Archive for Maria Felix

Stereoscopic Amphibian

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 24, 2018 by dcairns

Put your glasses on now!

We rocked up too late at the Piazza Maggiore last night, hoping to see Emilio Fernandez’ ENAMORADA, but there were no seats, owing to the Scorsese Effect — the great man was introducing the movie and a lot of people came just for that. We ended up being among them as the idea of standing for the whole feature film was a little too much — it looked AMAZING though (shot by Gabriel Figueroa) so we’ll have to catch it another time at a less spectacular venue (probably our home), outwith this festival.

We tried to compensate by seeing REVENGE OF THE CREATURE in 3D at midnight, which is no substitute. If your heart is set on Maria Felix then no gillman, however charismatic, can take her place. And as for John Agar, you can see why they named a jelly after him. But it was worth it to see the amphibious protagonist raid a lobster house during a jazz performance — the close shot of the trombone player was suitably stereoscopic.

 

All the same, I can’t help feeling sorry for the creature.

Fever Pitch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2017 by dcairns

Running a blogathon in early December nicely replaces the childhood excitement of an advent calendar — instead of opening little panels in a cardboard object with a bad painting of the nativity on it, I’m getting articles through email or the comments section, little treats more sweet than chocolate. “And the day Jesus was born, that was equivalent to a double-sized bit of chocolate!” Actually, in my day, the tabs opened to simply reveal more, smaller bad art underneath. So this is MUCH better.

David Melville Wingrove essays the final film of Gerard Philipe below, and finds it marks and end point in more ways than one. Philipe died at the age of 36, like Marilyn Monroe. Like Bela Lugosi, he had himself buried in costume — in his case, as Don Rodrigue, El Cid. Why?

FEVER PITCH

La Fièvre Monte à El Pao has one of those titles that invariably sound better in French. Its literal English translation – “The Fever Rises at El Pao” – sounds more like an idea for a movie that never got made than a lavish international screen epic. This tale of passion and politics on a sweltering Caribbean island was the last film of its star, the French matinee idol Gérard Philipe. Perhaps the most consummate romantic hero in screen history, Philipe is cast (uncomfortably) as an ineffectual bureaucrat trying to reform a corrupt and brutal system from the inside. As befits the perversity of such casting, La Fièvre was also the last vaguely disreputable film by its director, the Spanish provocateur and surrealist Luis Buñuel.

In fifteen years as a peripatetic hack-for-hire, Buñuel had turned out a fair few masterpieces (Los Olvidados, El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz). Yet much of his work was frankly awful and even his most vocal fans fall silent after watching Gran Casino or Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore. Whether for better or for worse, Buñuel lacked the whorish mentality required to handle cheap melodrama as if it were High Art. Unlike the masters of the genre (Douglas Sirk, Teuvo Tullio, Roberto Gavaldón) he made no effort to hide his contempt for his material. He seemed – in his very worst movies – to want to punish his audience for paying money to watch such tripe. In his choice of camera angles and mise en scène, Buñuel did his utmost to ensure a philistine movie public would derive no pleasure from its experience whatsoever. With luck, they might not darken the doors of a cinema again!

A Franco-Mexican co-production from 1960, La Fièvre Monte á El Pao was the last film Buñuel would ever make in this vein. A year later, he returned to his native Spain to shoot Viridiana, a scabrous black comedy that won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Like all his best work, it was cold, brilliant and almost wholly devoid of conventional entertainment value of any sort. Its success not only garlanded Buñuel as a gilt-edged international auteur, but also ensured that his later films – whether they were great (Belle de Jour) or abysmal (The Milky Way) – would hereafter be venerated as Art. Although it was by no means its director’s last film, La Fièvre marked the end of one career and heralded the start of another. Fitzgerald may have insisted there were “no second acts in American lives.” But movie-makers have as many lives as they can persuade a producer to pay for.

So how interesting is the film itself? The chief fascination of La Fièvre lies in the sheer epic folly of its star pairing. The script would have us believe Philipe’s character – a meek and rather unappetising little fellow – has been nursing a secret passion for María Félix, the voluptuous man-eating wife of the island’s brutal governor. Like other barn-storming divas of her ilk – Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Joan Crawford – Félix found it next to hard to find a leading men strong enough to hold their own against her. She was cast most effectively opposite icons of Latin machismo (Pedro Armendáriz, Arturo de Córdova) or, failing that, young men so handsome but insignificant that a director might just as well have borrowed a tailor’s dummy out of Wardrobe.

