Tuesday, 30 August 2011

La Piel que Habito (2011)

Two years ago, when "Los Abrazos Rotos" came out, I wrote that it could be the beginning of new phase in Almodóvar's career. Having seen his latest film, "La Piel que Habito" I saw nothing that contradicted me. The most obvious, are the absence of his trademark random strange characters (again, no transexuals, no drag queens, although there is a surrogate mother) and the colour palette which has toned down the reds and oranges that intoxicated "La Mala Educación" and "Volver".

I'm still at odds on how much I liked it. In some ways it is an honourable failure, but it kept me interested, even if the first twist was predictable way too soon (partly from the way it's shot and introduced). It is well acted, and the cast, with the exception of the actor playing Vicente and the attemps of Brazilian accents, are very good. The three leads are excellent (I never noticed the leading lady before despite having seen a few films with her). Almodóvar has, I think, admitted the debt he owes to "Les yeux sans visage" ("Eyes without a Face") rather obvious from the iconic mask in the poster but I also picked "Vertigo" (more to that later), the Argentinean film "El Secreto de sus Ojos" (a scene that rhymed with that film's ending), Almodóvar's own "Átame!" and something else that I couldn't identify.

In a house in Toledo, a surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has been testing a new type of artificial skin, one which is strong enough to resist burnings. His guinea pig is a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) - but who is she and why is he been keeping her prisoner? This is a film which I feel very hard to write about without giving a lot of the plot away - so please consider this a spoiler warning, as I will give most of it away.

While the film's beginning is fairly straightforward, is the second act (the two flashbacks) that make it truly fascinating. The flashbacks are meant to explain to us how and why things have happened. They present a truly dark vision on human nature: whereas the first act could be read partly as a case of Stockholm's Syndrome, the second adds to it a whole new dimension. We now have a rapist being punished by the victim's father (and later raped by the man who started the whole cycle of death and violence) and a much more disturbing case of Pygmalion-like Stockholm's Syndrome. It is also a case of "Vertigo"-like necrophilia, where Banderas's character recreates his dead wife in his prey. And just going a step back, it is interesting how the key moment of the film, the second rape scene, relies heavily on the viewer's perception of the characters involved more than on anything shown. The young man (under the influence of recreational drugs) has no idea that the girl is taking for a walk is incapable of giving consent (or even of understanding sex, as she is just an overgrown child). As the final act starts, we move from sexual politics and a dark thriller, and it crashes down into a convencional ending that reaffirms life and preaches that art can save your soul. I am not so sure if was the ending to expect for such a necrophiliac work - Almodóvar seemed to have lacked Hitchcock's courage.

I like to make two final brief poins: First, the true connection to Brazil isn't explained, but that's just bad editing or writing). Unless the connection is Vera Cruz, the name of Anaya's character - meaning True Cross, it was the original of Brazil. Second, I quite like the unexplored aspect of the bioethics of the film, but sadly that is kept to a small scene where Banderas argues why he should play God.
PS - there are some Spanish posters for the film (like the one just above) which are definitely worth a look.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Gilda (1946)

How to start talking about “Gilda” without mentioning Rita Hayworth? Is it possible? I considered it for a moment and quickly gave up. Actors and actress that achieve legend status often they get there with a unique part or a unique moment. For Rita Hayworth, it was “Gilda”. Watch the film and try to take your eyes from her, I dare you. She’s mesmerising – even if the part, the script and her own acting ability leave a lot to be desired.

In Buenos Aires, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a gambler, forges a friendship with the owner of a casino (Ballin Mundson, played by George Macready) and becomes his right hand man (and possibly more, but let’s go there in a moment). One day, after a business trip, Macready returns suddenly married (i.e. Hays code for a new mistress) to Gilda (Hayworth), a woman from Johnny’s past.

Up to the moment Hayworth makes her unforgettable entrance (known to most people these days as the old film clip in “The Shawshank Redemption”), the two men’s relationship exudes homoeroticism – their initial encounter is staged as a pick-up with, if memory doesn’t betray me, Ford lighting Macready’s cigarette (it could be the other way around). Later on, Gilda reinforces this by saying that Johnny is pretty (I don't think that's meant as a simple compliment). But after she walks in, the balance of the relationships is changed. Ballin is now obsessed with Gilda. And Gilda, it turns out, is still in love with Johnny despite what happened in the past and is dying to get him into her bed (she claims the marriage was done on rebound from him). Johnny on the other hand keeps obsessing about Ballin, shielding him from the truth about his wife (she seems to be very fond of the opposite sex) and showing an ingrained misogyny which is shown full blast against her. Jealousy does come to mind.

Until the last ten minutes this surreal, convoluted but rather engaging story works thanks mostly to Hayworth and Ford. However, in the last ten minutes the Hays code kicks in. I remembered the general ending from years ago, but I was rather surprised how little it resembles the rest of the film. Suddenly all is resolved (and quickly), as if touched by a magic wand (And spoiler alert now…): Rita has always been pure (yes, really…); Glenn was never really a misogynist and just loved her; the villain is punished and there is a general happy ending, including a return to home (the US). Yeah, it’s really that bad. More interesting is the fact that throughout the film, the voice over (Johnny's), narrating after the fact, does not seem to be aware how the story will end, and shows the desdain he feels for the woman he ends with. I don’t really object to the happy ending per se, but rather how it unfolds. It is rushed, leaving me feeling it was last minute affair to finish something no one really knew how to end. More important, we never know what happened between the two leads, so why are we asked to believe that they will work over it?

Hayworth aside, the film’s other mesmerising features are Rudolph Mate’s unforgettable cinematography, full of shades and contrasts, unique framings and clearly one of the key moments of film noir imagery; and the iconic strip-tease scene when Hayworth sings (dubbed, I think) and dances to the sound of “Put the blame on Mame”.

PS - I don't particularly like the original poster, so I chose these. However, it's worth noting the mistake in the last one - the film is attributed to King Vidor, rather than Charles Vidor... someone needed to pay a bit more attention.

Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011)

Raúl Ruiz (or Raoul Ruiz if you prefer the French spelling) died today. I only saw two of his films, "Le Temps Retrouvé" (1999) and "Mistérios de Lisboa" (2010, poster above). I liked both without loving them, but since the second is a major adaptation of the work of a Portuguese writer, Camilo Castelo Branco, shot in Portugal and with a Portuguese cast, I realised I could not but pay homage to him. After all, he has managed to make this XIX century novel a small success in XXI century France. Obrigado.