Monday, November 13, 2017

Cold Heaven (1991)

Along with his penchant for complex, often fragmented narratives and innovative montage editing techniques, one of the things that makes Nicolas Roeg such a fascinating filmmaker is his approach to the supernatural. Roeg’s interest in strange phenomena can be traced all the way back to Performance (1970), which saw Roeg and co-director Donald Cammell present a sort of symbolic form of reincarnation or “rebirth” via the fusing of the characters played by James Fox and Mick Jagger. With Don’t Look Now (1973), Roeg established what was clearly his favorite area of the mystical and unexplained, that being the concept of psychic ability, second sight and warnings from beyond. Telepathy would also come into play in Eureka (1983) with hints of a psychic connection between Gene Hackman and Theresa Russell and said film is also ripe with various other supernatural components be it fortune telling, Hackman’s superstition of his soul being threatened and perhaps most unforgettably, voodoo. Then there’s of course The Witches (1990), Roeg’s memorable adaptation of the Roald Dahl book and Puffball (2007), where Roeg again turned to witchcraft and superstition along with Pagan mythology and references to the Norse god Odin. Following The Witches, Roeg continued on a supernatural path, albeit in a more adult fashion with Cold Heaven, yet another neglected later Roeg title and one of his most peculiar supernaturally themed films due to its religious (specifically catholic) preoccupations.

While vacationing in Mexico, Dr. Alex Davenport (Mark Harmon) is accidentally killed after being struck by a boat. Prior to the accident, his wife Marie (Theresa Russell) had planned on leaving Alex after admitting to him her affair with another doctor, Daniel Corvin (James Russo). A few days after Alex’s death, Marie is given the unexpected news that Alex’s body has inexplicably disappeared and she gets an even bigger shock days later when Alex appears to her in a motel room where she had planed to meet Daniel. Soon after Alex’s reappearance, Marie, a lapsed catholic, is compelled to tell a local priest of a vision she had years prior of whom she assumed to be the Virgin Mary, a vision which mirrors the nightly dream of a fanatically devout nun, all of which force Marie into an existential crisis of loyalty and fate.

Cold Heaven is the type of film that epitomizes the term “open to interpretation”. More specifically, it’s the kind of film that, while watching, its easy to take everything at face value, once its over however a plethora of questions arise about what Roeg intended to be taken at face value or what was intended as metaphor. This is especially true in regards to the films metaphysical content. The biggest question hovering over the entire film is whether or not the reappearing Alex is actually a ghost. Certainly that would be the obvious guess but Roeg offers up a bevy of other possibilities as well in that Alex could be stuck in some sort of purgatory state, or could even be a figment of Marie’s guilt-ridden imagination, although this is highly unlikely given later developments in the film but its an interesting suggestion. At one point Roeg even hints at a possible demonic possession. The films religious aspects are particularly curious as to how Marie’s supposed vision of the Virgin Mary are linked to the dreams of the nun which leads to the films most astounding visual moment which again, leads to further mystery rather than any concrete answers considering that what takes place could either be an act of nature or something of unknown origin. There’s also the issue of Marie’s lapsed faith, which Roeg utilizes in a manner not unlike Abel Ferrara, and the idea of “sanctuary”, a word which is used quite often in the film and given multiple meanings.

Cold Heaven was Theresa Russell’s fifth film with her then husband Roeg following Bad Timing (1980), Eureka, Insignificance (1985) and Track 29 (1988). It would be their last feature film together, their final project being “Hotel Paradise”, an episode of the anthology television series Erotic Tales. While being interviewed by a British TV station during a behind the scenes look at Cold Heaven, Russell described her working relationship with Roeg (rather appropriately) as “telepathic” stating “I guess because I know him so well I need less direction when I do a film with him because I know how his mind works, we have like a short hand or if I’m having trouble in a scene or something he’ll say two words to me and I’ll go “Oh yeah, yeah I get it, I get it” you know, I mean so its kind of almost a telepathic affair really in a way.” A brilliant and fearless actress, Russell’s performances for Roeg, particularly in Bad Timing and Track 29, display a boldness most actresses would shy away from and the same could be said for Russell’s performance Ken Russell’s (no relation) notorious Whore (1991) which she did prior to Cold Heaven. Cold Heaven was yet another heavy role in a very unique film. It’s a film that may confound many but its ability to remain just as interesting after viewing makes it a rewarding watch.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Track 29 (1988)

