2010s, Fantasy, Silent, Spanish cinema

Blancanieves (2012)

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Director/Screenwriter: Pablo Berger

By Roderick Heath

Silent cinema seems to be making a comeback. Not to the extent that it’s likely to take over the multiplexes, of course, but as a niche of playful experimentation by adventurous filmmakers. Recent works scattered across the zones of international cinema like The Call of Cthulhu (2005), Dr. Plonk (2007), The Artist (2011), and the second half of Tabu (2012), have dared rewardingly to drop the crutch of dialogue. And now we have Blancanieves, a hymn to the beauty of the antiquated and to things that never were, but which retain the palpable texture of shared memory through their totemic qualities. Filmmaker Pablo Berger takes the bare bones of the Grimm Brothers’ transcription of the old European fairy tale Snow White, based in one arcane yet doggedly popular and weirdly powerful art form, and feeds it through the distorting lens of another, the silent film.
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Blancanieves is a lush, dreamy, deliriously cinematic work. Following in the footsteps of last year’s diptych of Hollywood takes on the Grimm tale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Blancanieves dwarfs them (pun intended), not just in artistry but in the simple joy in telling the story and delight in the texture of the poetic. Unlike The Artist, Berger’s film is more than mere jokey pastiche; it is an aesthetically engaged and solidly dramatic work that recreates the texture of early 20th century filmic art without reducing it to mimicry. Blancanieves, which swept the Goya Awards in Spain, is Berger’s second film. His previous work, the playful Torremolinos 73 (2003), also was fascinated by the vicissitudes of period cinema, except the period was the early ’70s and the cinema was pornographic; Torremolinos 73 captured the national mood on the cusp of the death of Franco and an eruption of a suppressed bawdiness. Blancanieves is far more thorough in its immersive purpose, as Berger gives the material a specifically Iberian tilt not only in recomposing the story to revolve around a world of bullfighters and mantilla-clad doñas, but in the specifically parochial qualities of its black humour and tragedian reflexes.
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Berger’s fascination for the plight of a child at the mercy of the world, and its sense of an underlying meditation on historical suffering, are aspects his work shares with Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of Spanish horror films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), whilst also harkening back to Victor Erice’s starkly suggestive The Secret of the Beehive (1973), as a distinct native strand in Spanish cinema. There are also enough hints in the mischievous humour, oddball sexuality, and wry take on class and gender battles flickering through the material to suggest the latter-day influence of Pedro Almodovar. Fittingly, Berger evokes one faded world of heroic entertainers and obsessive audiences, that of film, by focusing on another, bullfighting, as opening frames of the film find a city almost deserted because the great toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is going to duel six bulls in one day, an apotheosis for his sanguinary art. Villalta takes out five bulls, but the sixth proves his undoing, and he’s gored before his watching, pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).
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Berger cross-cuts between Villalta splayed and bloody on the operating table whilst his wife goes into labour: fatefully, Villalta lives, but emerges as a quadriplegic, but Carmen dies, leaving a small daughter who inherits her name. Before his surgery, Villalta hallucinates, projecting the face of his wife onto the nurse passing anaesthetic, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Encarna is all too willing and eager to take advantage of this transference as she aids him in his recovery, and when he emerges from hospital, confined to a wheelchair, he and Encarna are married. The newlyweds promptly disappear behind the gates of Villalta’s country estate Monte Olvido, whilst young Carmen is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), and watched over by Villalta’s former manager Don (Ramón Barea).
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Carmen never sees her father, pining for a visit and drawing his imagined face in flour. On her birthday, her grandmother draws her into a flamenco dance, but suffers a heart attack and dies. Finally, Carmen is taken into the care of Encarna, but far from proving a homecoming, she finds herself the target of Encarna’s sadistic degradations: Encarna cuts off her hair and makes her labour around the house, with only the pet rooster, Pepe, she brought with her and the kitchen maid as companions. With Villalta trapped upstairs in his chair, Encarna has complete control of the estate and the family fortune, and carries on an affair with her chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce). Carmen, chasing after her Pepe who sneaks inside the mansion, pursues him upstairs, where she’s been told never to go, and discovers her father, sad, imprisoned, and haunted. Carmen and Villalta connect, and she manages to visit him many times, even doing a flamenco dance for him on his birthday, before Encarna catches them. Villalta is doomed to spend the rest of his days jammed in a corner, whilst Encarna punishes Carmen by cooking and eating Pepe, before returning her to her life of drudgery.
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Berger’s clever translation of the story’s motifs into a ’20s milieu, removing magic, but playing up melodrama, accords perfectly with the nature of silent cinema, which always thrived in depicting powerful emotions and rested best on a bedrock of simple, but not simplistic, plot mechanics and character reflexes, which could then drive a synergistic flow of images. One of Berger’s smartest choices was to film a tale that could very well have been an actual silent movie: Carmen is the sort of victimised waif in which Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish specialized, except that Berger then twists the story in a direction that pays a fair sop to a modern audience’s perspective, albeit one not entirely beyond the imagination of early filmmakers.
