Month: November 2013
In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?
For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay, writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material: ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’
There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:
‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.
‘Father Constantino, it is I.’
‘How you’ve changed
‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.
The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passion and not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.
When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983) or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.
So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.
In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?
In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).
What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.
If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?
One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.
In his lushly illustrated new book, Moments That Made The Movies (Thames and Hudson, 2013), David Thomson, referring to the famous nightclub scene in Morocco where Dietrich sings ‘Quand l’amour meurt’ before kissing a woman and then throwing Gary Cooper the flower she takes from her, writes: ‘the moment is weightier than the film, and more enduring. But these days people like to take their films in bits and pieces – video allowed for that – so one day it may be that no one makes full movies any more, just arresting moment.’
Claude Sautet is responsible for more than his share of arresting moments in cinema: the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider when Michel Piccoli first sees her in Les Choses de la vie; the moment where Yves Montand, full of sea air and lust for life, says, ‘I feel like fighting someone!’ in César et Rosalie; the introduction of Romy Schneider, ‘irised’ through a spyglass, in Max et les ferrailleurs; and many more. His cinema has more than its share of moments that startle either with beauty, meaning or emotion. But his films are always greater than, add up to more than, those moments. Un mauvais fils is no exception.
In Un mauvais fils/ A Bad Son, Paris is seething with strikes, demonstrations, protests but none of the characters in the film can think of anything but their own internal ache. They walk the same streets as people who are aware of and engaged with the surrounding world, drink with them in bars, pass by posters that interpellate involvement and participation from others but which they fail to see. Their thoughts are elsewhere: on what they could have done, should have done, should have been; or on their next fix — the latter being a sign of the failure to measure up to all of the former.
Patrick Dewaere, a singular star and iconic presence of 1970s French cinema, is beautifully cast as Bruno Calgagni, the ‘bad’ son who went to study in America only to be locked up for five years for dealing the heroin he was hooked on but could no longer afford to buy. The film begins as he returns to Paris, where the police greet him at the airport and tell us what got him to that moment. He returns home to find a father who’s loving but also impatient and increasingly reproachful, his very face a picture of disappointment. The son tries to please but always seems to put his foot in it. A scene where he’s drinking with his father at a bar and attempts to impress him by picking up two women, possibly professionals, one for each of them, only to be met by his father’s outrage and disgust is particularly poignant, squirm-inducing and, as we will learn later, hypocritical.
Father and son are loving, both trying their best but failing, albeit each in his own way. The awkwardness, misunderstandings and careless hurtings continue until the father accuses the son of being responsible for his mother’s death; that the shame and hurt he caused her incited a spiral of depression that lead to her taking her own life. This accusation, a breaching of silence that opens the floodgates of anger and blame, is a climactic moment and turning point in the narrative.
We are introduced to Dewaere at the beginning of the film already looking like a cock-eyed spaniel eager to please but bewildered at being wounded, finding himself unloved and drifting in the world through a haze of hurt — that aspect of Bruno doesn’t fundamentally change. He’ll be just as angelic, child-like, sensitive, honourable and manly throughout the rest of the film. But be it careless or cruel, his father’s accusation spurs Bruno to action: his response is to leave the apartment they’re sharing, find a job, make his own way in the world and find his own woman.
Bruno will echo, rhyme, repeat and return his father’s behaviour later in the film when the tables are turned: he will prove himself his father’s son and be just as accusatory and unforgiving when he finds that the affair his father is currently involved with had started way before and might have been just as responsible for his mother’s state of mind as his being in an American jail. It will take him the rest of the film to forgive and come to terms with the father he’s clearly always loved.
Bruno finds some peace when he finds work in an antiquarian bookshop, meets a lovely gay couple and falls in love with Catherine (Brigitte Fossey), herself a former junky. He’s been off the smack for five years; she’s not quite off it, not yet. The film shows the progression of their affair with great tenderness and humanity and without eschewing any of the complexities that such a relationship entails. One of the most touching and moving sequences is when Bruno, understanding of Catherine’s need, lovingly tweaks her with heroin. All this is shown with the arm injected off screen to reduce the most voyeuristic dimension of such a representation and to focus on feeling. The film is refreshingly non-judgmental regarding the drug-taking, really treating it as an illness that good people fall prey to and suffer from rather than, as is often the case, attributing their drug-taking to a lack of character, morals and will.
