Archive for Cine Dorado

V is for Vertigo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by dcairns

David Melville returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. The title this time may be familiar, but the film perhaps is not…

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

V is for Vértigo

What happens in life is what has to happen. Each must follow his own destiny.

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No, in case you were wondering, this is not a Mexican version of the 1958 Hitchcock classic. (Interestingly, a 1956 Argentine film called Más allá del olvido/Beyond Oblivion is said to be a near blueprint.) Vértigo, shot in 1945, is a literary costume drama by the Spanish exile Antonio Momplet – who, on the basis of this film alone, could lay claim to being Latin America’s answer to William Wyler. Like such Wyler films as Jezebel (1938), The Little Foxes (1941) or The Heiress (1949), this is a tale of high-octane suffering in exquisite (if claustrophobic) period settings. Its dazzling use of decor and deep focus reveals, rather than hides, the depths of human depravity on show.

Its star is María Félix in one of her subtlest and most sympathetic roles. Cast for a change as a more-or-less normal woman and not a tempestuous, man-eating virago. Of course, in any film that involves María, ‘normal’ is strictly a relative term. Her character Mercedes is a pious and eminently respectable widow, owner of a small hacienda in the depths of rural Mexico, sometime in the late 19th century. For the first 15 minutes or so, Maria goes to the amazing lengths of looking plain – wearing dull, dowdy gowns, next to no makeup and (ay, caramba!) glasses. Before too many scenes elapse, her whiny daughter (Lilia Michel) comes home from five years at school in the big city. Thoughtfully, she brings her mamá a full Parisian wardrobe in the back of her small wagon.

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If only that were all she brought…Vértigo would be a very dull film indeed. The girl also brings her fiancé (Emilio Tuero) a sexy rotter who’s closer in age to her mother. When the lovebirds arrive at the hacienda, Michel steals up behind Félix and puts her hands over her mother’s eyes as a ‘surprise’. The first thing mother sees, as the hands slip away, is Tuero’s face. Moustachioed and rapier-thin, like a sort of latino Basil Rathbone. Felix – who, remember, has spent all of 15 minutes trying to look dowdy and repressed – is fired instantly with a fatal passion. Tuero feels the same and the stage is soon set for a deadly love triangle. One of those where nothing, not even murder, will keep the guilty lovers apart.

As always in a Mexican film of this era, the Hollywood parallels are clear yet confusing. Vértigo looks like a Wyler movie and is based on a ‘classic’ literary source. (The story is by Pierre Benoît, a French author best known for the oft-filmed L’Atlantide.) Yet its plot might have been purloined from Hollywood’s hottest property of the 40s, the pulp novelist James M Cain. The rivalry of mother and daughter for a sexy but disreputable man is straight out of Mildred Pierce (1945), which won Joan Crawford an Oscar that same year. The man’s opportunistic killing of the daughter – the axis on which the plot turns – is in the Cain tradition of criminal lovers, from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). One might best describe Vértigo as a ‘costume noir’.

Death, of course, comes later on in the story. Before that, we have to witness María’s grand entrance at the party she throws to welcome her daughter back home. The festivities are in full swing when, suddenly, the mariachi band stops in mid-note and the guests rise, in a body, to their feet (like the obedient and well-trained extras that they are). Félix enters slowly in a clinging white silk gown, garlanded with swirls of silk roses. That unconvincing grey streak has been washed (mercifully) out of her hair; a choker of pearls gleams and dazzles at her throat. The guests gape in awe (mirroring the audience) and the local priest asks in hushed reverence: “Is that you? Or has a star come down to earth?”

It is not simply that María Félix is one of a very few stars who can live up to dialogue like this. What’s astonishing here is the way Félix – who was nothing if not a clothes-horse – walks in this gown as if she were ill at ease and unaccustomed to such finery. Sniping at María’s limitations as an actress is a favourite game among critics – yet María Félix tells us more with a gown, and the way she wears it, than Meryl Streep can with any of her dozen foreign accents. Once the party is over and she has retired to bed, she gazes out through fluttering white curtains at the silent moonlit courtyard. There she sees her daughter and her fiancé locked in an embrace. Here, her vast dark liquid eyes tell us all we need to know.