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On the surface, Blancanieves has much in common with aspects of other retro-fetishist works of fantastical cinema, including the likes of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991) and the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin, in trying to recreate the ebulliently oneiric qualities of high expressionist filmmaking. But Berger enters entirely into the silent film world’s lexicon and also its populist sensibility, the sense that movie-going is, above all, an inclusive experience, one of the more sadly faded assumptions of cinema. Of course, Berger isn’t trying to proffer exacting pastiche: aspects of the story wouldn’t have flown in 1926, nor the gore and overt sexuality, and Berger happily indulges editing flourishes that would have been radical at the time. Blancanieves pays obvious homage to the world of European cinema before 1930, but resists the trap of referential obsession or film school appropriation: the aesthetics of filmmakers like Murnau, Buñuel, Pabst, Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and many others are suggested without being specifically mimicked.
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The attentiveness to lighting effects, the vivid contrast between textures of flesh and wood and metal and those vibrant rays of luminosity that invested early cinema with its visualised sense of the ethereal and the earthy in close contact, is recreated by Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography. The mystical chintz of show-business crucibles like circuses and bullfight arenas, the hazy, numinous mood of foggy forests and misted rivers, the lancing strangeness of the trappings of modernity in worlds poised on the edge of transformation, and the monolithic power of wealth in largely poverty-stricken and gritty environ—all are familiar images and contrasts in silent cinema, recreated sparingly but consequentially. In this fashion, Berger places his narrative as a whole on the edge of a kind of dream-memory of the past, filled with iconography and commencing with deliriously spiritual overtones of Villalta praying before his bullfight, hanging his locket photo of his wife on a statue of the Virgin. His wife and her mother wait in the crowd, idealised images of Spanish womanhood, just as Villalta is the male equivalent, fronting up to the bulls in spectacularly confident and lissom postures. Pride inevitably presages Villalta’s fall, as he goes from superman to trapped wreck and loses everything except his daughter’s love, which survives years of longing and forced separation. Genetic links prove strong: Carmen has inherited her parents’ talents as well as character. Blancanieves isn’t a film for children, though it’s easy to imagine it being compelling for a young audience, especially considering that like the famously gruelling Pickford vehicle Sparrows (1926) or even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), it captures the unabashedly dark, phobic qualities one associates with folk tales that tap the genuine fears of emotional abandonment, isolation, and being left to fend for oneself children often have. Berger doesn’t shy away from the often fervent emotional violence in fairy tales, whilst also extracting overdrawn, blackly comic humour, like in the scene in which Encarna gloatingly devours a drumstick ripped from Pepe’s cooked cadaver to Carmen’s revulsion.
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Berger’s approach hints at subtext that simmers unobtrusively, but insistently. Historical dimensions suggest historical severance and deposed hierarchies, as well as hints of a quiet commentary on the dread age of the celebrity. Villalta’s calamitous injury is induced by a photographer using a flash just as he’s readying the death-stroke for the last bull. When he’s released from hospital under Encarna’s nominal care, those photographers return to illuminate his ruination. Finally when he’s died, his family and friends have their pictures taken with his dressed corpse, a folk custom transformed into a cruel image of destroyed patriarchy, laced with political and satirical overtones. Carmen later faces grave danger, engineered by a friend turned madly envious by having the spotlight stolen from him.
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The Evil Queen of the Snow White tales is defined by pathological intent to destroy a potential sexual rival, but Encarna is motivated less by immediate jealousy than by a determination to entirely assimilate the Villalta legacy, to obtain rather than retain exceptional status. Encarna is the worst kind of talentless parasite, one who attaches herself to the ruined Villalta to achieve wealth and fame. She is glimpsed leafing through fashion magazines, and desiring transformation into one of the glamorous beings she sees, poses for a magazine photo spread ensconced in haute couture—a super-bitch with a Joan Crawford-ish aspect; the film often plays like Crawford swapped parts with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1964).
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The reconstruction of the Evil Queen as Encarna is one of the most inspired touches: entirely egotistical, deeply sadistic, Encarna is a delightfully unrestrained baddie. What works about the characterisation, and Verdú’s mischievous performance, is how adroitly it connects the emblematic evil of the story’s villain with genuinely troubling real-life phenomenon: her grasping greed, exploitation of her disabled husband, and humiliating treatment of her stepdaughter are all acts of evil all too easy to believe in, even as they’re pushed to absurd extremes. True to the fashion of fairy tales, too, Carmen resists being brutalised by her experiences, remaining a good-natured, if haunted girl who grows into a steadfast woman. The happy, but tragically brief reunion Carmen has with her father sees her entertain him by dancing and practising cape-swirling under his tutelage. Encarna inflicts gender reassignment on Carmen by cutting her hair, a consequential act that bends Carmen towards moving into the masculine arts of her father rather than her mother and grandmother, though the nifty footwork and postural awareness flamenco dancing imbue in her fuse perfectly with the flourishes her father instructs her in for bullfighting. Young Carmen finds herself destined to try to live up to the stature of her parents, a union of both emblematic cultural institutions—toreador and flamenco dancer—talents that combine fruitfully once Carmen grows up, and finds herself plunged into the arena.