A LANDMARK REPRESENTATION OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY
If the film’s representation of heroin addicts is sensitive and humane, its representation of gay men seems to me a landmark, one that deserves greater attention, and is one of many reasons to seek out this film. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, published a year after the release of Un mauvais fils details a long and damning list of derogatory stereotypes through which homosexuality had been glimpsed to that point, usually briefly; and often only to be feared, derided or extinguished: the evil lesbian, the pansy, the butt of humour, the subject of suicide etc;
In Un mauvais fils, the contours of the representation remain stereotypical; they’re a short-cut, a way of knowing, and with a root in the real. Thus Adrien (Jacques Fulfilho) is an antiquarian dealing in old books, bourgeois, mad about opera, and supporting a younger foreign lover, Carlos. But as with so much of Sautet’s work, the character is so complex, so human that actor and director endow those contours with shape and shading and thus exceed them.
Adrien loves Catherine, wants to help Bruno, is understanding of all, is the catalyst for the film’s conclusion and, more importantly, figures as as the film’s moral conscience. Un mauves fils even accords him his own little aria, which, whilst not up to the heights of Mimi’s in the La Boheme he loves so much, is such a great speech, such a landmark speech in a history of the representation of gay men in cinema that I attach a clip below and a rough transcript of what he tells Bruno below that. Dulfilho, won a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor, for his work here.
Adrien: ‘You might as well jump, it will at least be faster!’
Bruno:‘You don’t know my life…I needed to escape, at least once’
Adrien: ‘There’s no escape bar jumping out the window! Escape! From what? From oneself? From others? From loneliness? From fear? We escape? We go for a walk? To go where? Here is how things are: it’s nine am, I’m 63, I look at myself and I’m cold and I’m homosexual and I’m covered in debts. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life, the bookstore, Carlos. I’d love to get drunk and then when the effects have worn off I’d be thirty, I’d own the bookstore, everyone would be homosexual, those that are not would be persecuted, Carlos would be left-wing and there’d be no more bullshit! Yes, it would be great! On condition of being able to return obviously.
GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
It is one of the great moments in the film but as I mentioned at the beginning, Sautet’s films, this one included, add up to more than its parts. Sautet’s a humanist in perspective, a classicist in style, and meticulous in all aspects of his filmmaking. See for example, the fluid long takes with scenes shot on a diagonal that somehow creates a vertical space of action on the horizontal wide-screen; or the the subtle and significant shifts in focus as the father and his girlfriend are driving in to work (see clip below). Note too, how in keeping with the themes of the film, the camera often ends on nothingness (see example above), on empty space that is not without significance: the empty space created when characters leave a room to make love in another room so that what they do may be imagined. But also things like the shadow of a staircase bannister once characters have vacated it. This has an effect not unlike that we see in Ozu or on the films of Takeshi Kitano and in Sautet’s film comes across like an extinguished sigh, a place of action where the desired action did not in fact take place.
See also how carefully sound is used, sometimes so that it sets up one scene or continues from another – not unusual but so beautifully done; note too how often we are not permitted to hear what the characters themselves do as a way of creating tension and drama. I’m also very admiring of the colour design of the film (see image capture below), how each scene has its own dominant colour scheme that is carefully choreographed throughout the film’s narrative: the browns and beiges at the beginning, the bright yellows or reds in the construction scenes, the patterning in blue when Brigitte Fossey gets her hankering for her fix in the seaside.
Note too the wonderful editing, sometimes as indicated earlier, lingering a bit too long on the space of action after the action has finished or moved elsewhere but note the beautiful use of dissolves too (see illustrations below); for example, after Bruno vomits in the metro, there’s that wonderful dissolve of the weeping flower over the rainbow and the sky onto the two men at the bookstore. And then, as is so characteristic in this film, the filming is from outside a window so that it reflects the life outside that the characters inside are oblivious too. Truly lovely.
SUBTLE SHIFTS IN FOCUS
SUBTLE USE OF COLOUR DESIGN
DISSOLVE INTO REFLECTIONS OF OUTSIDE
By the time, the film gets to the end, you know, identify, feel for these characters. It’s a melancholy film but one that feels tender and true. The ending with the son just lighting a cigarette and looking lovingly at the father as he sleeps just brims over with unspoken feeling. The film offers no utopian resolution just an understanding, a forgetting, a moving on, a decision to continue and choose love. That feeling is not the result of one moment, it’s the building up of many scenes, many choices of mise-en-scène, many small miracles of acting. It’s very beautiful.
Seeing The Drowned Man at the Temple Studio of the National last night made me think how much movies have invaded our cultural imaginary, and not just any type of movie but musicals, and westerns and noirs, in a flimsy b-setting, but with vivid imagery and powerful emotional impact. In this production, the greatest theatrical experience of my life, theatre brings back some of that immediacy, larger-than life, deep-in-your-mind dream imagery that watching films in the dark, on a huge screen, surrounded by others but living it through alone used to do.
