Seeing a restored version ofA Fistful of Dollars a few days ago at the BFI on a big screen was a gorgeous experience. The Morricone score, the melodrama, the sweep of the camera, a young Clint Eastwood. It’s almost like a great silent film of the 1920s but with bits of dialogue and a great score. Beautiful print also.
Part of the thrill of watching A Fistful of Dollars was recognising Margarita Lozano as Consuelo Baxter, the matriarch of the Baxter clan. She gives a great, controlled performance. Why isn’t more made of her presence and her performance in A Fistful of Dollars? There are only two women in the film, the other being Marianne Koch as Consuelo. And for those who know their film history Lozano is a cinema immortal, the mousy maid who gets pounced on in Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana. You’d think an actress who’s made classics with Buñuel, Leone, the Taviani Brothers (Good Morning Babylon, The Night of the Shooting Stars), Pasolini (Porcile), Claude Berri (Jean de Florette) and so many others would at least rate more of a mention. Is it xenophobia or is Brexit just making me paranoid?
Watching so many French gangster films recently has made me aware of how many of these films one thinks of as ‘French’ were actually European co-productions, often with Italy — Maigret tend un piège, Maigret voit rouge, Le tueur — sometimes even with the US: e.g. Le clan des Siciliens. I’d not given it much thought until seeing Llanto por un bandido (Carlos Saura, Spain/France/Italy, 1964) which is known as La charge des rebelles in French. I’d bought it as a Lino Ventura film — a mistake, as he’s only in the first twenty minutes or so – and not realising that it was the French version of the celebrated Spanish film Llanto por un bandido.
Seeing it made me realise that the price of hearing Lino Ventura in French was not hearing co-star Lea Massari in Italian, and worst of all, not hearing one of the most glorious and expressive voices in the cinema, the sound of Francoist Spain, not just in its pejorative and critical aspect, but as expressed in that deep hoarse voice, a sound produced by smoke, wine, sun, and the punishment of a lifetime of pronouncing a j with a Castilian accent, the sound of clearing your throat after a cold, the sound of cleansing your respiratory system so you can breathe through all the bullshit of Francoist culture, the sound of pain, and feeling and love too. All of that is missing from the French version. All of that is the sound of Paco Rabal’s voice.
Llanto por un bandido in French makes one weigh aspects of filmmaking. On the one hand, we must be grateful, because without the financing made possible by co-productions, these films might not have been able to be made. On the other hand, the loss of actors’ voices, particularly great actors with great voices, is not negligible.
To make you aware of the price we pay when these voices are erased by co-production agreements, I wanted to show you four distinctive instances of Rabal’s voice, the first in a landmark film of the era, where Rabal plays a radio announcer and sounds like the archetypal one (I’m afraid I could not get sub-titles but listen to the sound); then half a decade later as an embodiment of changes in Spain for Buñuel in Viridiana; much later, in the late 80s, for Almodóvar in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, his voice having deepened and made more expressive with age, and the director making full use of it and also what Rabal then represented for Spanish audiences; in the middle of this period, in 1967, again for Buñuel, this time in Belle du jour but in with Rabal speaking his own broken French, mixing it in with Spanish phrases and adding to the general seedyness of his character, Hyppolite de Murcia. Finally, an exchange with Lino Ventura, where Ventura speaks with his own voice and we realise all that is lost when instead of the sounds we know so well, that voice comes out of Rabal’s mouth, in French. It’s a sadness.
Historias de la radio (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, Spain, 1955)
end of Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961)
Rabal and Abril in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989)
Rabal speaking French with his own voice in Buñuel’s Belle de jour (France/ Italy, 1967)
Ventura, Rabal and others in La charge des rebelles (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy/ France, 1964)
After writing this post, Melanie Selfe directed me to a superb piece in Camera Obscura entitled ‘The Name above the (Sub)title: Internationalism, Co-production, and Polyglot European Art Cinema’ (Issue 1.46 pp. 1-44). There, Mark Betz begins by citing Jean-Marie Straub arguing in 1970 that ‘
Dubbing is not only a technique, it’s also an ideology. In a
dubbed film, there is not the least rapport between what you
see and what you hear. The dubbed cinema is the cinema of
lies, mental laziness and violence, because it gives no space
to the viewer and makes him still more deaf and insensitive.
In Italy, every day the people are becoming more deaf at
an alarming rate.
