Archive for Jorge Mistral

M is for María Félix as La mujer de todos and Camelia

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2012 by dcairns

Hola! David Melville Wingrove’s A-Z of Mexican melodrama reaches its midpoint. 

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

M is for María Félix as La mujer de todos (Every Man’s Woman) and Camelia

If you had to sum up the whole of melodrama in one character, it could only be The Lady of the Camellias – the tubercular high-class hooker who dies for love. Concocted by Alexandre Dumas fils from a real-life source, her story is an iconic mishmash of love and money, ecstasy and suffering, sex and death. She has been played famously on screen by Greta Garbo, Alla Nazimova and Isabelle Huppert. On stage by Sarah Bernhardt, Edwige Feuillère and Isabelle Adjani. As an opera (Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata) by Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiu and any other diva worthy of the name.

Only fitting, in that case, that María Félix – the supreme melodramatic star – should play her not once but twice. Her darkly imperious eyes and her exquisitely anguished face are enough, in themselves, to tell us what this story is about (Acting is, of course, optional.) Not that either of her films is a literal, word-for-word transcription. Directed by Julio Bracho in 1946, La mujer de todos (Every Man’s Woman) is less an adaptation than a rhapsody on themes by Dumas. Camelia, directed by Roberto Gavaldón in 1953, is a proto post-modern update that anticipates the Life as Theatre parables of Carlos Saura. While they are recognisably the work of bold and independent auteurs, María Félix reigns supreme over both.

La mujer de todos is set in Madrid and provincial Mexico in 1919. With its long, sinuous tracking shots and its unerring sense of period, the film makes us wonder if Julio Bracho was Latin America’s answer to Max Ophüls. One scene at a funfair plays like Letter from an Unknown Woman with a mariachi band thrown in. Reflected from scene to scene in a series of full-length mirrors, María confronts herself and her romantic woes with all the aplomb of Danielle Darrieux as Madame de…

She makes her entrance at a lavish masked ball, thrown by her married lover (Alberto Galán) to celebrate his departure from Spain for the New World. A room full of cast-off gentlemen friends extol her as “the most beautiful woman in Europe – and the most expensive”. In her clinging black lace gown, her trailing black feather boa and her prodigiously oversized black picture hat – with a clutch of diamonds sparkling at her throat – María looks all that and then some. Here and throughout La mujer de todos, the match between the star and her wardrobe is as iconic as that of Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Silvana Mangano in Death in Venice or Marlene Dietrich in any of her films for Josef von Sternberg.

No sooner has she arrived at the party than a lovesick young man tries to shoot her in a fit of jealous rage. He misses, naturally. Later, as she calmly sips her champagne, he takes up his pistol again and shoots himself in the head. Looking mildly perturbed at this turn of events, María decides to accompany Galán home to Mexico – where her existence must, of course, be hidden from his icy blonde wife and her stuffily conservative family. He installs her in sinful splendour in some out-of-the-way mansion and all goes well…until she meets his illegitimate half-brother (Armando Calvo) and falls truly in love.

Like all the very best melodramas, La mujer de todos is at once a heavy-breathing wallow in doomed and frustrated passion and a stingingly accurate portrait of social and sexual hypocrisy. Calvo is himself the fruit of a secret liaison between Galán’s father and his long-concealed Spanish mistress. What’s more, the boy has no idea that he and Galán are actually brothers! Without ever once bothering to tell him the truth, Galán now plans to marry him off to a simpering young thing with the annoyingly symbolic name of Angélica. Mind you, he’s not above asking the younger man to accompany his mistress to the opera – lest she feel a wee bit desolate and neglected, alone in her deluxe shag pad.

The discovery of true love goes hand in hand, naturally, with a discovery of Mexico itself. Rejecting the false pseudo-European values of the city, María and her lover run away and go native. Sexual fulfilment, in this movie, means luxuriating in a straw hut by moonlight – swinging in a hammock and slurping greedily on a watermelon. We know things are serious when Calvo gives away a whole trunk of María’s chic Parisian wardrobe, acquired in her previous life of degradation and sin. (Not that it makes any real difference; she remains exquisitely gowned throughout the movie.) But once he proposes marriage, his big brother steps in to split them up.