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Berger moves between the first and second parts of his tale in a beguiling sequence, as young Carmen practises her toreador moves mixed with dancing with laundry, using pegs like banderillas, suddenly moving from girl to grown woman (the luminous Macarena García takes over), whereupon she’s informed of her father’s death. Encarna, tired of pretences, has pushed him down the stairs. The minion, who, in the story, is entrusted with Snow White’s murder, was a secretly good-natured figure. Here, it’s Encarna’s chauffeur-lover Genaro, glimpsed by Carmen playing the submissive boy-toy. One hilarious vignette depicts Encarna in the act of having her portrait painted as the image of imperious fashion-plate femininity, getting Genaro to take the place of the dog she’s being depicted as holding on a chain, to the painter’s nonplussed continued labour. Of course, his willingness to be Encarna’s dog belies his own viciousness, which emerges when given the task of taking Carmen to her death. He tries to rape her, and when she manages to knee him in the crotch and make a break, he catches her and drowns her in the river, leaving her for dead—except he didn’t quite finish the job, and she finds refuge with a band of six dwarfs, who work as travelling clowns and bullfighters called Los Enanitos Toreros.
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Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the best-looking and most romantic of the band, was the one who plucked her from the river on a misty bank and took her to their caravan. The others in his band, including the nominal chief, the grouchy and jealous Jesusin (Emilio Gavira) and the cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martínez), are introduced with their names flashing on screen. When, during their next exhibition in a small town, Jesusin is charged by a bull and knocked about, the other dwarfs won’t intervene because the audience finds it hysterically funny. So Carmen leaps into the fray and astonishes all with a superlative display of cape work. Carmen, who hides her identity more to escape the past, it seems, than concern about Encarna’s wrath, nonetheless finds herself bound to close the family circle, though the fact that she’s dubbed “Blancanieves” by her new friends in recognition her plight is right out of the hoary old story. Berger’s revisions to the original story’s patterns as well as setting have a contemporary flavour, as Carmen casually shatters rigid gender barriers to gain credibility as a toreador, whilst handsome prince and dwarf are no longer exclusive figures, but conflated in the ardent Rafita. Yet such tweaks only seem to solidify the fairytale texture of Blancanieves, for dramatic transformations and protean forms are so vital to such storytelling and part of the way they still capture a unique essence of human existence. The Mephistophelean promoter Carlos de Montoya (José María Pou), complete with forked beard, brings the spectre of Faustian bargains to Carmen, as the girl, who can’t read is talked into signing a lifetime contract. Montoya gets her booked in the same arena where her father met his fate, and the circular narrative is matched by circular imagery, as the same ritualised stations on the way to a duel with fate and death are counted off.
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Blancanieves is a gorgeous-looking film, replete with allusive visuals and well-used silent film devices, which range from the broad, like Carmen hallucinating Pepé’s head on a boiled sparrow she’s fed for dinner, to the wittily precise. Berger uses the iris shot, one of those devices associated most insistently with silent cinema, but matches it by literally projecting one on an actual iris, as Carmen is informed of her father’s death, with the flashback dialling in and out from her eye. Berger’s vertiginous framing often adopts violently low or high angles, lending his shots requisite drama and pictorial zest, whilst also invoking the violent state of fortune of his characters. But these gruelling shifts are encapsulated most precisely in an early shot, as Carmen’s communion dress is dyed black after her grandmother dies, streams of inky blighting black flowing from the pristine gown, signalling Carmen’s oncoming date with the devil Encarna. The same note and visual motif are mirrored in a lovingly executed crane shot that later retreats from Encarna’s silvery-draped form standing over a pristine white pool, in which the corpse of Genaro, whom she batters to death after learning Carmen survived, drifts in a cloud of blood.
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Carmen proves triumphant in the ring, facing down the colossal bull the infuriated Jesusin has substituted for her smaller intended opponent, proving so invigorating to the audience that they vote for the bull’s pardon. Encarna, however, has taken what was her mother’s place in the crowd, swathed in black lace in perfect Manichaean contrast, proffering the inevitable poisoned apple, a glistening orb that Jesusin recognises after he’s accidentally knocked it from Encarna’s hands. Carmen collapses in a coma after taking a bite during her victory salute, and whilst the stricken Rafita clutches her body, Jesusin leads the others in trying to chase down Encarna, who tries to elude them in the bullpens. Her beautifully dark comeuppance arrives as she finds she’s locked herself in with a monstrous bull, its huge silhouetted horns falling upon her quivering, collapsing form.
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As ebullient as his film often is, Berger takes a swerve back to tragedy in his final passage. Carmen, still in a coma and exhibited by Montoya in a circus sideshow as a freak of nature. “Miracle or curse?” Montoya asks repeatedly while sideshow patrons line up for the pleasure of trying to rouse her. Rafita works for Montoya, and wheels her out for the show to lovingly tends to her backstage. The mood here moves into a zone at once ethereal and pathetic, with hints of kink in the morbid sensuality everyone invests in Carmen’s form, with Rafita tenderly kissing her goodnight before bedding down with her, and infinitely sad frustration, as the very last shot reveals a single tear flowing from her eye. The sensibility here suggests the influence not just of silent cinema but later directors’ stylised tributes to the sawdust-and-tinsel mysticism and pathos of the peripatetic entertainer’s world, whilst reconfiguring the Sleeping Beauty image to something close to James B. Harris’ Some Call It Loving (1973), the image of imperishable mystery and beauty of life found even in the seamiest and most degraded exhibition. Even flat on her back, Carmen is beholden to the crowd. That last shot, of Carmen’s tear, encapsulates everything Berger aims for, emotionally and aesthetically.

