Superego and Id meet slapstick in Oristrell’s breathless “Unconscious”

Joaquin Oristrell, “Unconscious” (2004)

An amusing and vivacious romance comedy set in Barcelona, 1913, “Unconscious” starts off as a search, possibly whodunnit, mystery and winds up a bonkers, overly slapstick trip into the more titillating and taboo areas of human psychology and sexuality. Dr Leon Pardo (Alex Brendemuehl) has recently returned from Vienna, having studied female sexuality as a student of the illustrious psychoanalyst Dr Sigmund Freud, and promptly disappears. Pardo’s wife Alma (Leonor Watling) enlists the help of her brother-in-law Dr Salvador Pifarre (Luis Tosar), also a psychiatrist, to find her lost spouse: the two pore through Dr Pardo’s casebook and discover he’s been treating four patients who may be able to assist in the search. The amateur detectives end up wading deeper into the extremes of human behaviour (for their time) such as homosexuality, transvestism, bondage, fetishism and incest than they anticipate, and their relationships with their spouses and with each other change permanently as well.

The film’s entire cast obviously had a ball making the movie: the acting is energetic, the lead actors make an excellent comedy duo and support actors like Juanjo Puigcorbe, who plays Alma’s psychiatrist father Dr Mira, and Mercedes Sampietro, Alma’s sinister housekeeper, chomp eagerly on the available scenery whenever the camera is focussed on them. Watling throws herself into the role of forthright Alma, unafraid to dive in where the more cautious Salvador fears to tread. The facial hair fashions of 1913 render Tosar’s Salvador into a John Cleese lookalike and Oristrell must have realised this as he sends Salvador into many situations where he comes a-cropper with dignity barely intact: being told a statue he’s holding is a fertility goddess, being co-opted into a porn film, having to wear Alma’s dress to a cross-dressing party and crashing down the stairs while bound to a pair of metal angel wings. These are comic mishaps I associate with John Cleese in the old British TV show “Fawlty Towers” and I almost expect to see Salvador in hopping hysterics screeching in that strained high-pitched Cleese tone while he flaps after Alma who could be a younger Prunella Scales. The various situations the two fall into grow ever more farcical and over-the-top right to the fantastical revelations, for which viewers are completely unprepared, about Alma’s family, Dr Pardo and their housekeeper which inspire Pardo to attempt to assassinate Freud during his tour of Spain. I’m still scratching my head as to how the smart and spirited Alma couldn’t have known her dad’s secret before marrying Dr Pardo and having their baby; I suppose the point among others that Oristrell and his script-writers are making is that mental health professionals can be the most screwed-up of all major occupational groups and their families the most dysfunctional.

Needless to say, students of psychoanalysis won’t learn anything here their lecturers and tutors haven’t already told them; if anything, the movie ridicules Freudian ideas such as “female hysteria” which is posited as a weapon men use to control wilful women, and insights into people’s unconscious feelings and desires – as when Salvador accidentally hypnotises himself and Alma discovers his feelings for her – suggest that people’s unconscious lives are funnier than their conscious lives are. Freud himself though is never presented as an OTT comic character; he’s a gentle person if a bit puzzled by the crazy Catalans and Spaniards around him, scuffling with a gun and firing bullets in the air.

The film is beautiful to look at with opulent sets – even the interiors of people’s apartments are furnished with colourful wallpaper (though having just read a book, James C Whorton’s “The Arsenic Century: how Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work and play” on the use of arsenic-based products in Victorian Britain, I shudder to think of all the wallpaper dust the characters were breathing in and how that might have scrambled their brains and moral compasses) – and quaint vintage cars rattling on dusty roads. The attention to historical detail extends not only to the making of a pornographic film within the film proper but to the use of animated film reels to indicate scene changes or new chapters in the detective search. Pretentious, yes, but it does give the film a distinctive historical flavour. The structuring of the plot with separate chapters for each patient Alma and Salvador interview adds to the film’s breathless pace.

Oristrell may not be in fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar’s league yet but for the time being anyway, he has made a wacky sex comedy of the type the French used to make thirty years ago (“Pardon Mon Affaire”, “La Cage aux Folles”) and which few people these days seem able to do with style, intelligence and originality. I’ll stick my neck out and say that “Unconscious” may achieve the status of a minor classic: there’s rather too much slapstick and not enough wit (which could have been improvised) from the two lead actors to make this a truly great movie.

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