God’s power? Does God give him a foretaste of what is to happen to him?

Quite a good little short, filled with mystery and deep symbolism, “The Awakening” is a small tasty appetiser into the world of Nacho Cerdà.

 

Fermat’s Room: a light and entertaining if not completely satisfying film about professional rivalry and intellectual obsession

Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sapeña, “Fermat’s Room” (2009)

Three brilliant mathematicians and an inventor, each already having solved a difficult problem, are invited to dinner together with a mysterious host called Fermat (Federico Luppi) in a barn on a remote island. Given pseudonyms of Galois, Hilbert, Oliva and Pascal, the foursome enjoy their meal with Fermat who then invites them to solve an enigma. Suddenly Fermat’s cellphone rings, he answers and has to excuse himself from the meeting in order to go to hospital to see his injured daughter. While he is gone, the guests discover he has locked the door and they are trapped; another cellphone and they answer it to find out that they are to solve a series of mental puzzles and riddles, each within one minute. If they run out of time or get the wrong answer, the walls in the room move towards them, shrinking the room. The quartet quickly realise they must solve the riddles and at the same time work out why they have been brought together by Fermat in the one place to be killed.

The actual puzzles in the film are not very complicated and many viewers will be able to solve them faster than the supposed geniuses do, though they have the luxury of not facing certain death if they take their time or get a wrong answer. The film quickly slips into a formula with Oliva (Elena Ballesteros) doing most of the brainwork on the riddles while the other characters (played by Lluis Homar, Santi Millan and Alejo Sauras) try to work out the connections among themselves and between one another and Fermat. In the meantime as the room becomes smaller, the guests try to stop the unseen hydraulic presses from pushing the walls closer to them by piling and arranging the furniture in ways to counteract the push. Past professional jealousies, the single-minded pursuit of an answer to an age-old intellectual enigma, an unfaithful lover, a car running into a pedestrian and other personal peccadilloes arise in the various back-stories that the foursome spill out to one another.

As might be expected the plot contains a red herring and a twist in that the real villain is not who the foursome suppose him to be. The twist relates to the general theme of professional rivalry and single-minded competition, and the fear that one’s lifework, built up over many years, even decades, can be eclipsed or demolished by a young upstart’s brilliant discovery. After the twist, the film then becomes a mad dash to escape the room with perhaps not even half the riddles the guests are supposed to solve having been completed. The true climax actually comes very close to the end of the film with those guests who have managed to escape pondering whether some papers they have taken with them should be published under one person’s name or another name. Some viewers will be able to guess that there is a third alternative.

In spite of the action taking place in just one ever-shrinking room, the movie doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic and the characters remain more or less level-headed as they work out the puzzles and work out their connections to one another. This can be a disadvantage to some people’s enjoyment of the movie: they may find the relative lack of emoting gives the impresson of the guests as being not too concerned with their dilemma. The acting can be uneven and Homar and Millan, playing Hilbert and Pascal respectively, flesh their characters out better than the younger Ballesteros and Sauras who play the young ex-lovers Oliva and Galois. Some viewers may query why two mathematicians have to be young and, in Galois’s case, tempestuous and testosterone-charged; they probably need to read something of the life of the real Évariste Galois, the brilliant mathematician who died at the age of 20 in a duel fought on behalf of a woman.

There is suspense and the puzzle-solving can be very absorbing and entertaining so the film moves more quickly than a synopsis of the plot would suggest. The whole project might have worked better and with more depth if there were more players (two, maybe three more people would do) and the room had been expanded to a maze with shifting walls. There could be a couple of deaths along the way – they need not be shown in all their gory glory – which would ratchet up the suspense and tension. The characters could have tried to beat the game rather than go along with it, with consequences both beneficial and detrimental to their survival. As it is, being Piedrahita and Sapena’s first full-length feature film together and made on a small budget, “Fermat’s Room” is an entertaining if not very satisfying film. The conclusion can be very hurried and some loose ends remain, well, loose.