Standard
1960s, Horror/Eerie, Spanish cinema

Venus in Furs (1969)

aka Paroxismus ; Black Angel

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Director: Jésus Franco

By Roderick Heath

Venus in Furs is one of Jésus Franco’s personal favourites from amongst his colossal roster of wild and woolly films. In spite of its widely known English title, it only shares that title and the name of the anti-heroine Wanda with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s infamous founding tome of masochistic literature, Venus in Furs. In fact, Franco’s film was inspired by a conversation Franco had with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker about counterculture mores, and was, in its early drafts, an interracial romantic drama. That aspect is still present in the narrative, and yet unenthusiasm by the producers caused Franco to rewrite the story along the lines of the theme he returned to obsessively in this phase of his career: the sepulchral femme fatale consuming her tormentors and lovers.

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Venus in Furs was one of Franco’s close-to-mainstream works, sporting a fairly high-profile cast that included James Darren, Klaus Kinski, Franco regular Dennis Price, and singer-actress Barbara McNair. But it can’t be mistaken for anything other than a work by the era’s most wayward trash auteur. Structurally, Venus in Furs resembles many horror films exemplified by Dead of Night (1945), in its cyclical storytelling and bookending gimmick of an irrational, closed circuit-like entrapment in the zone between life and death. Whilst relatively restrained in terms of the sexuality that infests Franco’s later works like Vampyros Lesbos, there’s still plenty of sex and sadism here, albeit contoured more into the film’s oneiric, lapping, inherently fetishistic textures. Venus also contends with some familiar problems of low-budget European cinema of this era, particularly in the dubiously employed location footage of Rio de Janeiro and Carnivale, with Darren’s drippy voiceover droning on to give the dancing girls relevance, with such lines as, “Man it was a wild scene. If they wanted to go that route, it was their bag.”

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Darren plays Jimmy Logan, a jazz musician who awakens from what is apparently a long drug binge in a seaside bungalow in Istanbul. He flees to the beach and digs in the sand, pulling out his buried trumpet case and blowing a few rusty licks before he spots a body rolling in the surf and pulls it onto the shore. He’s stunned to recognise the corpse as that of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm). Addled by drug flashbacks and unable to properly discern hallucination from memory, Jimmy still seems to recall Wanda from some of the parties he played at, including one thrown by a kinky, wealthy art dealer Ahmed Kortobawi (Kinski), and his sensualist friends Olga (Margaret Lee) and Percival Kapp (Price). Jimmy had a crush on the beautiful, flighty Wanda, but one night, he happened to glimpse a terrible scene in which Wanda was cornered and brutalised by the sadistic trio, with Olga and Percival whipping and raping her and Ahmad cutting her with a dagger to drink her blood. Months later, Jimmy, now in the employ of Hermann (Paul Muller), a rich man who keeps him and a band on permanent party hire, is in Rio, back on an even keel and playing well. He’s soon startled not only to find Percival and Olga in town, but also to see Wanda walk into a gig of his one night.

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Jimmy’s subsequent delirium-soaked trysts with Wanda are barely kept in check by his soul singer girlfriend Rita (McNair), as he ponders the metaphysics of the situation: “How can you run from a dead person unless you’re dead yourself?” Wanda keeps reappearing clad in furs and lingerie, drawing Jimmy into bed with her, commencing a completely corporeal affair, and yet the hysterical jazzman keeps fleeing her afterwards, utterly bemused as to what’s going on. Wanda’s casual presence at Hermann’s parties seems to reassure him that she’s very much alive and that he must have been mistaken about the body he found on the beach.

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One night, Wanda appears to Percival and seems to taunt him with her ghostly, erotic presence, filling his mirrors and finally appearing in her mangled, post-mortem state, causing Percival to expire from a heart attack. Later, at one of Hermann’s parties, Jimmy is startled by both Olga’s and Wanda’s presence and positively alarmed when they start making out. But when Wanda later turns up at Olga’s photographic studio, she again transforms in her brutalised corpse, driving Olga to cut her own wrists in guilty sorrow. When Rita walks out on Jimmy, he and Wanda flee back to Istanbul, where Wanda soon enough appears to Ahmad.

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Superfluous dialogue and clumsily inserted travelogue footage aside, Franco’s filmmaking here, when his luxurious visuals have a chance to play out, is boisterous and continually dazzling, replete with disorienting edits, slow motion, reflected images, ultra close-ups, and distorting effects, to conjure a fervent, dreamlike tone. In the bookend sequences that see Jimmy running along the beach to retrieve floating bodies, Franco utilises slow motion to offer a numbing study of the dreamland sensation of travelling without moving, as he closes the narrative’s looping structure. Franco’s intriguing fondness for dispelling standard gothic tropes, in favour of bright sunlight and lush colourings, is in full flower. His work benefits from a seemingly higher budget than he often gained, sporting fine photography and careful lighting that results in a truly sensual visual experience, a sprawl of bold reds and blues, hallucinatory daylight shots and inky darks.

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Like few films I’ve ever seen, Venus in Furs captures the heady atmosphere of two underground artistic strains—fragments of S&M comics interwoven with a feeling of hipster alienation captured in effective visual terms (as opposed to the cornball hip-isms Jimmy speaks), reminiscent in places of other fly-on-the-wall period documents like Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966). That Darren’s Jimmy Logan is based on Baker is patently obvious, and the film seems to well directly from within Logan’s addled perceptions. Particularly the early scenes, as Jimmy claws at a window or digs into the beach to retrieve his instrument and conjure the drowned Wanda from the waves, possess a flavour that communicates a genuinely strung-out mind. Franco himself was a jazz musician, and his impressionistic scenes from the milieu of Jimmy’s playing are evocative (Franco even appears briefly as one of Logan’s pianists), whilst the totality of the film has an intricately musical structure.