In a lot of ways, cinema is all about timing. Nicolas Roeg once contrasted his films with the films of Stephen Speilberg, claiming that Speilberg’s films seem to get released at the perfect time when audiences are clamoring for such materiel whereas Roeg’s films are the complete opposite. Roeg even joked that the title of Don’t Look Now (1973) was an invitation to critics to do just as the title asked, and the title of Bad Timing (1980) was itself a bad omen. While Roeg had a point with his theory, his early films were nonetheless released during a time when such innovative and at times daring films like Roeg’s received wide releases and were subject to plenty of coverage, both positive and negative. Following his instantly legendary co-directorial debut with Donald Cammell, Performance (1970), Roeg would go on to deliver five undisputable masterpieces with Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing and Eureka (1983), the later of which also seemed to be a victim of bad timing, barley getting a release and later shelved by its own studio. Save for perhaps The Witches (1990), Roeg’s post-Eureka career isn’t nearly as regarded as his 70’s/early 80’s output with certain films being virtually ignored, one of which is 1988’s Track 29, an utterly mental film that’s both psychologically fascinating and riotously entertaining due to its sheer insanity.

Linda Henry (Theresa Russell), a terminally bored housewife stuck in a dead-end marriage to an indifferent, unfaithful and train-obsessed husband, Dr. Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd), spends her days lounging around the house, turning to the bottle for escape. Linda is soon thrown for a loop when a mysterious Englishman named Martin (Gary Oldman) enters her life, claiming to be her estranged son who was forcefully taken from her shortly after his birth. Having been tormented with grief ever since loosing her son, Linda accepts Martin as her son and attempts to make up for lost time, turning her already volatile situation all the more combustible.  

Track 29 can be a tough nut to crack in that it’s a film of two very opposite moods yet each somehow manages to work in tandem with the other so ultimately the two extremes make sense. On one hand, the film is a heavy psychological profile of a disturbed mind when focusing on Linda’s desperation with her home life and the need for nurturing as well as her constant despairing for a child. Roeg’s trademark flashbacks reveal the traumatic event that led to her child’s conception which make Linda all the more tragic a character, yet Roeg also leaves the exact reason why the child was taken away from Linda somewhat of a mystery which makes for some interesting questions. Roeg also makes a crucial storytelling decision midway through the film which could have been easily fumbled in lesser hands, however Roeg uses the occasion to make Linda’s situation all more fascinating and troubling as well with some none-too-subtle incestuous overtones. Now on the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the films outright zaniness, going off the rails (pun very much intended) with its warped sense of humor, Dr. Henry’s extramarital activities being particularly hysterical, and outrageous performances from all, particularly Oldman who’s demented man-child Martin throws many a histrionic temper-tantrum. Russell proves once again that nobody does “damaged” better than her and Lloyd, in perhaps the films most memorable moment delivers a speech about trains so impassioned its as if a seismic shift is happening within his own personal cosmos.

An interesting thing regarding the film is that it was produced by HandMade Films, the production company founded by ex-Beatle George Harrison who’s given an executive producer credit. Fascinatingly, HandMade also acted as a UK distributor for the slasher classic The Burning (1981) of all films! Given the Beatles connection its no wonder that John Lennon’s “Mother” is heard during the opening credits of the film. In the US the film only pulled $429,028 in ticket sales which might seem strange seeing as it featured someone like Lloyd who was already a household name but at that point was a massive star thanks to the success of Back to the Future (1985) but again, it would appear that timing was not on Roeg’s side given the preferences of mainstream movie going audiences at the time. The film got some curious reviews, most notability from Roger Ebert who, despite giving the film a fairly positive review, claimed the film was “unlikable” and “bad-tempered, kinky and misogynistic” like many of Roeg’s films (in Ebert’s words). Seems to be another case of “misogynistic” being thrown around far to freely as the film could hardly be described as such but it is however a totally unhinged and unforgettable film with go-for-broke performances and a balanced mix of seriousness and frivolity. One of Roeg’s most criminally underrated films and a film with “cult” appeal written all over it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Doctor Glas (1968)