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For years (so the script tells us) this woman has been “living without life and crying without tears”. A few weeks pass and her soon-to-be son-in-law seduces her as she reads by a stream. (Momplet cuts to a cascading waterfall, as a stand-in for the carnal act.) In the next scene, her gown has altered from the pale virginal lace of her early outfits, to a tightly voluptuous black bodice and a skirt with lurid zebra stripes. She wears it, this time, like a full-on femme fatale. Tuero urges her to forget her daughter and run away with him, but Félix – remembering her duties as a mother – tells him he must marry the girl as planned, go abroad and never see her (Félix) again. She cannot suspect, of course, that the man she loves might stoop to murder.

Not so much murder, perhaps, as ‘deliberate accidental death’. The night before the wedding, it starts to rain heavily – a series of exquisite random shots that evoke the Joris Ivens ‘film poem’ Regen/Rain (1929). Just in case we miss the point, daughter sits down at the piano and strums out Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. The water rises menacingly, under a rickety bridge that we know is about to collapse. (We know because minor characters have been telling us, every five minutes or so, since the film began.) The villainous Tuero feigns illness and does not protest too loudly when his adoring bride-to-be insists on riding in her horse-drawn buggy, across the bridge, to fetch the doctor. Cue a bravura montage of Félix looking worried, Tuero looking anguished and the hapless but frankly irritating young girl hurtling to her doom.

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In the next scene, the girl is sprawled Ophelia-like, surrounded with flowers, at her funeral in the family chapel. Félix, who is still unaware of her lover’s role in the death, does not understand why the other mourners avoid her. Tuero flees after a wholly unconvincing attack of guilt but…‘it ain’t over till it’s over’ as the song goes, and nothing in a María Félix movie is ever over until the star says so. These lovers are doomed to meet again and let’s just say it won’t be pretty. Love, as we know, is a fleeting and unreliable emotion. Revenge is a passion that lasts for life.

David Melville

U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2014 by dcairns

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet

Do you cry often, Eugenia?”

There’s so little to do here. It helps pass the time.”

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Given his role in pioneering melodrama as a literary genre, it’s amazing how rarely Honoré de Balzac has been adapted for the screen. Cinemas are crying out for a film of Cousin Bette or A Harlot High and Low. (And, no, Des McAnuff’s 1997 travesty of Cousin Bette does not count!) The neglect is especially striking in the author’s native France. Just imagine Gérard Depardieu as the flamboyant master criminal Vautrin or Alain Delon as the spoiled and dissolute Lucien de Rubempré or Jeanne Moreau as the vengeful and venomous Bette. Balzac’s plots and characters are so much the stuff of movies that reading one of his novels may come eerily close to running a movie in your head. Do film directors tend to avoid Balzac, because they know they can’t compete? That being said, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis – possibly the all-time French masterwork – plays uncannily like a Balzac novel, but one that was created directly for the screen.

In contrast to most of his work, Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet has enjoyed a lively history of screen adaptations. This tale of a miser’s daughter and her unrequited love for her wastrel cousin was adapted by Rex Ingram as The Conquering Power in 1921 – a vehicle for his wife, Alice Terry, and his latest male protégé Rudolph Valentino. In Italy in 1946, a ‘calligraphic’ version by Mario Soldati launched the young Alida Valli on her international career. Eugenia Grandet – the one in question here – was made by Emilio Gómez Muriel in 1953. Despite a lavish dedication to el gran autor Honorato de Balzac, it moves the action from France in the 19th century to a small town in Mexico in the present day. If the move works (and perhaps it shouldn’t) that may be because the lifestyle and social structures depicted by the novel seem alarmingly unchanged.

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Unlike most Mexican films of the Golden Age, Eugenia Grandet does not star a resplendent diva along the lines of Dolores del Río, María Félix or Libertad Lamarque. The popular Marga López – who plays the harried and lovelorn young spinster – comes across (incredibly) as more of an actress than a star. Attractive but not particularly striking, López gives a performance that is subtle, nuanced and low-key (at any rate, by Mexican standards). The film, too, is stylistically less flamboyant than one by Emilio Fernández or Roberto Gavaldón. Its director, Gómez Muriel, was a sort of Mexican counterpart to George Cukor – a tasteful and self-effacing craftsman who excelled at directing ladies. Even when directing María Félix as a swashbuckling transvestite swords-woman (in La monja alférez/Sister Lieutenant in 1944) or as a ruthless bed-hopping film star (in La estrella vacía/The Empty Star in 1958) his mise-en-scène is disarmingly tasteful and restrained.

