La fièvre monte à El Pao, also released in the US under the title of The Ambitious Ones and Republic of Sin, was a financial and critical failure no matter what they called it. I like it very much. Upon first viewing I though La fièvre monte à El Pao Buñuel’s most Marxist film. It’s part of the cycle that deal with insurrection and armed struggle against totalitarian regimes in small Latin American countries like Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956) and La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden (1956). Raymond Durgnat has called these, along with La fièvre monte à El Pao, Buñuel’s ‘Revolutionary Tryptich’. The Marxism on display here is the existentialist variant articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre after WWII, after Paris was occupied and questions of collaboration, resistance, personal responsibility, individual and collective action against totalitarian regimes became live issues and much discussed, first in secret, and then after the Liberation, in public.
In the great new book, Paris in the Fifties, Stanley Karnow demonstrates how late in 1945 and alarmed that Sartre was attracting young leftists to his fold, the Communists blasted him, calling existentialism, ‘a rancid, nauseating, decadent anti-Marxist pseudo-philosophy. He replied by excoriating them for their complicity in Stalin’s evil manouvres, and they decried his flirtation with neutralism as naive’ (p.253). In 1949 Sartre’s Les main sales was attacked as an anti-Soviet screed. Three years later Sartre recanted in Les temps modernes: ‘to oppose communism is to oppose the proletariat.’ Albert Camus then reproached Sartre for condoning Stalin’s violation of human rights’ (p.253). Merleau Ponty also attacked Sartre for his support of Russia,(p. 253) ‘If Sartre is so enamoured of the Soviet Union, he should live there rather than manifest his allegiance from the comfort of Saint-Germain-de-Prés’ (p.255). André Malraux scorned all of them because he saw himself as the quintessential homme engagé who’d fought with the Loyalists in Spain, and had been in the middle of action, both armed and diplomatic, in the struggles in Indochina, Berlin and Moscow. Time planned a cover story on him in 1955 and De Gaulle would go on to make him Minister of Culture. The issues that Buñuel deals with in La fièvre monte a El Pao were live ones for all French intellectuals in the immediate post-war period.
John Baxter in his great Buñuel (London: Fourth Estate, 1995) calls the film, shot by Gabriel Figueroa, one of Buñuel’s most ‘technically accomplished’ but says the gloss undercuts the film’s moral points and that Buñuel acquiesced to the settings and to ‘Maria Felix’s glamour’. According to Buñuel, ‘there were certain political and social elements I liked in the story but they got lost in the melodrama’ (Baxter, 251). So María Felix and melodrama get the blame for what are seen as the film’s failings, whereas they are actually, at least to me, some of the very considerable pleasures the film now has to offer.
In Maria Félix: 47 pasos por el cine, Paco Ignacio Taibo writes of how, ‘seen today, the film appears to us as a hole in Buñuel’s oeuvre; even those minimum and curious (or entertaining) touches one sees in his first Mexican films are missing/ visto ahora, el film nos parece como un hueco dentro de la obra total de Buñuel; faltan hasta esos minimos y curiosos (o divertidos) toques que Luis colocaba en sus primeras películas Mexicanas (p. 248).
In the film, Maria Felix plays Inés Rojas, the upper class and worlldy wife of the Governor of the island. She’s already cheating on him as the film begins. Gérard Philippe is Ramón Vázquez, the Governor’s assistant. Ramón is a poor scholarship boy, seeking to do the right thing, but having to do so on the sly, careful to maintain his position. He’s collaborating to a degree but trying to do some good within the system. He tries to see that the law is interpreted in the light of justice, and that is helpful, even in a totalitarian state where the law is against the people and can be changed at a despot’s whim. Eventually of course, Inés and Ramón get together; love is pitted against power, and Buñuel dramatises how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I’ve been writing much more than I intended here. My first intention was to get people to look at the clip above from the beginning of the film. It’s so beautifully done, with Gérard Phillipe appearing to be reflected on a mirror amidst the adulterous pair but the mirror actually turning out to be a window. Dramatically, the film shows us Ramón’s vulnerability as even coming onto something like this by accident could put such a lowly civil servant as he in danger.
I had originally just wanted to put the clip above so as to admire the way Félix talks, moves, walks, and particularly her choice of facial gestures in relation to camera movement. She’s not only a woman used to being looked at and admired, very aware of the power of her beauty. but she also uses that beauty like a silent film actress, acting more often towards the camera than towards the other actor in the scene. She’s there to be looked at and the choice of dress, jewels and hair-style are there so that the audience can look and admire what they are seeing. But she’s also there to convey that character, and she does so with economy, sureness, grace, and technical know-how. She’s both in and out of character. Always María Félix but also and simultaneously a character out of Shakespeare, Lady McBeth maybe. She’s extraordinary to look at. And so is the film; though I’ll have to elaborate more fully how that is so in another post.