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The mostly jazz-inflected score, by Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann, is as striking as that for Vampyros Lesbos, and is more integral to the film, as musical motifs blend with and define the on-screen drama. Jimmy’s intimate, somehow solipsistic performance style—he’s often hunched over, lost deep in his solos—evoke his drifting out of touch with reality. Sequences of him and his band’s performing punctuate the story’s deaths, with the ghostly Wanda continuously returning to confront Jimmy on stage after her vengeful visitations, signing him to a kind of artistic contract to witness, evoking a shaman or bard, or the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, as he plays out Wanda’s death chant. Wanda’s killings are punctuated by a memorable soul theme that recurs like a dark mantra, with the promise that “Venus in furs will be smiling”, before McNair sings the full song as a triumphant hymn in the conclusion.

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Although the resulting film isn’t fixated upon portraying a tragic, boundary-pushing new-age romance, as was his original notion, Franco’s initial idea is still present and important, realised in the failing romance of Jimmy and Rita, with Rita attempting to sit out Jimmy’s obsession with Wanda like very much the “black angel” of another alternate title, and yet finally driven off by his obsession. The intimacy between Jimmy and Rita is warmly, tenderly convincing, and stands in contrast with the rather less healthy intimacy Wanda engages in. Delicately yet feverishly erotic, Wanda’s killings are fascinating because rather than visiting her tormentors with violent wrath, she approaches them like a lover, giving them exactly what they want before reflecting the truth of their twisted psyches (Franco’s love of mirrors gets a workout), particularly in her tryst with Olga, which plays out as a tragic romance. Ahmad greets Wanda like he’s been waiting for her, and gets her to enact a part he thinks she has been conjured to play for him, the slave girl who turns the tables on her sultan, which leads to him dying in a perfect masochistic paroxysm, dangling from the ceiling. Rohm’s frigid beauty intrinsically suits the character’s passive malevolence.

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Fascinating images abound, like a nearly naked Wanda descending a staircase painted in vivid white and stepping onto a floor carpeted in saturated red, leaving behind Olga in her white coffin of a bathtub, her lifeblood slowly staining the water, expiating her sins whilst begging Wanda’s forgiveness. This scene’s mix of conveyed physical pain, powerfully transgressive emotion, and expressionist use of décor clearly predict some of David Lynch’s pet effects, and bolsters for me the impression I had in other Franco viewings of his influence on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). This sequence’s visual motifs are predicted by a most bizarre and gorgeous moment: Olga first encounters Wanda at one of Hermann’s parties sprawled on a red couch, caressing a female statuette’s thigh, and encouraging Wanda to kiss her. Several party guests gather to watch, and one bends down to paint their cheeks, and another showers them with white pillow feathers as if sprinkling confetti on the newly-weds or spreading petals on his priestesses. The Olga-Wanda sequences in the centre of the film are almost a short film in themselves, a classic of sapphic-surrealist erotica.

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Finally, when the police track Wanda to the hotel she’s sharing with Jimmy, the lovers flee, leading to a memorably off-kilter car chase. Wanda soon slips away and enters a cemetery, leaving her fur coat lying upon her own gravestone. Jimmy returns to the beach in the same frazzled state and discover another body in the surf: his own. Wanda and he were both ghostly remnants. By this point, the narrative form completely shatters, saturated colour effects infect the frame, and fragmented shots of Olga, Ahmad, and Percival locked in a red room (another Lynchian image) with Wanda’s savaged corpse, perhaps invoking their damnation. Franco zooms away from Jimmy’s discovery of his own body and quotes the same John Donne passage as an epigraph as was used in the Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim (1943), leaving us to ponder a weird and ragged gem of subterranean cinema.

Standard
1980s, Drama, Spanish cinema

Dark Habits (1984) / Law of Desire (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar

By Roderick Heath

After the high-wire act of All About My Mother (1999), Pedro Almodovar seems have been attempting a return to the artist he was before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987) established him as everyone’s favourite cuddly genre-and-gender-warping Spaniard. Truth of the matter is, Pedro’s always been a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and the distance between his best and worst movies seems less a matter of the ingredients he puts in—which are more or less consistent—and more of the confidence with which he attacks them. This confidence can make his wildest fancies seem organic rather than contrived to keep ahead of expectations. Thus, Bad Education and Volver finished up as occasionally interesting, but finally rambling, clumsy concoctions, the work of an artist trying to feel his way out of his usual affectations but only chasing them around like a dog after its own tail. His efforts to emulate Hitchcock are painful to me.

Likewise, Dark Habits, his fourth feature-length film, and Law of Desire, his seventh and the one that gained him some international repute, are both looking older than they actually are. Part of that’s obviously because of their low budgets, but it’s also because Almodovar the filmmaker wasn’t yet up to pace with Almodovar the ideas man. Both films are provocative in a playful, dated fashion and disappointingly slack in the pacing and lack of zesty design that make films like Women on the Verge or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) seem to float like silk in the wind. Nonetheless, although they never quite catch fire, they’re both intriguing and absorbing in their own right, and reveal glimmerings of Almodovar’s best instincts.

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Dark Habits follows a Yolanda Bel (Cristina Sánchez Pascual), nightclub singer, junkie, and former teacher who runs from the police after her sometime boyfriend Jorge (Will More) dies from injecting a bad batch of heroin she bought. She finds in her purse a card given to her by the Mother Superior of a skid row mission who is a fan of hers, so she decides to head to the mission and hide out there. The mission itself has fallen on times as hard as her own: once a shelter for the desperate demimonde, now no self-respecting junkie or prostitute will come there, and the money promised by a wealthy, fascist Marquess to sustain their operation has dried up because his widow, the Marquesa (Mary Carrillo), glad to be free of her asshole husband, doesn’t want to pay up. The Abbess, Julia (Julieta Serrano), has given her nuns absurdly penitent names: the irascible Sister Rat of the Sewer (Chus Lampreave) writes trashy but widely beloved novels based on the lives of the women who used to come to the mission. She publishes these through her sister, who happily keeps all the money and acclaim. Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) raises a pet tiger. LSD-dropping Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) is a murderess for whom the Mother Superior lied on the stand to protect, causing the guilty sister to feel bound in everlasting repentance to her. Sister Snake (Lina Canalejas) is in love with a priest (Manuel Zarzo), who’s a musical fan.