Eugenia Grandet is a film of small but disquieting moments, of stray details caught with cool precision by the camera’s eye. As it opens, an elegant black car drives hurriedly out through the gates of an imposing mansion; a gunshot rings out somewhere inside the house. All we see – when we venture inside for the next shot – is a dead hand stretched out on the floor, behind a desk. A few scenes later, the rich young playboy Carlos (played by the adorably named Ramón Gay) arrives at his uncle’s house in a tiny provincial town. He learns that his wealthy father has shot himself, because he was facing financial ruin.

As it happens, the day of his arrival is also the 21st birthday of his cousin Eugenia. Her rich but miserly father (Julio Villareal) ekes out a single bottle of cider among twenty guests, and frets at the extravagant overuse of electric lights. Some cousins have bought Eugenia a radio; they persuade her loving papa to risk a higher-than-normal electricity bill by plugging it in. Carlos arrives just in time to give the young lady her first real dance. (He does not yet know, you see, that his father is dead!) As the pair dance closer and closer – and father watches with mounting distaste – the wall socket the radio is plugged into bursts into flame. The next morning, old Grandet refuses to buy food for the young man’s breakfast. His long-suffering wife (Andrea Palma) sends the maid out to pawn one of her rings.

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The film’s obvious Hollywood parallel is William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), based on the Henry James novella Washington Square. Another classic tale of a repressed spinster, a domineering father and a heartless but handsome young stud. Of course, Eugenia Grandet cannot hope to rival the visual richness of Wyler’s film. Yet its exploration of character and relationships is more subtle and, perhaps, more convincing. Montgomery Clift in The Heiress is all too obviously a fortune hunter; his romance with Olivia de Havilland is clearly bad news from the start. But the young man in Eugenia Grandet is too spineless and inert to be a schemer. Had he been allowed to marry Eugenia early on, their lives might have been no more disastrous than any others in the film. But when his uncle protests and sends Carlos to work in Brazil – the better to snaffle what’s left of the dead man’s fortune – the boy forgets his cousin because writing letters is simply too much trouble.

Gómez Muriel tells their story, not in thunderous operatic tableaux, but in fleeting close-ups. The hands of the lovers, clasped tenderly as they lie together on the grass. Eugenia’s hands alone, slowly tearing up the last of her letters to be returned unanswered. Grandet on his deathbed, catching a glimpse of the priest’s gold crucifix as he administers the last rites. The icon fills the camera, as the old man gasps out “Oro!” (“Gold!”) and falls back dead. Ten years later, a close-up of Eugenia as she waits at the airport for Carlos to return. Having inherited her father’s fortune, she has transformed herself into a woman of wealth and fashion (complete with a chic but hideous white snood). Her clothes are expensive but her face is chalky pale, her eyes lifeless and drained of all feeling. As she explains earlier on: “The tears that hurt most are the ones you keep inside.”

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Eugenia Grandet keeps a lot inside, in a way that Mexican movies – and, to tell the truth, Balzac novels – do not normally do. It has something of the Spartan splendour of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and improves immeasurably with each successive viewing. A Mexican film for those who don’t even like Mexican films? Perhaps. But also unmissable for those who do.

David Melville

T is for Las Tres Perfectas Casadas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by dcairns

David Melville writes again, continuing his Alphabet of Mexican Melodrama ~

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

T is for Las tres perfectas casadas (Three Perfect Couples)

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At first glance, Las tres perfectas casadas looks like a Mexican rip-off of A Letter to Three Wives – adapted, of course, to the exigencies of a macho Latin culture. In the Joseph L Mankiewicz original from 1949, an unseen woman writes a letter to her three ‘dearest friends’ announcing that she has run off with one of their husbands. In this 1952 variant by Roberto Gavaldón, a notorious womaniser dies and leaves behind a confession to his three closest pals. Namely, that he has slept with not one but all of their wives.

The reasoning behind this switch is not far to seek. In most of Latin America at this time, it was considered only normal for a man to have adventures outside marriage. (Indeed, when one of the three husbands says he has never had any woman but his wife, the other two stare as if he’d grown an extra head!) A woman who deceived her husband, meanwhile, was viewed as something lower than a whore. A man might kill his wife for adultery – and be let off on the grounds that it was a ‘crime of passion’.