The two rivals head inevitably towards a duel, as Bracho takes us on a bizarre detour to a scene in an all-male gymnasium – where half-naked but utterly gorgeous young men swing on hoops and flex their biceps in a long and luxuriant tracking shot. (Knowing nothing of Bracho’s personal life, I can say only that this may be the most homoerotic sequence in 40s cinema outside of Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks.) María can prevent a calamity only by renouncing the man she loves…so she boards a train and heads back to Europe, where new admirers (not to speak of new gowns, hats and jewels) doubtless await her.

If La mujer de todos is a triumph of melodrama in its classic form, Camelia is an altogether edgier and more complex affair. Its director, Roberto Gavaldón, veers closer to Douglas Sirk than to Ophüls. His film is at once a quasi-Brechtian deconstruction of melodrama’s most hallowed clichés, and a shamelessly tear-soaked celebration thereof. Updating the story to Mexico City in 50s, he casts María as one Camelia Peral – a ruthlessly ambitious actress who has slept her way, overtly and without apology, to the top. As one of her admirers comments early on, “that girl wears her beauty like an act of defiance.” She herself puts it in worldlier and less psychological terms. “Emeralds!” she snorts as she opens yet another present. “Some men have no imagination!”

As the film opens, María/Camelia is starring in a lavish stage production of The Lady of the Camellias. The play becomes an ironic mirror for her offstage life – as she falls in love with a poor but ambitious bullfighter (played by hunky Spanish star Jorge Mistral) who has no idea, naturally, that she is dying from a brain tumour. When they meet at a party at her house, María’s decadent society friends make him act out a scene for their amusement. He shocks them all by kissing her for real. As the film ends, María plays her big death scene onstage; meanwhile, she is actually dying in real life. She addresses her dying words, not to her callow leading man, but to Mistral as he stands weeping in the wings.

Flitting adroitly from Art to Life and back again, Gavaldón anticipates – by three decades – the consciously theatrical ‘art’ films of Carlos Saura (Dulces horas, Carmen, Blood Wedding and so on). But he also takes an obligatory side trip into the ‘real’ world of rural Mexico, as María briefly gives up her career to follow Jorge on the bullfight trail. Our interest may flag when she sits in the back of a bus, dutifully stitching up a rip in his torero outfit. Still, it perks up again when she cross-dresses (and very fetchingly, too) in a bullfighter’s suit of her own.

For any who remain unconvinced, La mujer de todos and Camelia should confirm María Félix as the supreme goddess of Latin American cinema – a Garbo in all but talent. Camelia even sneaks in a sly pastiche of Garbo’s famous ‘passing train’ finale from Anna Karenina. María runs down a railway station platform, searching for her lover; Gavaldón tracks his camera along the entire length of the train, revealing her exquisite face through window after window. MGM, of course, kept the camera tight on Garbo as it let the train pass by. We watch Garbo, covertly – as if she does not know we are watching. We watch María, overtly. She knows the world is there to watch her.

David Melville

Cine Dorado: J is for Juana Gallo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 16, 2012 by dcairns

Regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another entry in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

J is for Juana Gallo

As an impressionable schoolboy of nine, my absolute favourite movie (apart from The Wizard of Oz) was Louis Malle’s 1965 film Viva Maria! – a triumphantly camp musical action comedy with Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as two French showgirls who become leaders of the Mexican Revolution. So how much fun, almost forty years later, to see the film that may have inspired it! Directed by Miguel Zacarías in 1960, Juana Gallo stars Mexican über-diva María Félix as a sharp-shooting, tough-talking, high-riding soldadera gal who leads the peasants in revolt against the iniquitous federales.

Of course, Viva Maria! was a parody, while Juana Gallo is deadly serious stuff. It opens with a banner title thanking the current President of the Mexican Republic, Don Adolfo López Mateos, for his “generous and patriotic support” in the making of the film. It closes with a cod-Stalinist montage of factories and football stadiums, super-highways and schools, emblems of the glorious modern nation that Juana and her exploits helped to forge. Ironically, this po-faced patriotic agenda makes for an even funnier film than Viva Maria! What it lacks in satirical wit, Juana Gallo more than makes up in unintentional belly laughs.