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Abbess Julia herself is the film’s dominant character: a drug-abusing, conniving, closeted lesbian, she’s as lovable and intriguing as she is two-faced and occasionally cruel. In love with Yolanda, she’s haunted by two other women. One is Merche (Cecilia Roth), a former nun who returns to the Mission briefly, on the run from the cops, and is taken away the next day. The other, Virginia, was the Marquesa’s daughter, a wayward girl who became a nun herself, and ran away to Africa and was thought to have been eaten by cannibals. The obvious joke—that these ladies of mercy and religion are variously crazed and depraved—is leavened by Almodovar’s genuine interest in them as people, and his delight in the hazy boundaries between sin and sanctity, a purgatory where Julia is the queen. This dialogue of impulses is a key to Almodovar’s whole oeuvre. His inability to hate anyone sees the initially Habits%202.jpgobnoxious Marquesa become a figure of sympathy, and Yolanda, to aid her, must finally outwit Julia, who, desperate to keep her mission going, tries to blackmail the Marquesa into coughing up funds in return for information about Virginia’s fate: yes, she’s dead, but her son has been brought up, Tarzan-like, by apes.

In much the same way, neither Almodovar nor the main protagonist of Law of Desire, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), can bring himself to hate Antonio Benítez (Antonio Banderas), who kills Pablo’s former lover Juan Bermúdez (Miguel Molina) in a crazed effort to secure Pablo’s ardour. As the title indicates, Pedro feels that desire has its own laws, and adherence to such laws will occasionally have such a result. Pablo is a writer and director, and his transsexual sister Tina (Carmen Maura) often acts in his erotic movies and stage plays. Juan, Pablo’s long-time lover, is flirting with girls, feeling uneasy with the uncommitted Pablo and finally moving away to reconsider his life. Pablo, as an artist, struggles to assert control over the strange gaps and absences in his life by inventing personae on the page, and dictating for Juan the perfect kind of letter he’d like to get from him. Enter Antonio, a shadowing, shadowy momma’s boy who claims to be largely straight, but aggressively seduces Pablo. Right at the point when Pablo finally realises he really loves Juan, Antonio get onto his motorcycle one night, and travels out to the coastal bar where Juan is working. Their confrontation concludes with Antonio pushing Juan off a cliff into the sea.

A constant motif of Almodovar’s is the act of writing, of creativity, and its intricate relationship to sexuality, fellowship, and coping with life. So many of his protagonists are scribbling out sketches for stories that invoke the past and set a template for the future, often scrabbling to rewrite basic matters of identity and history. Just as often, these creations take on a life and velocity of their own. Simultaneously, the commonly accepted boundaries between real-life individuals become as porous as in the imagination. Families are composed on the spot, sexuality reaches an ecstatic flux, and biology comes in a constant second to love. Pablo’s on-the-page character, whom he adopts as a pseudonym for writing letters to Antonio to fool his mother, is mistaken for a real person by the police investigating Juan’s death, and they believe she may have killed him.

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Pablo finally is so horrified by the way his fantasies and life become intertwined and result in two deaths that he hurls his typewriter from the window of his apartment, and the infernal device explodes in flames. On the other hand, Julia berates Sister Rat for stealing the lives of their mission’s former charges for fiction, and yet Rat’s books simply reflect how Julia and all her kind are people who withdraw from life and rely on other, engaged, passionate people to supply them with a purpose. The characters in Almodovar’s films rewrite their lives with perpetual energy. A major subplot in Law of Desire is Pablo’s relationship with Tina, whose teenage affair with her own father before her sex-change has left a gaping hole in hers and Pablo’s lives, a yearning that Pablo expresses through his plays and films. Antonio becomes almost an aggressive personification of the emotional mines that keep detonating under Pablo’s life.

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Law is fondly recalled as a landmark of both gay cinema and the early cult of Antonio Banderas. Banderas, dripping charisma and other bodily fluids, tackles his part with a raw gusto, bringing to his character a boyish enthusiasm that counteracts his noxious acts. The comparison with the prissiness of his relationship with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993) isn’t complimentary. Almodovar’s highly un-Moral Majority outlook is delightfully realised in scenes such as when Tina’s adopted daughter Ada, (Manuela Velasco), left in her charge after her mother, who had an affair with Tina and then left the country, finds Pablo’s gay porn and dismisses it as a comic book. Law’s unabashed homoeroticism and nuanced feel for gay relationships is still amazingly rare on the mainstream screen. Even Almodovar hasn’t really pulled it off in his later works, hiding to a certain extent in the loopy Sirkian colours and comedy. But Law is never quite as tight or tense as it wants to be, and the attempt to build Hitchockian dread anticipating when things will turn sour doesn’t come off. One scene in Law anticipates his later, troubled Bad Education (2003)—when Tina encounters a priest who had an affair with her when she was still a teenager—confirms that the relative inertia that afflicts both films is founded in an anxious appraisal of some vividly personal themes.

