Sara Montiel, with the most intricate eye-shadow I’ve ever seen a film star wear in a movie, is the main reason to see Varietés. The film was her idea. In her memoir, Sara Montiel, Memorias, Vivir es un placer (Barcelona, Random House 2000), she writes of how she convinced producer Eduardo Manzanos that ‘we could make a film to our taste, a musical, luxurious, if that’s what he was interested in making. And Juan Antonio said yes; even though he’d never made a musical, that was no problem, because I could take care of that aspect’. She writes of how she loved his script so that she didn’t change a thing. How she believed he’d been a marvellous director and how she needed a film of a director of that calibre. ‘For me’, she adds like the diva she is, ‘Juan Antonio’s best film is Varietés; (pp. 367-368).
For fans of Sara Montiel, and they were legion at that time — she was not only the superstar of Spanish cinema but also box office throughout Latin America and in countries like Italy and Roumania — the film is full of pleasures, many of them campy. She sings some beautiful standards (Te lo juro yo, Lagrimas negras, La bien pagá, Toda una vida), is carefully photographed through more gauze than Doris Day in her later years, is always at the centre of everything — this is a true vehicle for her — and brings that slightly ironic naughtiness around issues of sex, interwoven with and superseded by the full-blown romanticism that is a trademark of her films.
For fans of Juan Antonio Bardem, Varietés is a sadness. Here he is cannibalising one of his great 50s films, Cómicos (1954), which in turn had been derived from All About Eve (Joe Manckiewicz, USA, 1950). As you can see in the two clips below, Varietés borrows not just plot and structure but situation, lines of dialogue, even, later on in the film, tropes like the use of mirrors.
Varietés is a musical remake of Cómicos: instead of telling us about the life of actors in provincial theatre troupes, he tells us the life of performers in provincial music-hall troupes. But the older film is more concrete, more complex, with more inventive compositions. It’s not quite up to his collaborations with Berlanga like Bienvenido Mr. Marshall or his own Muerte de un ciclista (1955) or Calle Mayor, but it’s very good indeed and has become a classic. Varietés is a great vehicle for Sara Montiel, which is why she thinks its his best film, but those are quite different things.
As a musical, Varietés if full of pleasures: Sara herself, the great songs, the clear attempt at making glossily produced musical numbers à la MGM. Sara and her producer had set out to make a luxurious musical, by which I think they meant expensively produced, and by the standards of Spanish cinema they succeeded. The songs, the costumes, the back-up dancers, the choreography. It’s all there. But Spanish cinema’s idea of luxury in that period was often not much more than a musical number in the Sonny & Cher Show: the back-up dancers are relatively meagre in number and not always in step, the costumes are embedded with shiny rhinestones but nonetheless look a bit cheap, the choreography lacks inventiveness and rarely done for the camera as in the great Arthur Freed musicals. The film aims for an international standard but succeeds only on a national one.
There are two further things about Varietés that caught my eye. In the original Cómicos, shot at the height of Franquist repression, the young ingenue Ana Ruiz (Elisa Galvé), tired of waiting by the wings, is offered the opportunity of headlining her own show but the price is that she’d have to sleep with the producer Carlos Márquez (Carlos Casaravilla). She considers it, struggles with it, but ultimately turns him down. In this film, Sara being Sara considers it all too briefly, wishes that that weren’t the bargain, but succumbs. The change in representation marks a difference between what was permissible in the dictadura (the hard dictatorship) and the later dictablanda (the soft dictatorship).
The last thing that I’d like to comment on here is a question. Did Bardem invent the musical montage of the kind so typical of the 80s, where a series of shots are rendered coherent by a song so as to evoke a feeling? See the montage below, where Sara succumbs to her producer’s demands but instead of feeling shame she feels joy (very Sara: It’s why so many gay men loved her). It’s from 1971.
This is an execrable copy of Juan Antonio Bardem’s Sonatas. The DVD is from the ‘Clásicos Imprescindibles del Cine Español/ Essential Classics of Spanish Cinema’ collection so you’d think they would have taken greater care. The colour is terrible, as if transferred from a highly deteriorated print; the sound is dubbed, badly, and this is before we even get to whatever one of the great directors of Spanish cinema was ever able to achieve with this material.
On the evidence, it’s not much: the dialogue is highly stylised as possibly befits an adaptation of Valle Inclán, but there’s a failure in finding a tone commensurate with such a style; and that failure in turn results in the betrayal of the actors, who perform sometimes in a style one usually associates with provincial touring companies: arch, mannered, often speaking in a declamatory style accompanied by a Delsartean deployment of gestures; and sometimes in a more ‘realist’ psychological style more typical of the cinema. Bardem’s parents, who toured in such companies, both appear here in small roles and both fare better than Aurora Bautista (Concha) or Carlos Casaravilla (Conde de Brandeso). Even Fernando Rey succumbs to the grand arch style intermittently during the course of the film, so one has to assume that the actors were directed to perform in such a way. But it is not a success and some scenes now appear laughable (see below).