We first see our heroine as a hard-working farm girl – immaculately coiffured and made up – driving her team of burros under a blazing sun, as she tills her family’s arid plot of land. Some villainous government troops ride into town, shoot her father and fiancé for sedition and hang their corpses from the nearest tree. Her exquisite dark eyes registering no more than mild annoyance, María digs a gun out of her family grave, waits in ambush…and guns the rotters down single-handed! Before you know it, the whole of Mexico is ablaze with revolutionary fervour and María (aka Angela Ramos aka Juana Gallo) has become its very own Joan of Arc.

As ludicrous as this whole set-up is, it actually does work in movie terms. The reason, perhaps, is that María Félix – in any and all of her screen roles – was never anything less than a one-woman revolution. Strutting imperiously across the Eastmancolor and Mexiscope screen, she elbows mere mortals out of her way – with a toss of her head and a flash of those lustrous black eyes! She storms into a nightclub after her unfaithful lover (Jorge Mistral) and ridicules the idea that no ladies are allowed. “I’m no lady, I’m Juana Gallo!” When she threatens to shoot Mistral, we gape in genuine fear for the actor’s life – and hope the props department at Churubusco Studios has not been rash enough to hand her a loaded gun.

Movie stardom, as we know, is about being and not acting. Perhaps no star in history could be as extravagantly on screen as María Félix. Only her inadequacy as an actress prevents her from overwhelming everything and everybody else in Juana Gallo even more flamboyantly than she already does.  When she and her compadres storm the big city, María gets herself dolled up in an exquisite rose chiffon gown that’s worthy of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Unable to walk in high heels, she slips on a pair of cowboy boots underneath it. Sitting in a powwow and planning the next stage of the Revolution, it’s all she can do not to cross her legs and spit on the floor.

At this point in the film, she seeks out a visiting French danseuse (Christiane Martel) for tips on how to be a ‘real’ woman. And it’s here, too, that Viva Maria! starts to seem like less of an hommage and more of a downright rip-off (albeit one that’s infinitely better acted and better made). While the tone is serious, and some of the violence is downright gruesome, there are moments of visual comedy that seem to foreshadow Malle. When the rebels storm an aristocratic hacienda, one man strides out proudly carrying a wooden toilet seat. Two others steal an enormous gilt mirror; a woman, who has looted some clothes, stops them to check out how she looks.

Loudly as Juana Gallo pays lip service to revolutionary politics and patriotic fervour, it also plays up the clichés of the ‘woman’s picture’ – with its dreams of romance and upward mobility. Jorge Mistral, as María’s romantic interest, is an aristocratic army officer who abandons his class and joins the Revolution out of love for her. She moans orgasmically as he cuts a stray bullet out of her leg, and then looks mildly perturbed when he strips off his clothes to join her in her sickbed. (It’s the only way, apparently, to keep her warms and stop her dying of fever.) When they finally make love, an obligatory thunder-and-lightning storm flashes and bangs outside the window. It’s the classic fairy tale romance…only Cinderella is armed and deadly, more than ready to murder her Prince Charming if he doesn’t measure up.

In the city, once María has risen to power in the Revolution, her followers seize a millionaire’s palace to house her in the style she deserves. Turkeysperch on the banisters of the grand staircase; an impromptu rodeo goes on in the front hall. María draws the line, however, when her faithful sidekick (Ignacio López Tarso) removes her marble bathtub to use as a water trough for the horses. She is brusquely supportive, though, of his efforts to use a captured typewriter. “How can you use that writing machine if you can’t even read?” “If I knew how to read, señora, I wouldn’t need a machine!” One wonders – uncharitably, perhaps – if this man shares partial credit for the script.

Ultimately, Juana Gallo is tosh of the lowest and highest order. It reduces important historical events to the stuff of a Mills and Boon paperback romance…but you could say the same for Gone with the Wind or any number of otherHollywood classics. It has, in María Félix, a heroine who makes Scarlett O’Hara look like Melanie Hamilton’s dowdy kid sister. They no longer make stars like María Félix. In fact, they never did. Like all great movie icons, she was uniquely her own creation.

David Melville

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