Its almost a guarantee that the work of an artist who’s ahead of their time won’t receive the attention and respect its due until years after. This is especially true as it relates to the work of Swedish actress turned director Mai Zetterling. Zetterling’s homeland of Sweden was at the forefront of cinema that transgressed and pushed censorship limits in terms of on screen sexuality, but before Vilgot Sjöman caused an uproar with his I am Curious films, Yellow (1967) and Blue (1968), and before the release of the sensational sex education films Language of Love (1969) and Love Play: That's How We Do It (1972) and the Christina Lindberg vehicles Exposed (1971), Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973) and Wide Open (1974) just to name a few, Zetterling was already breaking taboos left and right, first with Loving Couples (1964) then with Night Games (1966), which sent many a moralist, most famously Shirley Temple, into a frenzy. It wasn’t until the 70’s when festivals dedicated to female directors began popping up did Zetterling’s films finally get their due, however it seems the recognition was short lived as Zetterling’s name still seems to be fairly low-key. Doctor Glas, Zetterling’s follow-up to Night Games and another unfortunately under the radar title, saw Zetterling take her fascination with sexually based neurosis to an even darker place resulting in one of Zetterling’s most challenging and perhaps greatest film.

Repulsed by her husband, Helga Gregorius, the wife of a reverend, makes a desperate plea to her physician Dr. Glas to lie about an illness to her husband in the hopes of it preventing him from taking advantage of, as Helga refers to it, his “marital rights”. Glas, who has long been harboring an obsession with Helga agrees, although the plan fails as Helga is back in his office soon after begging him to talk to her husband again. As Glas’ obsession with Helga intensifies, his grip on reality begins to slip as he becomes more desperate to aid Helga in the hopes of the two becoming lovers, eventually coming to the conclusion that the only way to help Helga is by murdering her husband.

Described by Zetterling as a story about “one man’s battle with himself”, Doctor Glas is a distressing and unusual psychological profile of a sexually frustrated sociopath. Although far from being a fast paced film, Zetterling nonetheless offers little to no breathing room in the sense that right from the opening credits Zetterling transports the audience into the fractured headspace of the titular character and stays there for the remainder of the film. Through voiceovers, Zetterling lets Glas’ disturbed thought process unfold and despite the character being completely unsympathetic, the film is always engrossing in the way Zetterling lets the evolution of Glas’ God complex unfold. The film is also one of Zetterling’s most visually accomplished and inventive with Zetterling crossing over into surreal territory several times via the use of deliberately out of focus imagery and morbid hallucinations representing just how rapid Glas’ grasp on the real world is slipping. Quite often these scenes employ quick cutting techniques and resemble the type of cut-aways Alain Robbe-Grillet would later utilize. Although short, the imagery in these scenes are rather unnerving and at times religious in nature which is another component of the film. Zetterling is none too subtle in her attacks on religious and moral hypocrisy. The most obvious example would be the character of the reverend but more interesting is Glas’ own hypocrisy in his deciding that he must kill the reverend while simultaneously refusing to perform abortions on several of his patients with his reasoning being his profession’s dedication to preserving life.

The film was based on a 1905 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg. In her autobiography All Those Tomorrows, Zetterling writes about immediately being attracted to the material with one passage from the book winning her over, “Why does one hate another human being? People who hate each other usually believe there are such big differences between them. But this isn’t so at all. Rather the opposite - they are so very much alike, always wanting the same thing. A bull hates another bull. He never hates a cockerel.” The film was scheduled to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival however the festival was cancelled as a result of the student riots taking place so how the film would have been received remains a mystery. The film did make it to theaters in the States although it seemed to disappear almost as a fast as it was released. Doctor Glas was also released the same year as Zetterling’s take on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, The Girls (1968). While The Girls has gone on to become one of Zetterling’s most celebrated titles amongst those who know her films, Doctor Glas remains one of Zetterling’s more elusive films, even with some kind words written about it from longtime Zetterling admirer John Waters. Doctor Glas is an essential film for those interested in Zetterling’s work and especially for those who prefer to traverse the darker realms of human psychosexuality.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Night Games (1966)