The film is an adaptation of Valle Inclán’s Autumn and Summer Sonatas, which El Mundo ranked as amongst the greatest of 20th century Spanish novels. Bardem has said that he was inspired by Visconti’s Senso, and the gap between aspiration and achievement is a sad one to witness. As can be seen from the battle sequences, this was an expensive production. The great Gabriel Figueroa was the dop in the Mexican sequences and Cecilio Paniagua was the dop in the sequences set in Galicia, in the north-west of Spain. The film has a cast most directors or producers of the time would have killed for: did anyone in the history of cinema give better close-up than María Felix (see a selection below, after an extract of the marvellous but clearly chopped up star entrance Bardem prepares for her)? There’s Paco Rabal, the greatest leading man of the era, with his deep and sonorous voice; there’s also Fernando Rey, a great actor who would go onto international success with his work for Buñuel (Viridiana, amongst many others) and Friedkin (The French Connection); and there’s also Aurora Bautista, whom Bardem himself describes as the ‘only real star Spain had at that time’ (note the difference in billing between what I assume are the Mexican and Spanish posters for the film at the very top).
So what does Bardem do with this dream cast, great crew, excellent budget? As indicated above, the story’s hard to follow, the tone is inconsistent; the battle sequences create neither suspense nor excitement: inserting close-ups of babies crying is no substitute for care with editing and point-of-view. The film was highly censored upon its release but that can only explain some of its problems.
Sonatas was a Mexican co-production with the Spanish production house Uninci, which Rabal, Rey and and Bardem all had shares in. Bardem writes about how their main goal during the making of the film was to convince Luis Buñuel to return to Spain to make movies with them, which he would do with Viridiana, in which both Rabal and Rey would got roles they’re still associated with today. Bardem also writes in his memoirs, Y todavía sigue. Memorias de un hombre de cine (Ediciones B, Barcelona, 2002), that, ‘As I told a journalist then, I was satisfied with having the protagonist of my Sonatas ride on a horse, shotgun in hand, screaming ‘Long Live Liberty’. Well, pip, fucking pip, hurrah. He achieved his goals. But where does that leave the audience?
Bardem writes of how they screened it at the Venice film festival and were surprised at how the film didn’t make an impression. He blames the lack of interest in Spanish literature and culture in the rest of Europe then. To which one can say perhaps. But one wouldn’t expect the mainstream Spanish cinemagoer to be intimately knowledgeable of the works of Valle Inclán either. Moreover In Valle Inclán’s novels, the focus on the Autumn one is on a melancholy love of the past; the Summer one on erotic love and desire. The film however bounces between something to do with Carlist wars, the Church, and struggles for liberation in the Spanish section; and something to do with Mexican revolution in the Mexican section; admittedly both as the setting for those depictions of love, but periodically losing focus. One can detect how, wherever he can, and to the confusion of the viewer, the fight for freedom, the critique of totalitarianism and the depiction of questions of conscience, all are privileged at the expense of dramatisations of love.
Bardem blames himself for the miscasting of Aurora Bautista. And as you can see above, in the very first clip, she is indeed terrible. But, and in spite of the film being ostensibly highly censored before its release, Bardem must shoulder a much greater share of the blame than he’s willing to acknowledge. Some of the shots are beautiful (see two instances of wide-shot compositions below). Actually, almost all of the shots are beautiful; almost all shot on location; and the film is worth seeing for that: the compositions are striking and original (see some examples of his characteristic two shots and a very striking close-up above), there is a marvellously intelligent use of the camera throughout with liberal use of long-takes and in depth, and a very poetic use of space. But the lighting doesn’t match from shot to shot, the shots don’t join up into scenes, and the scenes don’t connect into a shape that has rhythm, drama and logic.
On his watch, Bardem, the child of generations of performers, allowed actors, through no fault of their own, to make complete asses of themselves, a terrible betrayal. Only the divine Felix — who clearly had a sense of what worked best for her and performs the whole thing in a silent film star diva style — and to a lesser extent Rabal, escape unscathed.
And yet….some of the compositions, mise-en-scène and the design of shots is so skilled that one still wishes a better copy of this very flawed film was generally available.
The film won the 1959 Prize of the National Syndicate of Spectacle for Best Cinematography in Spain for Cecilio Paniagua and the 1959 Venice Film Festival surprisingly nominated it for Golden Lion, at which one can only scratch one’s head and wonder ‘why’?