Both films are loaded with Almodovar’s expertly weird supporting characters, like the two cops who investigate Juan’s death, one of whom is a prissy young homophobe and the other an older, grizzled, laissez-faire dude. There are also the nearly inevitable moments of cabaret-mime: in Dark Habits, Yolanda lip-synchs a saucy ditty, with several of the nuns pretending to back her up, for Julia’s entertainment at her climactic birthday party (“It was so obscene!” Julia congratulates Yolanda gratefully), and in Law, Tina and Ada do the same in a staging of Cocteau’s The Human Voice. These are amongst the flourishes that make Almodovar seem like the almost caricatured paragon of queer aesthetics. Law’s funniest moment is its opening sequence in which a young man on a bed is directed by an unseen voice to undress and act as if masturbating, and then the camera finally cuts to the two actors who are actually post-dubbing this scene, pretending to be in the throes of passion. It’s a seemingly irrelevant, but funny moment that Denys Arcand stole for his Jesus of Montreal (1989), but it neatly introduces an ironic dialogue that conflates watcher and watched, artist and subject, film and audience, top and bottom.

Law of Desire is by far the most interesting and well-realised of the two films. Dark Habits never quite focuses its narrative, remaining a bunch of amusing ideas in search of a story. Almodovar’s distrust of story would crystallise into something far richer, and Law of Desire’s hesitancy seems in part informed by how unsure he is to play the material—as psychodrama or black comedy? Carmen Maura is present in both films, and though she doesn’t get much to do in Habits, she hits the screen with authority as the quick-witted, two-fisted Tina in Law, where her self-determining spunk contrasts Pablo’s more passive self-indulgence. Other members of Almodovar’s stock troupe who appear in small roles include Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes in Habits and Rossy de Palma in Law. The major weakness of Law is Poncela, who’s a drippy and uncharismatic presence. It’s hard to believe all this bother revolves around him, really.

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1970s, Horror/Eerie, Spanish cinema

Vampyros Lesbos (1970)

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Director: Jesús Franco

By Roderick Heath

What better way to start the new year than with a psychedelic lesbian vampire freak-out?

Linda Westinghouse (Ewa Strömberg) and her boyfriend Omar (Andris Monales, billed as Victor Feldman) attend an erotic cabaret show one night in Istanbul, where they watch a kinky stage act in which a dark-haired woman straddles a prostrate, wooden blonde. Linda is transfixed: the brunette exactly resembles a figure that keeps appearing in her dreams, calling to her incessantly from a mysterious island amidst a plethora of repetitive, fetishist images, for example, droplets of blood dribbling down a pane glass door, a sky-flailing red kite, and teeming scorpions.

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Linda works as an agent for an Istanbul real estate firm. Soon she is sent off on a mission to negotiate a real estate deal with Countess Nadine Carody (Soledad Miranda, billed as Susann Korda); Linda is overseeing the transfer of assets of a Count Dracula and his family to Carody. On her journey to the Mediterranean coast, she is put up in a hotel where she is warned by the sleazy porter Memmet (director Franco) about the dangers of going to the Countess’ private island; she soon finds that Memmet himself is a crazed killer collecting corpses in the basement. Linda flees for the presumed safety of the Countess’ island, but things don’t get much saner there. She is astounded to encounter the images from her dreams, and the reclining, bikini-clad form of the Countess, who invites her to bathe nude within a minute of meeting. In the night, the Countess enters her room, seduces her, and then bites her in the neck. When she awakens in the morning, Linda is dazed and has a vision of the Countess floating dead in a pool, at which point she blacks out and awakens later in a private psychiatric clinic.

Jesús Franco, born in Madrid in 1930, wanted to be a jazz musician, and gained his first film credits as an assistant director and composer for Juan Antonio Bardem’s (uncle of Javier) Comicos (1954). A sometime trash novelist and all-around busybody, Franco made a breakthrough in the grindhouse universe with Gritos en la Noche (The Awful Dr. Orloff, 1962), an adaptation of his own book and a rip-off of Eyes Without a Face (1959). Franco has directed more than 180 features and stands today as one of the gods in the pantheon of Eurotrash sex-and-horror auteurs of the late 1960s. He gained something like mainstream visibility by taking over the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu series.

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But Franco maintained his sideline as an erotic-minded surrealist, one part Luis Buñuel, one part Marquis de Sade (whose works he has adapted several times), and with Necronomicon (1967), gained the praise of no less a personage than Fritz Lang, who called it the only sex movie he’d ever watched all of because of its intoxicating beauty. In that golden age of semi-underground cinema, Franco worked between the poles of respected filmmakers like Buñuel and genre director Mario Bava, and gruesome hackmeisters of the ilk of Antonio Margheriti and Adrian Hoven. Along the way, he accumulated, by the IMDb’s count, some 69 pseudonymous credits.

Vampyros Lesbos is quintessential of its era: infused with a decorative, meandering lushness in its designs and cinematic effects, casual perversity, pseudo-psychedelic style, and a striking experimental music score by Manfred Hübler and Siegfried Schwab (Franco did the score for the heavily edited Spanish cut), alternating sonorous, trippy organs with saucy jazz-pop, such as that accompanying some pointless sunbathing scenes. It’s an uneasy mixture of oneiric, splintered-narrative surrealism rendered as a pop-art, and a seamy whack-off flick. Franco loves his zoom lens. Picturesque Istanbul sunset? Zoom shot. Naked sunbathing scene? Zoom shot. Moth crawling up a window? Zoom in, baby. Cheesy as these effects can be, Franco nonetheless labours to weave a totality of style, a restless, oneiric sensibility that’s genuinely entrancing. Or, as a friend put it when I played her a snatch of the soundtrack, ‘This makes me feel like I’m tripping!’