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But appearances, as we know, are deceiving. The scurrilous Don Juan in question turns out to be very much alive – and played, moreover, by Mexico’s greatest male star, Arturo de Cordóva. The feelings of the various ladies for this reprobate – dormant through years (or even decades) of flawless bourgeois respectability – now spring violently, nay, operatically into life. What started out as a light social comedy with serious subtexts now morphs, shockingly but seamlessly, into Gothic melodrama at its most floridly overripe. Just imagine A Letter to Three Wives turning, midway through, into Laura – only with all the sexes reversed.

Are you still with me? The signs, of course, are there from the start, provided we know how to look. The bourgeois dinner party that opens the film is shot and played like a high comedy by Cukor or Lubitsch. (This is a production so lavish that even the mirrors and the billiard tables get a separate mention in the credits.) Yet raging outside is a thunder-and-lightning storm so grandiose, you would swear the guests had come to reanimate the Frankenstein monster – not to celebrate 18 years of ‘perfect’ marriage. In fact, one of the ancestral portraits on the wall is a dead ringer for Mary Shelley. I would love dearly to imagine this is not an accident.

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As the mood of the film darkens – and Córdova turns up both alive and unrepentant – so, imperceptibly at first, does its visual style. Shadows lengthen, curtains billow and candles glow ominously amid the dark. We enter, before even know it, the world of Mexican noir as created by Gavaldón in earlier films. (See La diosa arrodillada, La otra and En la palma de tu mano for more proof.) Few other directors – or none, perhaps – could make this transition without chopping their film into awkward and disparate chunks. With its blatant disharmony of textures but its overarching unity of tone, Las tres perfectas casadas shows that Gavaldón was one of cinema’s greats.

As its multiples passions and conflicts grow more intense, the film narrows it focus, slowly but inexorably, to one of the three wives. In typically perverse fashion, this central figure is not Miroslava Stern – a huge Mexican star who, nonetheless, gets shunted off to the wings after a nicely poignant, tear-stained confession of her infidelity. The star of this movie (and what a star she is) is the Argentine actress Laura Hidalgo, a lady known throughout the 50s as ‘the Hedy Lamarr of South America’. The resemblance is indeed striking but – in all fairness – Hidalgo strikes me as a vastly more animated actress. Lamarr looked exquisite but often seemed on the verge of dozing off on camera. Hidalgo might pass as her energetic tomboy twin.

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Yet Hidalgo, like Lamarr, was Central European in origin. She was born as Pesea Faerman in Bessarabia, which was then a northern province of Romania. Her Jewish family emigrated to Argentina in 1929 when Pesea was two years old. (Wisely, in the light of future events.) Although she was one of Latin America’s biggest and most glamorous stars, Hidalgo – again, like Lamarr – never took her career that seriously. She quit acting in the late 50s and became a poet of some renown. Her most famous film is the 1953 Armiño negro (Black Ermine) where a boy nurtures an incestuous crush on his mother, only to find out she is a de luxe lady of the night.

But back to our main feature…Hidalgo, whose one-night fling with de Córdova leads her husband to doubt the paternity of their daughter, meets him in secret and demands that he set things to rights. Having convinced their entire circle (mistakenly) that he was dead, he must now face up to his duty and commit suicide for real. Naturally, he must leave behind a note insisting that his first confession was lie. A ridiculous ploy, you might think – but strangely convincing when it is argued with such force! With typically Byronic ennui, de Córdova admits that he is bored with life. He is more than happy comply…provided the lovely Hidalgo will pay him one last call.

Their final meeting á deux is an operatic love-death worthy of Tristan and Isolde – only shorter and vastly more entertaining. Hidalgo’s grand monologue sums up this movie and a multitude of other melodramas like it:

All water has mud at its depths – and all women have, at least

once, a monstrous dream. Waking, we try to root out that bad

dream. Torture ourselves as we reach for its roots. But what, in

the end, do the roots matter? If flowers smelled like their roots,

they would stink of manure. But their longing for beauty is so

much higher than that.

Only the very greatest – or the very worst – of actresses could recite such lines and get away with them. I’ll leave you to decide which.

David Melville

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