Quite clearly, Gérard Philipe is neither one nor the other. It may be possible, just about, to dream up a more incongruous romantic duo. Jeremy Irons and Carmen Miranda, perhaps? Or maybe Greta Garbo and Adam Sandler? Still, it is hard to picture Félix and Philipe in the same movie – let alone on the same island and least of all in the same bed. But that does not stop Buñuel from trying. When the governor gets assassinated, his widow (Félix) and his secretary (Philipe) promptly become lovers. They set about reforming the island’s penal colony along humane and liberal lines. Well, Philipe does anyway. Félix spends the film prowling about like a bored panther, wondering if Philipe has enough flesh on his bones to make a square meal.

From an audience point of view, the arrival of a new governor (Jean Servais) is a not entirely unwelcome distraction. He soon pegs Philipe as a dangerous liberal and forces Félix to go to bed with him, as a way to keep her lover out of prison. This sexual encounter is the one vaguely memorable scene in the entire movie. A man of somewhat ‘specialised’ tastes, Servais has the bedroom decked out as if for a funeral, with black crape curtains round the bed and a plethora of phallic votive candles. A none-too-subtle strain of necrophilia creeps through many a Buñuel film – from Abismos de Pasión/Wuthering Heights to Viridiana to Belle de Jour – and this scene is nothing if not true to form. Would it be rude of us to suspect that Félix actually has a better time with this monster than she ever has with poor befuddled Philipe?

The rest of La Fièvre Monte á El Pao is flat and rather boring – which is, for a melodrama, the one unpardonable crime. A lesser director than Buñuel would have revelled in the gratuitous sadism of the island’s prison guards. He might, in so doing, have egged on the audience to share in the mounting spirit of revolt among the prisoners – which spills over (largely off-screen) in a bloody and calamitous rebellion. Yet Buñuel seems to have thoroughly digested Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil.” The guards on this island are not sadists, simply bored functionaries doing their job. By the same token, Philipe’s character is not a hero – just a weak and well-intentioned liberal bent on reforming a system that is inherently beyond reform.

Philipe’s position seems ironically akin to that of Buñuel himself. Judging from what we see on screen, Buñuel’s only aim in directing this melodrama (apart, naturally, from the money he was paid) was to display his unalloyed contempt for his material and his own Olympian superiority to melodrama as a genre. That is a deeply unlikeable position for a director to be in – but when did Luis Buñuel ever want to be liked? His promotion to full-fledged auteur status, the following year, would turn out to be nobody’s loss and everybody’s gain. Not least because he could finally leave steamy and melodramatic trash like La Fievre to those of us who really enjoy it!

David Melville

And Everything Ends in Z

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 23, 2015 by dcairns

All good things… David Melville rounds of his alphabet of the golden age of Mexican melodrama with a Fever Dream Double Feature, and begins a week of guest postings here on Shadowplay. But fear not: his next series will start soon!

CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

And Everything Ends in Z

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Eyes speak louder than words – and you know it. ~ Don Macario in Maclovia

It must have been Parker Tyler – or, at least, his fictional alter ego Myra Breckinridge – who wrote that the proper sphere of movies was not Art but Myth. If that is true, then no film-maker was ever more ‘mythic’ than Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández. His 1948 film Maclovia is set on a remote island called Janitzio, afloat on an impossibly tranquil lake. Its denizens are native fisher folk, members of “that Indian race that holds all that is good in Mexico.” (It’s the local schoolteacher who says this, but the sentiments are clearly the director’s own.) The world of Maclovia is less idyllic than Edenic, a fantasy realm as arcane and idealised as the valley of Shangri-La.

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The film’s subject is “the ancient and eternal love of a man and a woman.” Or, at any rate, Mexico’s leading macho heart-throb Pedro Armendáriz and Mexico’s reigning glamour icon María Félix. The thought of either star playing an impoverished and illiterate peasant should be ludicrous and logically, of course, it is. Yet the casting is oddly right in the hyperbolic context of this film. Although it was doubtless shot on real locations, the setting of Maclovia feels akin to such studio-built dreamscapes as the Himalayan convent in Black Narcissus (1947) or the South Seas isle in The Saga of Anatahan (1953).