Betz then roundly refutes that argument and goes on to explore how :
European art films have thus been left free to carry on as
signifiers of stable national cinemas and identities or as gleaming
expressions of their auteur’s vision, somehow not blurred by
the quite specific determinants of cross-national cooperation that
leave their marks everywhere on the film, from its budget to its
shooting locations to its cast to its sound track.
My viewing over the last month highlights all of those marks and substantiates Betz’s arguments and the underlying multi-layered and complex relations that underpin co-productions in general and the art cinema variant in particular.
I’d add also the more personal understanding that, whatever the pleasures of what is gained, here that of the work itself, one always yearns and desires that which one loves and seems lost. For me, in this specific instance, the aspect that relates to sound, and specifically the sound of Paco Rabal’s voice.
A film buff’s delight, and not only because of the director’s parentage (John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands for those of you who might not yet know). The film begins with some of the narration from Vittorio De Sica’s Indescretion of an American Wife (a.k.a. Terminal Station, USA/ Italy, 1953) with Jennifer Jones expressing her loneliness and her need whilst visually we’re introduced to a handsomel house in Connecticut and a lovely woman, Djuna (Joséphine de la Baume) who evokes some of the beautiful porcelain vacuity of an Ursula Andress or a Sharon Stone.
Djuna meets Paolo (Milo Ventimiglio) in a video store showing Algiers (John Cromwell, USA, 1938) with Hedy Lamarr. He drinks scotch and writes arty screenplays that don’t sell. At a bar, they fall for each other but she can’t see him: she’s got an ‘illness’. He pursues her, wants her; he longs for the danger and excitement he knows she can provide. He follows her to her house and there’s a brilliant scene where she keeps the door chain on, they kiss, the kiss is filmed from above in a striking composition made up of a rectangle of light formed by the partly opened door, but then he recoils in pain, looks through the side of the door and sees her fangs reflected in the mirror (this is a vampire film that does not respect all vampire lore).
He doesn’t quite believe that she can really be a vampire so she gets him to tie her to the bed with enormous silver chains, turn her on and wait for the fangs to come out. The chains ensure his safety but he doesn’t want to be safe and removes them. The scene is delirious and ludicrous and sexy and something else too: one gets a sense that sex can be bloody and dangerous and all the more desirable for that. This is rendered even more perverse by the insertion of the wonderful scene from Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana where Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) drugs his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) and plans to rape her whilst a little girl climbs a tree to get a better view.
Needless to say Djuna and Paolo fall in love. She ‘turns’ him and introduces him to her coterie of chic vampires led by Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the queen of the ‘international clan’ who is a star actress longing for human applause and whose house they are staying at. The vampires talk about human blood substitutes, the beluga of ethically sourced platelets and True Blood whilst listening to Chopin. She’s clearly introduced him to a glamorous witty world he’d never have had access to and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida, she of the frank, gritty, somewhat coarse, rather wonderful Catherine Breillat films) arrives. Mimi is hungry, rapacious, amoral: there’s a wonderful scene where she tries to manipulate Xenia by presenting her with a fan, a virgin, and making sure her water glass is nicked so as to draw blood. Can Xenia resist? Can Paolo resist Mimi?
All of this is filmed as a kind of homage to Hammer Horror and Italian giallo, with particular reference to Dario Argento. Everything about the film seems slightly off, other-worldly, consciously fake and slightly stilted; a feeling exacerbated by everyone except Ventimiglio and Michael Rapaport (wonderful as a sweaty, rapacious agent) seeming to speak their lines phonetically. The music too, though evidently composed for the film, also evokes the cinema Kiss of the Damned renders homage to. It’s nice to see a vampire film that’s once more about romance, loneliness, violence and the polymorphousness and mutability of desire.
In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a Professor of Greek tells his students, ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instants, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves…If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face: let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn’ (pp.44-45).
The characters in Kiss of the Damned feel as the professor does even as they try to take control of themselves. However, the film itself suffers from also reining itself in by genre, convention, allusion and quotation. It sometimes seems more concerned with expressing its particular themes through an evocation of a period and a genre, to exist tightly locked into a matrix of allusion, than to elicit the raw pleasures audiences that go to genre films expect. Kiss of the Damned has sex, gore, desire and romance; and it does thrill – just not enough: not enough terror, not enough beauty.