Muerte de un cliclista/Death of a Cyclist is a salutary reminder that even under the most totalitarian of regimes protest is possible. But Juan Antonio Bardem’s triumph is not only due to his making a Communist film at the height of the Franco regime: this film also has a remarkable way of framing the action, quite extraordinary compositions in 4:3 ratio (see below), an evocative use of space, original modes of cutting, and a way of building scenes to daringly extreme close-ups, rhythmically, in a way that conveys all the necessary story information whilst creating tension. It’s not only a landmark in Spanish cinema but a great film tout court.
In his autobiography, Y todavía sigue: Memorias de un hombre de cine, Bardem insists the film is based on Tolstoy’s Resurrection (p.204). But it bears more than passing similarities to Antonioni’s Cronaca di un amore, which Bardem had by then seen and subsequently acknowledged as an influence: Juan (Alberto Closas) and Maria José (Lucia Bosé) were teenage sweethearts. She left him to marry a richer and more influential industrialist Miguel (Otello Toso) but they’re now once more involved. Returning to Madrid from one of their trysts in the country, they run over a cyclist. They get out of the car to see whether he’s alive and find out he is. But instead of getting help they flee, worried that if others are involved, their affair will be uncovered and their social position ruined.
Back at work, Juan reads in the paper that the cyclist has died. He’s so distraught that he inadvertently fails a female student when she should have passed, a mistake witnessed by great numbers of people in class. What was previously selfishness now becomes murder. At a party, Rafa (Carlos Casaravilla) hints that he knows what’s happened and threatens blackmail. The rest of the film is a combination of tense Hitchcockian thriller, populated by characters suffering from Antonioni-esque ennui and framed in compositions very much influenced by the Italian modernist’s work, and peppered with sequences that owe a debt to Italian neo-realism, particularly in its Spanish variant such as in Surcos. Compare the sequence in Surcos (below) to the one that follows from Muerte de un ciclista.
The film is an indictment of the Franco regime. The culture depicted is one riddled with corruption. Juan’s brother-in-law is the reason he’s got his post at the University. And he could even be made Dean should he wish to on the basis of this connection. The brother-in-law is satirised giving one of those inflated, smug and florid speeches one so associates with the era. We see the mother who’s had everything in life categorised and measured and has problems understanding that which isn’t. She loves her son, but also understands he doesn’t share her values, not least her pride in having two sons fallen in the war. We see newsreels as of yore of Maria José, dressing up and looking glam, ostensibly to give money to the poor, whilst we know she let someone die because he was an inconvenience. We’re also shown those in power, like Juan at the university, so careless of those in his charge, he fails his student even without looking at what she’s done and potentially ruins her life. There’s a line spoken by Juan’s sister, at one of those boring cocktail parties that seem to make-up their life, where she jokes that the bracelet Maria José’s husband has given her comes at the cost of a thousand impoverished workers.
This viewing is the first one I’ve recognised the extent to which the Civil War permeates everything. It’s visible in the bombed out buildings by the tenement flats of the dead cyclist. It’s referred to in conversations with the mother. It’s what interrupted Juan’s love affair with Maria José and gave her the opportunity to marry a richer man. But more importantly, the trenches were Juan fought the war (on the Nationalist side), where he daydreamed of her, are visible from the very place he and Maria José let a poor cyclist die. The culture he fought for, the one his two brothers died to build, is the same one that allows him and his like to walk away from someone they’ve just run over with their car and let die.
It’s interesting that David Melville Wingrove, in an excellent piece for Senses of Cinema, assumes Juan fought for the Republicans, whilst I assume he fought for the Nationalists. I based the assumption on the his social class, his mother valuing the ‘glory’ of their name and revelling in a particular Nationalist discourse, his ‘fallen’ brothers, his position at the university, and the knowledge that such a representation of of an ex-Republican combatant would have been unlikely to be permitted representation. It’s worth saying that on his piece on the film in Antología crítica del cine Español, Casimiro Torreiro cites José María García Escudero, ex and future Director General of Spain’s Ministry of Film and Theatre, writing in the pages of Arriba, a Falangist paper, as naming Juan as ‘one of our ex-combattants (un ex-combatiente nuestro).’
Still, I don’t think the side Juan fought on, so important in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath, is ever explicitely stated.The fact that he fought in the trenches on the outskirts of Madrid means nothing as the gun could have been facing in either direction. Upon reflection, it might have been left deliberately open: and whatever side one assumes Juan fought in brings interesting, if different, dimensions to his character, and to the story. Seeing him as a Republican would explain his being the ‘black sheep’ of the family; his needing to rely on the patronage of his brother-in-law; his ennui and immobility during much of the film; and his being fired up by the protests. What’s really important in the film is Juan’s acknowledgment that the war is something that affected everybody, that ‘you can blame everything on it’ and the film’s use of it as a context in which Juan must live his existential crisis and begin to take responsibility for his actions.