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Perhaps it’s the nets that do it. The white, billowing nets of the fishermen are draped exotically about the island like the veils in a Dietrich/von Sternberg movie. María is, inevitably, photographed through them at every opportunity – her sculpted face framed exquisitely in a striped shawl, her eyes caked with mascara like those of any self-respecting virgin in a small village. Out on the lake, a hundred nets rise in unison from the fishermen’s canoes – with a choreographed precision that Busby Berkley might envy. Armendáriz (cast as the poorest and most downtrodden of the lot) gazes upwards at the cliff where María hovers, posed like the statue of Christ above Rio de Janeiro. Reaching down to the limpid surface of the lake, he plucks a water-lily in her honour. Later, when she rejects him, he casts it despairingly into the mud.

But why does María (here known as Maclovia) reject the man she loves? Her father, Don Macario, is the leading citizen of the village. He will not hear of his daughter marrying a poor man – one so impoverished that he does not even own his own canoe “A man is not a real man unless he has a canoe and a knife,” the father helpfully intones. No man, it seems, is good enough for Maclovia. In the hands of a subversive and de-mythifying director like Luis Buñuel, her widowed father’s wildly possessive adoration of her might form the basis for a very different film indeed. Fernández, of course, would never countenance anything so unseemly. Perversity does not dwell in Janitzio but invades it from outside – in the form of a lecherous gringo officer whose lust for our heroine tilts Maclovia towards its violent climax.

All this is yet to come, of course. Early on in the film, Don Macario forbids his daughter and her sweetheart to speak to or even look at each other. Desperate for a way to make contact, Armendáriz begs the village schoolmaster to teach him to write. A few months of toil among the five-year-olds and soon he’s penning letters to Maclovia that read like this: “The other day, I saw your shadow pass close by. I felt it grow and take root inside my heart. Suddenly I knew why God attached shadows to our bodies. So I could find some way to look at you.” I guess he’s what they call a star pupil.

Sure enough, Maclovia goes to the schoolmaster in turn, so she can learn to read the letters her lover writes. The couple’s forbidden love and the obstacles that come with it push them, inadvertently, towards literacy and progress. In this way – like so much of Mexico’s left-wing nationalist cinema – Maclovia manages at once to exalt traditional peasant values and to champion those modernising forces that will lead, inevitably, to their dissolution. At the historical moment this movie depicts (Maclovia is set in 1914) it is vital for Mexico to be an agrarian Third World nation – a place where traditional values hold sway – but also to emerge as a 20th century economic powerhouse – just like those big bad colonial powers that used to exploit it. What none of these movies ever make clear is how any country can possibly do both.

Rather than grapple with complexities of this sort, the wily teacher sits Maclovia down and reads the letter aloud. We see her react in a montage of close-ups, each one a fresh angle on María’s exquisite face. It’s not long before her suitor borrows money and buys himself an impressively phallic canoe. The officer, in a jealous rage, pulls out his gun and shoots the canoe full of holes. (Clearly, the competition was not in his favour.) With that, Armendáriz pulls out his giant curved knife (the other must-have item for a “real man”) and stabs the officer – who survives and has him condemned to 24 years in prison. He’s willing to free him, of course, if only Maclovia will be his. But the law of the island says that no native woman must ever defile herself with an outsider. If she does, both she and the offending man must die…

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The climax takes place, conveniently enough, on the traditional Night of the Dead – a gruesomely photogenic montage of blazing candles and leering skulls. Once the villagers hear what Maclovia may have got up to with that gringo, the whole place erupts in a fury. Hundreds of crazed peasants carrying torches come storming through the streets, all ready to pelt the sinners with stones. The film, at this point, threatens to turn into some ghastly melange of Suddenly, Last Summer and Triumph of the Will. Not that it ever goes quite that far. The army shows up just in time to quell the riot and guarantee a (wholly unconvincing) happy ending. You may be wondering, also, just how many people live on this island. Previously, we got the impression that Janitzio was a small rural community. Yet the mob that shows up to kill María might easily populate a fair-sized district of Mexico City.

Finally, though, what matters in Maclovia are not the petty minutiae of plot or logic. It’s the sheer mythic splendour of Fernández at his most dizzyingly overripe, a well-nigh operatic whirlpool of the passionate and the absurd. María Félix, strangely enough, gives one of her least flamboyant performances in this film. Far from the rampaging diva mode of Doña Diabla, she has moments here that border dangerously on restraint. Don’t worry, though, it’s not catching. Maclovia is as fervent and florid as any Mexican movie ever made. Typical of its time and its place and its genre…but still a film that cries out to be watched today.

David Melville