Here, you’re asked to don a mask and not speak, as you’re guided through a path you’re told you need not follow in the old Republic Studios at Paddington. You’re asked to travel at will, and you look through old sets, houses, shops, a saloon, forests littered with bark, empty desert. The more you look, the more you see, highly detailed letters characters have written to each other but also lists of hairdo’s to be done by hairdressing. As you walk into these spaces, performers begin to dramatise fights, dances, shoot-outs, struggles, sex, sexual display; all these ‘movie moments’ take place before your eyes, sometimes sung, sometimes danced; and it makes you think how much cinema owes to movement, choreography, song, rhythm.
The dancing featured in this show, sometimes embodied as fights, full of sharp, athletic choreography, is breath-taking, particularly when seen up-close. The mask provides a safety, a distance, like movies did; you watch, the performers know that they are being watched performing but they do not see you, just another audience member with a Donald Duck mask. The scenes shown are pulpy, erotic, old movie-clichés with a dash of Buñuel and as filtered through Lynch, particularly his Blue Velvet.
The movies have invaded our culture to such an extent, that it is now the raw material for theatre, perhaps its been so for a long time. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the power of movies diminish. First, when the cineplexes came in by the shrinking of the screen; then with safety regulations by the diminishing of the power of the darkness which in turn removed the power of the light.
If anything, movies are now more interesting than ever. But the experience of film-going, of going out to the cinema, and feeding your dreams on the light and the darkness, of being able to see without being seen, of being anonymous but part of a crowd; these are many things that the cinema has now watered down or eliminated entirely. The Drowned Man reminded me of how powerful they still can be, though now in the Theatah, sadly, and no longer at the movies.
The Drowned Man is an astonishing achievement: a whole building, a former studio, is the mise-en-scène for this play. The actors and dancers are in character doing extraordinary things with the audience very close-up and sometimes following them. The wandering audience, presented with a simulacra of movie moments yet turning that upside down by making those movie moments flesh rather than spectral shadows. Refreshments are offered in a dive with a canary singing the blues. The experience creating some of the perverse dream logic that once seemed entirely owned by movies.
I want to read Buchner’s Woyceck which ostensibly inspired the piece and I then want to see The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable again.
Max et les Ferrailleurs is a noir in colour — bright Eastmancolour in the DVD transfer I saw — fresh as paint, and as brightly coloured as a children’s playground. But it’s a shadowy world that is depicted; one of cops and robbers, bars and cafés, precincts and prostitutes. And if each of the characters that people this world has their reasons for behaving as they do, none of them is saintly and none of their motives are pure.
The film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli), a mono-manically obsessive cop intent on bringing a bunch of two-bit crooks to justice through the manipulations of the psychically bruised but physically peachy Lily (Romy Schneider), the girlfriend of one of the ferrailleurs, the not too bright but not too bad Abel (Bernard Fresson).
As with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet and Jean-Loup Dabadie — and another tightly structured, carefully composed and subtly told tale of morally complex people. But Max et les ferrailleurs is a darker film then either although it’s a darkness that is composed by a layering of subtle shadings. First of all, the crooks aren’t really that bad. They’re just a bunch of guys who prefer to spend all day shooting the shit in a junkyard to working. They dream of a score but are really too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it — until Max sets up his trap for them, a score so easy that they can’t help but fall into it. So who’s the bad guy, the entrapper or the entrapped?
It is no credit to Max that he sets his trap through Lily. We’re told she’s German, born in Bonn, who began street-walking in Munich as a teenager. She’s had a hard life; been pushed into drink and drugs from pillar to post throughout Germany by abusive pimps — to the point where she’s survived a suicide attempt. She’s finally free of all that and is, as Inspector Rosinsky (François Périer) tells Max, if not someone, at least something. She’s in a pleasant, not too involved relationship with the easy-going and rather nice Abel and she’s at home in Nanterre.
It turns out that Max knows the amiable Abel from when they did they did their military service together. Abel doesn’t ask Lily for money and he doesn’t mind that she turns tricks for a living. Max isn’t a bad person, or at least he doesn’t begin that way, but he’s effectively entrapping his friend by paying for the services of his woman. Moreover, Abel is the friendly and nice one. The worse that can be said of Abel is that he’s not ambitious and doesn’t quite stick to the letter of the law. But that is at least as true of Max.
