Monday, July 10, 2017

The Exquisite Cadaver (1969)

AKA Las crueles (The Cruel Ones)

The 1960’s saw the birth of many new worldwide film “movements”, the effects of which changed the way films are conceived, shot and eventually analyzed. Clearly the biggest of these movements was the French New Wave or “Nouvelle Vague”, with filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol who changed the game in the way of technique and storytelling, shooting on low budgets, often utilizing handheld camera work and featuring narratives that never spoon-fed audiences explanations. America also experienced a “new wave” of sorts with the so called “New Hollywood” years with benchmark films including Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969). Not to be left out, Spain also had a radical film movement of its own when a group of young Catalan filmmakers formed a collective known as the “Barcelona School of Film”. One of, if not the leader of the group was Vicente Aranda, who’s second film Fata Morgana (1965) is seen as calling card film for the philosophy behind the Barcelona School of Film, eloquently defined by its Wikipedia page as being “concerned with the disruption of daily life by the unexpected”. Aranda’s follow-up to Fata Morgana, The Exquisite Cadaver, certainly fits that description and would prove to be yet another defining film for the BSOF and a film that would set in motion the obsessions that Aranda would return to numerous times throughout his career.

After receiving a package containing a human hand, Carlos, a hotshot publisher quickly discards it by burying it, however when he returns home his wife (Teresa Gimpera) reads him a telegram cryptically asking if he's interested in a forearm, attributed only to "Parker". The following day, another package arrives at Carlos' office and again he discards it by leaving it in the street although it finds its way to Carlos' home, its contents including a dress once belonging to Carlos' mistress Esther who committed suicide years earlier. Carlos is soon approached by a mysterious woman (Capucine) and after accompanying her to her home, she reveals herself not only to be Parker, but also Esther's former lover and blames Carlos for her death. While wandering through Parker's house in a drug-induced haze, Carlos' discovers Esther's body in the refrigerator. Not believing his story, Carlos' wife pays Parker a visit herself and learns the tragic truth about Esther as well as the packages being sent to Carlos.  

Unquestionably concerned with the unexpected disruption of daily life, The Exquisite Cadaver is an unusual, downbeat and much more challenging film than Aranda’s more celebrated horror title The Blood Splattered Bride (1972). While not as abstract as Fata Morgana, bits of the surrealism from that film feature prominently in The Exquisite Cadaver, both visually and in the way of storytelling. Having Carlos’ first encounter with Parker happen under the influences of drugs allows Aranda to toy around with various perceptions of reality, be they Carlos’, his wife or the audience. Aranda also tells the majority of the story via flashback, from Carlos’ point of view telling his and Esther’s story to his wife and later Parker telling her tale of Esther to Carlos’s wife which finds Aranda manipulating the timeline of events somewhat which again makes the line between truth and lies difficult to decipher. Of course what’s eventually revealed to be the truth along the way only takes the film in even more fascinating and ultimately somber directions. Although the film is much more subtle than The Blood Splattered Bride in its presentation of the battle of the sexes, Aranda is definitely taking the ideas he would eventually explore in that film for a trial run here with the attitude of Parker essentially mirroring that of Mircalla Karstein in The Blood Splattered Bride. The film also sees the earliest examples of the themes of obsessive love leading to dangerous and tragic behavior which Aranda would center several films around in the 90’s.

The films title gives it another connection to surrealism with the phrase “exquisite cadaver”, more commonly refereed to as “exquisite corpse” and sometimes “rotating corpse” being a random assembly of words and or images conceived by the founding surrealists as a game, the name was born out of the phrase “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine” which is what resulted when game was first played. Based on a short story by Gonzalo Suárez called “Dancing For Parker” found in his book Thirteen Times Thirteen, the film was envisioned as having more commercial appeal than Aranda’s previous films and eventually received backing from American producers, however Aranda would later lose the rights to film for years following legal issues and there were at least five variations on the script before production even began. What’s more, Aranda based some of the script off the letters of Mariana Alcoforado, the famous Portuguese nun, purported to be the author of, of course, Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Given the legendary status of The Blood Splattered Bride amongst Euro horror fanatics, the lack of attention paid to The Exquisite Cadaver is a bit surprising. Readily available from Something Weird Video, the film is one of the most original in Spanish horror, not to mention featuring Teresa Gimpera at her most beautiful. Early as it may have came in Aranda’s career, The Exquisite Cadaver is nonetheless essential.