History has a funny way of determining what films that were controversial upon their initial release retain their notoriety while others are left to linger in obscurity. The case of Mai Zetterling’s Night Games, easily one of the most controversial films of its day, is particularly perplexing. Zetterling was no stranger to causing a stir, with an early documentary for the BBC on her homeland of Sweden had some of her fellow Swedes branding her a traitor and her first narrative feature Loving Couples (1964) ran into some issues at Cannes, but the furor Zetterling caused with Night Games, the second feature for the actress turned director, trumped her past issues. Based on a novel written by Zetterling and her then husband David Hughes, the films troubles began at the Venice International Film Festival where the police closed the theatre where the film was to be screened to the public. When the film made it overseas to the San Francisco Film Festival, it so outraged Shirley Temple she quit her position on the festivals board of directors when her fellow board members refused the ban the film. For a film with such a checkered history, Night Games seems to have been tucked away in the footnotes which is a travesty as it’s a film that proves Zetterling with a force to be reckoned with when it came to material that challenged and transgressed.

Shortly before his wedding, Jan and his fiancée Mariana return to the mansion where Jan spent his childhood. Almost immediately after returning, Jan is overcome with memories of his troubled past involving his distant mother Irene (Ingrid Thulin), memories which have stunted him emotionally as well as intimately with Mariana which threaten their future together. With Mariana’s help, Jan begins to confront his past head on in an attempt to finally free him from the hold his memories of his mother and the house have on him.

Zetterling and Huges' novel on which
the film is based.
Clearly subtlety wasn’t in the cards for Zetterling when filming Night Games (Nattlek). Cutting back and forth between the past and present, Zetterling presents a somber, at times funny and quite often bizarre study of negative nostalgia. Zetterling’s approach to Jan’s neurosis is interesting in that she essentially plays devil’s advocate by characterizing the older Jan as somewhat stunted who desperately needs to let go of the past for his own good, yet Zetterling also understands the powerful grip the past can hold on some and given Jan’s upbringing, his current mindset is also understandable. It becomes obvious from the get go that the main source of Jan’s torments was and still is his mother Irene, who’s relationship with Jan ran the gamut from smothering (which culminates in a scene that’s still liable to stun even the most jaded viewers into uncomfortable silence) to cold and distant. Zetterling wisely leaves Irene a bit of a mystery, although its clear that her lifestyle is a means of masking her own insecurities. The Bergman comparisons are inevitable considering Zetterling’s psychological approach but the film is also comparable to the likes of Fellini and even pre dates Ken Russell’s sense of grotesque flamboyance with Irene’s wild sex parties featuring such scenes as Thulin giving birth to a stillborn child to a group of onlookers that includes a full band, with one member who’s instrument is his nose and a couple projecting their own homemade sex film in front of a cheering audience. Again, not exactly subtle.

In her autobiography All Those Tomorrows, Zetterling recalls the furor over film, claiming she became the center of attention in Venice for all the wrong reasons. Zetterling even admitted to asking herself if she had gone to far and intentionally set out to make a sensational film. Even a blurb in the Venice Festival program stating her intentions with the film did little to quell the oncoming media storm. She wasn’t without her sense of humor though. When asked at the Venice press conference about only allowing festival judges and the press to see the film, Zetterling remarked “I’m still not sure whether this means that the press are incorruptible or that they are already totally corrupted.” Again, given the films reputation its strange that it has more or less disappeared although one high profile fan has championed the film over the years. In his 1986 book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, the legendary filmmaker stated that for the longest time Night Games was his favorite film. Waters even programmed a screening of the film as part of his “Films I’d Wish I’d Made” series. Ever with Waters’ support, Night Games, and most of Zetterling’s directorial output still seem to fly under the radar when the film is more than deserving to be restored to its rightful place as an essential title from one of European cinema’s greatest and more undervalued troublemakers.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Blue Villa (1995)

AKA Un bruit qui rend fou (The Noise That Drives One Mad)