If in Death of a Cyclist the rich are lazy, bored, corrupt and careless. they’re also made alluring: the men by loving and having a conscience, Maria José by looking so exquisitely beautiful. The poor are of course victims at the beginning and shown at the end to have the conscience and sense of responsibility the rich lack. The class that comes off worst here is the middle one, those with position, but who have to work for a living, like Rafa, the blackmailing art critic. What is it that the cinema of this period has against critics? They’re either bitchy (All About Eve) or murderous and perverse (Laura) and why is evil and deviant sexuality so often associated with modern art as here and in Phantom Lady?
Juan’s unjust and careless failing of Matilde (Bruna Corrà), the young student has resulted in the students protesting against the faculty (see below). This is shown to us through one of the many brilliant cuts in the film, where Rafa’s blackmail scheme has been foiled and in frustration he throws a bottle through the window of the restaurant where they’re all celebrating a wedding. Cut to a similar window being destroyed but this time at the faculty where Juan works as an assistant Professor of Analytic Geometry. The end of the threat of blackmail is thus inter-linked with the student protest. Certainly, Juan sees it as a way out of the ennui and hopelessness he’s been suffering from: ‘isn’t it wonderful?’ he says to Matilde of the protests against him, ‘This selflessness, this unity, this solidarity…your problem — my unfairness — has become their own…They’ve made me feel young and noble and selfless again’.
The student protest, pointedly designated an ‘insurrection,’ is a turning point in the film. From, this point onward, the tragic denouement is set. But let me linger for a moment on the significance of the film’s representation of this uprising. It was of course illegal. And the sight of the students against the army in front of an institutional building (see above) must have been an extraordinary sight in the totalitarian Spain of 1955. But the critique is built into the very fabric of the film. See for example, how Juan and Maria José’s secret meetings take place in either the circus or the Church, rendering with an equivalence clearly not noticeable to the censors of the time.
Above: We are shown Juan and Maria José (centre) discussing their murder at the circus (left) and with a mass at church in the background, right: both Circus and Church rendered as equivalent ritual distractions and ideal settings for discussions of crime and murder
Once Juan has his consciousness raised and found a purpose for living, the film returns to the noir structure it started with and denies the adulterous couple the happy ending that had in any case begun as an impossibility. The film returns us to the same setting, the place where Juan once fought for the repressive culture he now lives and in and where he dreamed of Maria José. As you can see below at the beginning (image on the left) Maria Jose is running towards Juan who is running after the cyclist. By the end (centre image), in the same setting, she is walking away from him. The distance between the couple is evident in both frames. By the image on the right however, in one of the many beautiful compositions that characterise this film, she’s descended from being the selfish and careless person who runs away from an accident to someone who actively plans to murder.
Rafa is the blackmailer. But as in so many noirs, Maria José is the femme fatale and the true villain of the story. She’s the one who’s driving when they run over the cyclist. The film often deploys unexpected cuts, through her, so as to show the lover when the husband is expected or vice-versa. She’s the one who married for money, avows her love to whichever man she’s with, and tries to hold on to her social position and worldly goods no matter the cost. If Juan changes from pointless ennui to self-liberation inspired by social protest, her trajectory is from that of careless selfishness to outright murder. It is interesting that we see her in newsreels collecting money for charity (see below left) but often, and throughout the film, pictured in, next to, or in font of a bed (see below right). In spite of the film’s left leanings it still hasn’t progressed to the point where it doesn’t blame the woman for everything.
As is shown in every frame visible in this post, the compositions are extraordinary. The other remarkable aspect of the film is the editing, constantly surprising and most effective. In the clip below, for example, note the associative cut, on smoke. Juan exhales the smoke in his bedroom, Maria José blows it away but then we notice that she is not with Juan but in her own bedroom at home, as she leans over, and we’re shown he husband entering the picture. It’s brilliant and one of many examples of unexpected and inventive cuts on action, on things, across people and spaces, even a liberal use of jump cuts.
The scene above deserves its own blog post. But I here simply want to show it to you as a way of bringing the discussion of framing, composition, and editing together in an extraordinary scene in which we are shown Rafa telling the husband of his suspicions. The flamenco blocks out the dialogue, the editing rhythmically raises tension. What is being said? How does it affect them? The camera goes from close-ups back to showing the guilty couple in a social setting, the tension builds through the increase in the close-ups, systematically, whilst occasionally returning them and us to the knowledge that their personal drama is being played out in public. It’s a great scene and characteristic of the cinematic brilliance evident throughout this great film.
The DVD is available on a great print through Criterion.