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Forbidden Divas RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2020 by dcairns

Lucia Bosè’s death earlier this year wasn’t much publicised in the UK — David Melville Wingrove discovered it months later, and wrote this beautiful piece. Some more months later, I’m finally publishing it, with apologies.

Imitations of Lives

“There are many ways to commit suicide and still go on living.”

~ Lucia Bosè, Of Love and Other Solitudes

There are stars whose off-screen life is a thing entirely apart from their on-screen image. Then there are stars whose lives on and off the screen seem to intersect in uncannily intimate ways. The Italian (and later Spanish) actress Lucia Bosè was emphatically a star of the second type. In 1967, the whole of Spain was agog at the break-up of her marriage to Luis Miguel Dominguín, the country’s most illustrious matador. Two years later Bosè starred in Of Love and Other Solitudes (1969) – a bleak and anguished drama of marital dysfunction and break-up. This was not so much a case of Art Imitates Life as one of Life or Art, What’s The Difference?

For most of the 50s and 60s, Bosè and Dominguín had been the premier glamour couple of Franco’s Spain. They lived in a palatial villa, had three gorgeous children and their inner circle included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and, more ominously, the dictator General Franco himself. “I can’t say anything bad about Franco,” Bosè remarked years later. “To me he was just a normal man. But my husband was more franquista than Franco, in any case.” It is comments like that which reveal the marriage was not a happy one. There can be no doubt that Bosè married her bullfighter for love. But as the years wore on, she felt increasing dismay at his right-wing politics, his compulsive womanising and his stubborn refusal to allow his wife to work. It did not help that she hated bullfighting and nothing would induce her to attend a corrida.

Anyone could see the couple came from radically different worlds. Lucia Bosè had been born in great poverty on a farm outside Milan. She had little if any formal education and had to work from the age of twelve. As a teenage girl, she survived the Allied bombing and saw the corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, hanging upside down in the main city’s square. “I learned that horrible things happen every day,” she said. “All you can do is pull yourself together and keep going.” By the age of sixteen, she landed a job behind the counter at Galli, the city’s most elegant patisserie. One day a dashing older man walked in, took one look at the girl and declared she ought to be in movies. The name of this man was Luchino Visconti. It appears he had no ulterior motives; he was gay and had eyes at the time for his young and handsome assistant, Franco Zeffirelli. But he took Bosè under his wing and groomed her systematically into a star.

At first, Visconti had plans to star her opposite Gérard Philipe in a film called A Tale of Poor Lovers. But the funding fell apart so he introduced his protégée instead to Michelangelo Antonioni. She became that director’s first muse and starred for him in Chronicle of a Love (1950) and The Lady without Camellias (1953). She went on to work for other European auteurs, notably Juan Antonio Bardem in Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Luis Buñuel in Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore (1956). This was the career she gave up in 1955 in order to marry Dominguín and lead, essentially, the life of an upper-class Spanish housewife. At the time, she assured the world’s press that her marriage was worth every sacrifice. (One can assume Dominguín was phenomenally good at something apart from killing bulls!) But after twelve years, Bosè decided enough was enough and made her break for freedom. She demanded – and won – sole custody of her children and became the first woman in Spain since the Civil War to be legally granted a divorce.

The events in Of Love and Other Solitudes are in no way as dramatic as these. María and her husband Alejandro (Carlos Estrada) are a well-heeled couple who live in a villa on the outskirts of Madrid. He is an economist and university professor; she is an artist who works in stained glass. Her job, of course, is symbolic. (Be warned this is one of those movies where literally everything is symbolic of something.)  The art of stained glass is not primarily the art of creating anything new or even of reshaping objects in a new way. It consists almost entirely of altering the light in which things appear, of making them look new when in fact they are not. The couple have a son and daughter and a sizable domestic staff. But their house, with its long wood-panelled corridors and walls of clear glass, looks more like an expensive hotel than a family home.

The most annoying thing about Alejandro is that he does not do any of the things that bad husbands in movies traditionally do. There is no reason to believe he is cheating on his wife. Apart from one feeble effort to chat up a girl at his office, he seems to lack the imagination or the energy an affair would require. This is not so much a bad marriage as one that has gone stale. The husband and the wife have simply run out of things to say to one another, assuming they said much in the first place. María consults a psychologist who tells her: “Everyone who gets married is convinced their marriage will be different from the others – and then it isn’t.” What is interesting in this film is not the drama (there is virtually none) but the arid bourgeois lifestyle it evokes. Alejandro and María lead superficially modern lives, but in a country where social and religious attitudes have changed hardly at all since the Middle Ages.

María is the one character who seems in any way aware of this disjunction. Her family background is that of the pro-Franco upper class. A full-size portrait of Franco hangs just inside the front door of her parents’ house. In the next room, in a glass display case, are her father’s medals from the Civil War. She has an obscure sense this is not the world she belongs in – and expresses it in odd and somewhat childish ways. On one wall in her studio hangs a poster of Theda Bara in Cleopatra. In World War I this star was Middle America’s image of the Vamp, the Temptress, the morally and sexually transgressive Apostle of Sin. But it now takes a great deal of naïveté to see Theda Bara as threatening or subversive in any way. She entirely lacks the sophistication and sexual autonomy of the silent Italian divas – most notably, that of Francesca Bertini whom Bosè oddly resembles.

With her vast and haunted dark eyes, her ivory skin and her lustrous torrent of black hair, Lucia Bosè has all the allure of the silent divas and then some. There are stray moments in Of Love and Other Solitudes where she suggests Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa – who has casually stepped out of her frame and deigned to wander about among mere mortals. There are other moments where we notice her chunky and ungainly hands, her way of walking that is at once elegant and strangely awkward. Details like this do not destroy the illusion; they only make us like her more. This film proved a succès d’estime for Bosè and her writer-director Basilio Martin Patino. She followed it with a string of increasingly odd movies. In Arcana (1972) she plays a witch who spits live toads out of her mouth. In La Messe Dorée (1975) she is a socialite who hosts an orgy based on the Roman Catholic mass and winds up giving a blow-job to her son. Was it entirely an accident that her ex-husband’s friend General Franco dropped dead not long after?

She survived into old age as a truly glorious eccentric. At eighty she sported bright blue hair and a designer punk wardrobe and said she had every intention of living to 105. She appeared occasionally in movies but her true passion was a museum she opened to display her art collection, which was made up entirely of images of angels. Her closest companion was her son Miguel Bosé, Spain’s first out gay pop star and the transvestite Femme Letal in the Pedro Almodóvar film High Heels (1991). One almost wishes Almodóvar had starred his mother in a flashy, trashy remake of Travels with My Aunt or Auntie Mame. She could have played either or both roles to perfection and would, in fact, have barely needed to act.

Lucia Bosè passed away in March, 2020 due to complications arising from Covid-19. She was the first famous person in any country to fall ill and die in what would become a global pandemic. Her life was spent knowing that terrible things happen every day and the one choice we all have is to pull ourselves together and keep going. In the world as it is today, that stands as a legacy in itself.

IN MEMORIAM LUCIA BOSÈ (MILAN 1931-SEGOVIA 2020)

David Melville

Lucia Bosé dies at 89 from pneumonia | Spain's News