One of the most interesting things regarding both the literary and cinematic careers of Alain Robbe-Grillet is the timeline of said careers. Prior to becoming the face of the nouvelle roman or “new novel” movement, Robbe-Grillet already had a number of prior occupations behind him, perhaps most fascinatingly working as an agronomist specializing in the diseases of tropical fruit trees of all things. Its important to note that Robbe-Grillet’s first novel The Erasers wasn’t published until Robbe-Grillet was 31 and he was 41 by the time he directed his first film L’Immortelle (1963). From 1963 to 2006, Robbe-Grillet directed only 9 features and for the most part his time behind the camera could be labeled sporadic given the extended gaps in-between films, with his most productive time as a director being the 60’s to the early 70’s. Following Eden and After (1970), Robbe-Grillet took a four year absence from film before returning with Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) and the next year with Playing With Fire (1975) before taking another lengthy sabbatical. After the publication of 4 novels over the span of 8 years, Robbe-Grillet retuned to film with La belle captive (1983) before taking his longest cinematic vacation yet, returning to the screen 12 years later in 1995 with The Blue Villa, one of his most elusive films and one that perfectly captures Robbe-Grillet transporting his nouvelle vague writing style to film.

A mysterious sailor known only as Frank (Fred Ward) drops anchor on a small Mediterranean island. According to local legend, Frank is the spirit of a murderer who was killed as sea during a storm while fleeing the island after killing his fiancée and has returned to the scene of his crime on its anniversary. Frank’s supposed victim was Santa, the step-daughter of Edouard Nordmann, a resident of the island who was known to hate his step-daughter. When the island’s chief police inspector learns of Frank’s “return”, he re-opens the case and informs Nordmann, although unbeknownst to Nordmann, Santa is very much alive, held up in a local brothel known as The Blue Villa. With talk and sightings of Frank everywhere, Nordmann becomes increasingly paranoid as he finds himself relentlessly perused by vengeful phantoms, phantoms that may or may not be of his own creation.

Although refereeing to a Robbe-Grillet film as open to interpretation is beyond redundant, The Blue Villa is nonetheless an intricate puzzle, one who’s pieces don’t quite fit where they should and whose resolution manages to be even more mystifying then the unraveling of clues throughout the film. Despite the films cryptically beautiful final image making little sense from a logical standpoint, it matters very little as the film is a classic case of journey rather than destination and ultimately makes perfect sense to those who view the film with the same mindset Robbe-Grillet and co-director Dimitri de Clercq crafted the film with. This is a film made up of questions that lead to more questions. Chief among them being the issue of whether or not Frank is actually a ghost. The same could be asked of Santa, who despite appearing to be alive and well in the titular bordello could also be seen as a sort of specter once Nordmann’s paranoia begins increasing. This leads to yet more questions, like was there ever a murder in the first place and just what does the mysterious Madame of the Blue Villa have to do with anything? In typical Robbe-Grillet fashion, the questions are posed in a playful manner and the film could be compared to Trans-Europ-Express (1967) and Playing With Fire in that its suggested that everything is being made up on the spot, with several characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera, each adding their own little details to the story.

Along with its plotline, one of the most mysterious aspects regarding The Blue Villa is its release history with the film essentially disappearing after its showing at the Berlin International Film Festival and a broadcast on European television which was thankfully recorded and seems to be the source of most available copies of the film. The film was missing from the BFI’s six film Robbe-Grillet box set featuring L’Immortelle, Trans-Europ-Express, The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After along with its alternate edit N. Takes the Dice and Successive Slidings of Pleasure as well as Kino/Redemption’s line of Robbe-Grillet remasters featuring the same films. Along with Playing With Fire, The Blue Villa is the only other Robbe-Grillet film that’s yet to see an official, English friendly release. Following The Blue Villa, Robbe-Grillet would take his longest sabbatical from film yet, returning 11 years later with what would become his final film Gradiva (2006). In-between The Blue Villa and Gradiva however, Robbe-Grillet made another comeback of sorts in 2001 with the publication of Repetition, his fist novel since 1981’s Djinn. 2001 also saw the publication of Le voyageur, essais et entretiens, a collection of essays. Although The Blue Villa may prove somewhat tricky for some to track down, Robbe-Grillet enthusiasts who’ve yet to see will find plenty to love as the film’s multifaceted, hall of mirrors narrative is quintessential Robbe-Grillet in construction and execution.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Playing With Fire (1975)