In order to entrap the gang, Max hires Lily. He pays her a lot, too much for someone who pretends he only wants to talk. In fact, it’s through these talks that he begins spinning his web. But he also can’t help looking at her, taking endless photographs and papering the walls of his rented flat with them. She begins to see him as something more than a trick too. They develop feelings for each other as they talk, feelings that they sense but can’t quite admit to; after all, there’s money involved. The camera loves Romy Schneider. Max loves looking at Romy/Lily through the camera. We love what we see, even what he sees, though his looking overlaps into a voyeurism that we share, but tinged with a perversity that begins to make us a little uncomfortable. We love Romy Schneider. Lily’s done nothing bad to Max. Yet, she senses an easy score and is not above setting up a robbery of the bank Max pretends to run.
Max et les ferrailleurs is shot in fluid long-takes. It doesn’t feel as the kind of cinema that blows you away by its use of the medium – it’s certainly not self-consciously ‘cinematic- — until you go over how the story is told in your mind, and think of how subtly, how beautifully, how classically, how economically and how powerfully what is shown and how it is shown affects how you understand and what you feel.
I’ll linger on two scenes here as brief examples. The first (see above) is our introduction of Lily. In a subtle, narrationally motivated way, Sautet gives Romy Schneider a fabulous star entrance. We see her through Max. In fact his face goes in and out of focus as we see what he sees. An iris, meant to stand in for the long end of the telescope, provides a space in which Romy and Abel then appear. We know she’s a prostitute partly because of how she’s smoking and walking and mostly because of what she’s wearing: a ribbon around her neck tied into a jauntily-angled bow (Romy’s signature look for this film, she will wear such a ribbon in different colours in most scenes with Max), high-heeled ankle-strapped shoes, and a shiny black vinyl raincoat that might be a nod to Joan Bennet’s iconic streetwalker look as Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945).
Soon Max’s attention focuses strictly on Lily. His telescope, which began following first the gang and then the couple starts following her movements rather than Abel’s. In fact, his first question to Inspector Ronsinsky is a follow-up for context and background to the interest first aroused scopically. After the Inspector gives Max and us this background plot (the unenviable but inevitable task of ‘supporting players’ in the type of film where stars are, protagonists do, and the rest of the characters tell), we return to look at Lily, and though the images we see at first illustrate what the voice is telling us, that Nanterre has become her home, they also exceed that telling. We see that she’s beautiful, we see that she’s happy, we see that she’s part of a community, her window looks out on a world that calls to her and that she’s a part of; and she’s got Abel, nice Abel, a man who clearly is fulfilling her sexually and supporting her emotionally, in the background, behind her, and to her delight. This is the pleasant and pleasantly functional, if maybe not rapturously joyful, world that Max, with his quest for ‘justice’, will destroy.
The other moment I’d like to linger on is the moment Max succeed in capturing the crooks and goes to tell Lily with the intent of reassuring her that she’s in the clear. A gendarme blows his whistle almost as if to announce the moment. The film then cuts to Max going into a café. The camera follows Max as he goes into the café but then remains outside as he goes towards Lily (the camera first moving right but then left). Why does Sautet leave the camera out? What distance is being created? It’s interesting too that there’s a mirror behind Lily so that his reflection is present in Lily’s reaction to what he’s done. The moment, however, is Piccoli’s as it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t only captured crooks, he’s destroyed lives, he’s de-facto put a death-warrant on Lily, he’s destroyed a potential future for them both, in fact, he realizes he’s worse than the poor sods, too lazy to even devise their own hold-up that he’s just put behind bars. Every nuance of perception and feeling is visible on Piccoli’s face, all understated but understandable. It’s an absolutely great moment in the film.
Max et les ferrailleurs is full of such moments: elegant, outwardly simple, seemingly casual, none of it drawing attention to itself, but capable of expressing all the complexities of what it is to be human in a series of unfoldings that deepen into a highly pitched but silent scream of feeling. A wonderful film.
The image for the poster of Live Flesh may be understood not only as that which ‘represents’ or sells the film, but also as one that condenses a whole series of meanings and feelings, complex ones, that the film deals with and is about. At its most obvious, it’s a sexual image of two bums next to each other and with a hand on each. But it’s an image in which it’s difficult to distinguish gender. Is it two men, two women, a man and woman? You can’t really be sure until you see the film. But why does the film valorize, prize, image and posterize that representation of gender?
Once you’ve seen the film, you might ask why this man and why this woman? There are three male protagonists in the film: Sancho (José Sancho), David (Javier Bardem), and Victor (Liberto Rabal). Sancho, with his patriarchal need to control, to dictate, constantly associated with a traditional masculinity visualized for us in the film by the cazuelas he’s cooking with, the morzilla and chorizo pictured in the background. He’s a cop too smart or too weak to kill a man directly; a cop who regularly commits crimes at home; a man wearing an apron; a man who belongs with the sour nuns that greeted Victor’s birth (see second-last image) and for whom there’s no room for in the Democratic Spain that Victor’s son is born into and which the film celebrates.