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Vampyros Lesbos’ plot moves according to a fitting dream logic, and melds two highly disparate mythologies to evoke a no man’s land of sexual and moral confusion. Earlier in 1970, Franco had directed an attempt to make a faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker with Christopher Lee entitled El Conde Dracula (which also starred Soledad Miranda as Lucy); Vampyros is its semi-sequel, but it executes a perverse spin on Stoker, with Linda as Harker and Countess Nadine as Dracula and entwining the legend of Sappho, with its predatory anti-heroine inhabiting a sun-struck Grecian isle, her irresistible call cutting through Linda’s defences even when she lies in bed with her boyfriend, bringing home a peculiarly literal vision of the call of the forbidden. Carody herself was a childhood victim of rape by soldiers defiling her native Hungary, from which she was rescued but then vampirized by Count Dracula. This led to her rejection of men in general, except for her silent, loyal servant Morpho (Jose-Martinez Blanco). Her last lover was Memmet’s missing wife, Agra (Heidrun Kussin), who is in the same clinic that Linda washes up in, completely mad, psychically linked to the Countess, writhing ecstatically and howling in pain according to what signals she receives from her mistress. How Linda got from the island into the clinic is never explained, but she is soon reunited with Omar. He becomes the target of the Countess, who has followed Linda to Istanbul determined to take her back.

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Franco’s recurring fascinations—apart from hot chicks making out with each other and killing guys—include a blurring of the borders between dream, life, and performance. As in other Franco films like Necronomicon and Venus In Furs, the villain is a cabaret artiste, taunting with and disappearing within her ritualised erotic acts. Vampyros begins with a lengthy performance sequence in which Nadine performs, enacting her narcissistic seduction of her prey (she makes love to herself in a mirror before turning her attention to a passive, naked blonde). But the second time she gives this performance, she actually feasts on her partner, to the audience’s wild applause. Nadine’s servant, like that of several of Franco’s villains, is named Morpho, cutting right to the heart of their perfervid confusion of dreams, identity, desire, and the way these elements intertwine. The script is so dodgy in points (immortal dialogue: “Can you tell me more about Count Dracula and his family?”) that credited cowriter Jaime Chávarri denies having anything to do with it. But it’s also essentially superfluous: Vampyros Lesbos tells a story of a sort, but it’s better taken as a fugue, and works superbly as a surreal meditation on the nature of unconscious desire.

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There’s the inevitable soft-core clinch of Linda and Nadine, actually the flattest scene in the film, at least until Nadine bites her, a moment that carries real corporeal punch. Elsewhere, Franco’s images are deliriously fetishist in bent, for example, the visions of the Countess calling to her would-be lover with arms outstretched like a primal priestess, her red scarf wavering in the breeze, to her final demise. Nadine is associated visually with both a catcher of fish (her dinnertime seduction of Linda is backgrounded by a great net) and a venomous scorpion waiting to sting. Franco conjures an unsettling mood, although he indulges none of the more familiar gothic touches. The Countess’ island abode is hyper-modern; Franco’s surrealism is closer in mood to Resnais than to Murnau, and even Nadine’s family castle is hardly a cobweb-strewn dungeon. The action almost always takes place in radiant, delirium-inducing daylight, emphasised by the sunstruck lushness of its Turkish settings. This film seems to have influenced likes the of Tarantino, who openly admires Franco, and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (which always showed signs of ’60s and ’70s Euro-horror, underneath its deadpan Kubrickian obsessiveness), particularly in the orgy sequence and its weird music.

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Lurking within this trippy vision are dashes of psychosexual satire. Linda’s psychiatrist listens to her account of her dream whilst drawing doodles and recommends she have more sex. Spurned husband Memmet turns into a savage serial killer, trying to enforce a perfect sadomasochistic control over women. Dr. Alwin Seward (Dennis Price), the private clinic’s director, pretends to want to cure and expel the evil and madness that has claimed the women under his care, but actually eagerly wishes to embrace the possibility of eternal supernatural life. When he meets the Countess, he begs her for this, but she contemptuously has Morpho kill him instead. Given that only a few years before this film was made homosexuals were being given electric shocks in aversion therapy by men of science, Franco’s cynicism about it is understandable and prescient. Omar and his father, evoking the revenge of the patriarchy, set out to bring down their Sapphic enemy.

But in the end, it’s Linda who euthanizes the hopeless Countess by jamming a pin in her eye, after almost giving in to the temptation to feast on Nadine and become the new vampire queen. Agra drops dead and Morpho commits suicide. The vision Linda had of the Countess dead in the pool is reconfigured as the image of one of the island’s teeming scorpions drowned by the tide. If Franco reveals his lack of courage, it’s that he plays the game of neatly tidying up his film with a finale that returns us to stable, familiar male-female relations and morality.

Franco’s no-name cast allows him to push the boundaries without actually approaching porn. Stroemberg is a nonentity, and the presence of aging, ill-looking Price, the antihero of Kind Hearts and Coronets, dubbed into German no less, is just weird. Miranda is the film’s core—the tragic cult actress, who died the same year in a car crash shortly after being offered a major studio contract, plays the wicked lady with the right mixture of distance, severity, sensual knowledge, and a hint of the tragic.

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