An endless source of fascination relating to cinema is how changes in the cultural zeitgeist over the years have determined how certain films and filmmakers are looked upon. This is especially true as it relates to terms such as “exploitation”, “arthouse”, “grindhouse”, “cult film” and so on and so fourth, with films that in decades past would have been considered somewhat mainstream and commercial are now seen as niche. Case in point, the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet. While Robbe-Grillet’s films were always going to be somewhat of an acquired taste, Robbe-Grillet, along with the likes of Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk, Jean Rollin, José Ramón Larraz and José Bénazéraf nonetheless belonged to an era where films that fall under the umbrella term “Euro cult” could not just turn a decent profit but also shatter the lines between many of the aforementioned terms, alienating a fraction of audiences looking for one thing or another. Divisive as they may be, Robbe-Grillet’s films sold tickets, not to mention earned their share of notoriety, namely the scandalous S&M of Trans-Europ-Express (1967) and the condemnation of Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) by the Vatican. The mid-70’s proved to be one of Robbe-Grillet’s most commercially viable periods and he would follow up Successive Slidings of Pleasure with Playing With Fire, another film with the potential to reach a wide audience as well as divide a significant portion of said audience.

Wealthy banker Georges de Saxe receives a letter informing him that his daughter Carolina (Anicée Alvina) has been kidnapped along with instructions to deliver a large payment in exchange for Carolina's safe return. The problem is Carolina hasn’t been kidnapped, she’s safe at home. Fearing that the letter might be a trial run for an actual kidnapping, Georges demands Carolina go into hiding just as a precautionary measure. With the help of Franz (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a detective of sorts, Carolina is placed in a brothel where wealthy clients indulge in sadomasochistic fantasies while Georges, despite knowing full-well that Carolina is safe, agrees to go forward with delivering the ransom to a shady network of human traffickers, making an already strange scenario all the more bizarre.

Fusing the narrative deconstruction techniques of Trans-Europ-Express with the sadosurrealistic fantasy worlds of Eden and After (1970) and Successive Slidings of Pleasure, Playing with Fire (Le jeu avec le feu), as the title suggests, finds Robbe-Grillet at his most playful, with a good portion of the film feeling like Robbe-Grillet is playing a deliberate joke on both his characters and the audience. While not as explicit as Trans-Europ-Express in terms of having the film play out on the spot with characters writing out the film as it progresses, that idea is certainly hinted at throughout Playing With Fire, with multiple instances of characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera as well as numerous references to a “script”. At one point Robbe-Grillet even pokes a little fun at himself by having Trintignant quip “I didn’t understand the script all, but that’s that.” Its an understandable mindset as very little makes sense in Robbe-Grillet’s perverse playground, be it a kidnapping that never happened or perhaps may happen in the future, characters shifting allegiances or a house of pleasure where the waking and dream world collide, yet the strength of the film lies in its playfulness, where its fun to both try and put the pieces of the puzzle together while simultaneously getting lost in the absurdity of it all. Of course its difficult to not get lost in the dream world Robbe-Grillet creates on the inside of Carolina’s safe house, who’s various rooms of pleasure feature some of Robbe-Grillet’s most striking sadoerotic tableaux.

Playing Wire Fire was the second Robbe-Grillet film to feature Anicée Alvina following Alvina’s now iconic starring role in Successive Slidings of Pleasure. Robbe-Grillet always had nothing but praise for Alvina, stating how well she took direction, specifically singling out the scene in Successive Slidings of Pleasure where Alvina recreates a Yves Klein Anthropométries, a scene which for timing reasons had to be done in one single take which was achieved with ease thanks to Alvina. Robbe-Grillet even attributed the success of Successive Slidings of Pleasure to her. A fascinating character herself, Robbe-Grillet remarked that Alvina would only read comic books and humorously recalled an instance where her mother hoped that the film wouldn’t offend her modesty, or what little she had. Alvina also had a career as a singer and for a time fronted the quirky French New Wave/post-punk band Ici Paris. Alvina sadly died in 2006 of lung cancer, however her daughter Azadée now fronts Ici Paris. While the role of Carolina is considerably less mysterious than that of Alvina’s unnamed sorceress in Successive Slidings of Pleasure, Alvina still brings a doe-eyed innocence to Carolina which goes well with Alvina’s inhibited mischievousness. In terms of writing as well as visually speaking, Playing With Fire is classic Robbe-Grillet and a must see and as inaccessible at it may seem from a distance, wouldn’t be a bad place to start for the uninitiated.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Jealousy (1999)