David, rendered impotent partly because he couldn’t stop himself from acting on his desires, couldn’t stop himself from fucking his partner’s wife or start to think about the consequences of his actions and ends up in a wheelchair as a result. He’s now got a wife who’s with him because of guilt, because, as the slow-mo scene of their meeting tells us, he’s an homme fatal she couldn’t resist, both of them imprisoned by an event they were responsible for but for which only an innocent was sent to a physical, material, jail for. The film beautifully images this imprisoning for us at the moment that it happens (see image below) . Even in his wheelchair, David is a model of masculinity, a Paralympian champion; is, as his T-shirt tells us, a 100% animal (see image above); one constantly shown as imprisoned by this fact; constantly shown through bars, meshes, grids.
Victor is the hero of Live Flesh. We know this because he is the only one who’s linked to all the main characters. His mother, played by Penelope Cruz, also symbolizes an era. The film hints that she’s had to leave her village, cast out? Escaped? And arrives already pregnant to Madrid where she has few options; she can’t have many if she’s still selling her body way into her pregnancy. She’s a victim of the sexual morays and rigid gender roles of the old Spain and she’s already dead as the film’s main narrative gets underway, though as we can see through the character of Clara (Angela Molina), those morays and roles persist.
It’s why we’re shown Clara with her peineta and full flamenco regalia (see image above), and why we’re introduced to her through an ornate iron-worked balcony window with her black eyes. There’s no way out for people who try to live out the old rules in the new Spain. It’s why we see that potent image of the two hands, hers and Sancho’s entwined, their wedding bands prominently displayed, but hands and bands smeared in the blood that is the result of the rigidity and violence of their union (see image below).
David is a little different from Sancho but not much. The outline of their shadows pointing a gun as they go up the stairs to Elena’s apartment, the moment which erupts in violence and which sparks the narrative, is initially indistinguishable, as if it’s the shadow of one person rather than two . The camera quickly separates them (see image below) but the shadow of that gun haunts them both. Sancho’s will be the guiding hand that will deprive David of his legs and Victor of his liberty albeit not achieving his initial intent which was murder. David will later try to get Sancho to kill Victor, also not successful but equally damaging as it will result in the death of Sancho and Clara. There is no room in this new Spain for men such as David and he too is cast out, to Miami, just as was Benito, the character Bardem played in Bigas Luna’s Huevos de oro.
The image that signifies the film is half composed of a young man who’s born into a new Spain with a bus pass for life but not much in the way of economic security, but one with a capacity to learn, to grow, to forgive and to love. It’s telling and touching that his idea of revenge is to become the best lover in the world and please the object of his revenge to such an extent that she’ll be destroyed by that loss of pleasure. It’s interesting that the film’s ideal couple, Victor and Elena (Elena is the other half of the composition), the one that he’s been longing for throughout the film but that the film visualizes for us as his mirror image, indistinguishable from him in the act of love, is a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but a European. Each half of the composition is a mirror of the other but also its inverse and its opposite. Is it too much to read this allegorically? This new Spain, symbolized by this new Spanish man gets rid of all that shackled him in the past to find a better, more productive and fertile union, with his European inverse complement. But is there also a new Spanish woman? The film doesn’t show us who she might be though it’s not outside the bounds of the ideas the film posits, that she’s met a nicer, more sensitive, less dictatorial Swede or Brit or Dane (hard to think of that man in Italy).
There is much more to be said about the meanings that this beautiful image of sex and equality condenses but I would here like to mention only one more as it is arguably one of the film’s greatest achievements; and that is that it is an image of love. Note how in the sex scene the camera moves in creating out of the representation of a physical act of sex an evocation of the abstract concept of love; as the camera moves in, all you begin to see is beautiful undulating shapes. Chavela Vargas — is there such a thing as a hermaphrodite voice, one that evokes both sexes at once, that in evoking both sexes comes across as multi-gendered and full of feeling? – singing ‘Somos’: ‘somos dos seres en uno que amando se mueren, para guarder en secreto lo mucho que quierén/ we are two beings in one that in loving die, to keep secret how much they love’. The camera then returns to the act of sex, she on top, each of them upside-down and then side-by-side before ending with the image with which we began, the two hands caressing those beautiful but indistinguishable bums, before cutting to dawn.
It’s a sexy and romantic image of a genderless couple, an image of sexual equality, an image of the new EEC Spain, an image of love, sex, desire, jouissance and thereby loss. It’s a beautiful image of a great moment in a wonderful film.