One of the attributes of a true auteur is the ability to continually explore similar subject matter with each new film looking at it from a different angle and never having one film come across as a rehash of another. Vicente Aranda was one such auteur who fit that description. Although Aranda already had a number of favorite topics, most notably those of a sociopolitical nature, one of the most interesting things regarding Aranda’s career is his discovering of perhaps his favorite, and certainly most successful from a strictly economic standpoint, muse 27 years into his directorial career. Despite the sometimes dubious nature of Wikipedia, Aranda’s entry sums it up in a nutshell with “Love as uncontrollable passion, eroticism and cruelty are constant themes in his filmography. The frank examination of sexuality is one of the trademarks of his work, as seen in his most internationally successful film Amantes (1991).” Amantes was the start of a string of erotically charged psychodramas and thrillers which included the likes of Intruso (1993), The Turkish Passion (1994) and The Naked Eye (1998), all of which put under a microscope just how fragile humans truly are when it comes to sex, romantic relationships (specifically relationships that develop into love triangles) and especially jealously, the last of which gave Aranda’s 1999 film its name, yet another variation, and perhaps the most intense one yet, of Aranda’s favorite themes.

One month before his wedding, trucker Antonio discovers an old photograph of his fiancée Carmen with another mans arm wrapped around her shoulder which instantly triggers Antonio’s jealousy. When asked about the man in the photo, Carmen simply brushes it off, claiming he was an old friend and it was taken a long time ago. Antonio however isn’t satisfied and begins asking around, eventually discovering the name of the man, José. After the marriage, Carmen’s hopes of Antonio’s insistent pestering her about the photo are dashed when his obsession with José becomes not simply worse but all consuming. With Antonio’s envy at a fever pitch, Carmen is forced to admit the truth and confront a painful past she’d had hoped stayed buried with potentially fatal consequences.

In a way Jealousy (Celos) could be seen as the third film in a trilogy of sorts with Amantes and Intruso given that a third individual interrupts the (for all intensive purposes) happy lives of two, however the film plays out more like a spiritual sequel to The Turkish Passion, which dealt with female jealousy and the irrational behavior that can arise as a result. With Jealousy, Aranda reverses the sexes and the results are nothing short of mental. Like Aranda’s other films that follow a similar trajectory, Jealousy works on a variety of levels, be it a psychological drama or an erotic psych thriller. Out of all of Aranda’s similarly themed films, its Jealousy that takes the thriller route the most with the obvious reason being the increasingly irrational behavior of Antonio, but the film is far from one note in that regard with the film gradually turning into a mystery as the more Antonio asks around about José, the more questions arise about Carmen’s tainted past and the mystery of just who is José and what was the nature of he and Carmen’s relationship. Aranda slowly puts the pieces of Carmen’s past together and when more is revealed the film also becomes somewhat of a crime story, another element which places it alongside the likes of Amantes and The Turkish Passion. Aranda brilliantly brings everything to a boiling point leading up to an absolutely jaw-dropping, rain soaked finale that is almost Takashi Ishii-esque in its visceral, unexpected impact and visual design.

When Jealousy played the festival circuit some not very bright critics labeled the film misogynist with one particularly idiotic review from Time Out claiming the film portrayed women as “sex-obsessed primitivists”. Clearly whoever wrote that must have only been paying attention during the scenes where the two main women characters discuss sex as “primitive” is the last word that springs to mind when discussing the character of Carmen thanks to Aitana Sánchez-Gijón who gives an incredibly nuanced performance of a woman clearly eaten up with her own conflicted views of the combustible situation she suddenly finds herself in. As far as the cries of misogyny go, the last thing Aranda portrays the men in the film as is sympathetic, with Antonio’s behavior being downright psychotic and his fellow trucker friend Louis having jealousy issues of his own, stating at one point in the film how he’d like to lock Carmen’s friend Cinta away in a room so no other man would touch her. Aranda also wisely avoids any cliché “battle of the sexes” type of scenarios as well with Antonio clearly going far beyond the point of unreasonable and Carmen’s lack of honesty not helping matters. In Aranda’s view, nobody wins. Although it may have been hyper dramatized for the sake of film, the general idea that Aranda puts forth is far from unrealistic, ultimately making Jealousy one of his most frightening films.