Friday, 11 March 2011

Anatomy of a scene: La madre muerta (00:21:12-00:23:11)

Ismael has one of those days where everything goes wrong

This is the start of what will be an occasional feature on the blog. I won't do it for every film I look at, but some films have a scene that just perfectly captures the sensibility and / or themes of the film as a whole. In the case of La madre muerta, I could have chosen the ‘Aguadilu’ scene because that is also a good illustration of the tone of the film and the fine line that it walks between humour and uneasiness. However I’ve chosen this one because a) it is darkly funny, and b) it is a brilliant set piece. Plus it occurs only twenty minutes into the film, so I can’t be accused of spoiling the plot. Juanma Bajo Ulloa considers it to be one of the best sequences in the film because of how it creates a sensation of fear (something is going to happen to the grandmother, but we don’t know exactly what) and combines both suspense and absurd humour.

The story so far: The prologue of the film sees Ismael (Karra Elejalde) shoot and kill a woman who disturbs him during a burglary, and ends with him pointing his shotgun at the head of the woman’s small daughter. Fifteen years later, Ismael spots the girl (Leire -now grown up and played by Ana Álvarez) in the street with her grandmother. Despite the fact that she is mute, and has the mental age of a three-year-old, he becomes convinced that she recognises him and could identify him to the police. As a result, Ismael announces to his girlfriend that he plans to kidnap and kill Leire. In the lead up to this scene, we have seen Ismael tail Leire and her grandmother as they make their way home from the clinic where Leire spends her days. He casually follows them into their apartment block, and then it cuts to….

The first shot of the scene is a close-up of the jar of Bovril carried by Leire’s grandmother as she emerges from a doorway. This is an example of the recurring use of the colour red within the film (often with quite random objects –on the director’s DVD commentary, Juanma Bajo Ulloa states that if he noticed that there was nothing red within the frame, he added a red object) and the colour may be more significant than the object itself (although it does have a part to play as the scene unfolds). But it does serve to pique our interest and starts the sequence off with a feeling of suspense (it’s in close-up –we want to know why). This feeling of suspense increases with the next shot where we can see Ismael standing at the end of the hallway (which made me jump the first time I saw the film), but the woman seems oblivious. The details of the hallway (the statues, the entrance to a room with double doors) also reveal that we are back in the flat that featured in the prologue and that Ismael is standing a few feet away from where Leire’s mother died at his hands (this realisation heightens the sense that Leire and her grandmother are in danger).

In the next continuous shot the camera follows Ismael as he stalks, cat-like, down the hallway. He is already holding the bottle of chloroform and the cloth, and he pauses at the kitchen doorway to remove the stopper with his mouth and douse the cloth. He then replaces the stopper and, as he steps through the doorway, tucks the bottle into the inside of his jacket. I think that this little bit of business is quite revealing in terms of the character –no fuss is made, and he executes the moves with precision (suggesting that this is not the first time that he has done this, or at least that it is not something that bothers him). The way in which he tucks the bottle away while moving into the room where his intended victim is shows him to be economical with his movements, but also tells the viewer that he is relaxed (he is not nervous or hesitant).

As Ismael goes through the door the camera cuts to the reverse view with the camera positioned so that he is still on the right-hand side of the frame, approaching Leire’s grandmother (centre frame) from behind. He pushes the kitchen door partially closed behind him. Again, his position towards the back of the frame heightens the tension because the woman is still unaware of his presence. We then get a close-up of what she is doing –preparing vegetables- and a sharp and shiny knife makes an appearance in the centre of the frame (again, something that increases the tension / sense of suspense). The camera cuts back and forth between the grandmother chopping vegetables and Ismael getting closer, until he is right behind her (the camera is positioned level with the window). At this point he leans forward and sniffs her hair, which is a bit creepy but his sense of smell (and his sensitivity to odours) is also a recurring element within the film (the only compliment he pays anyone is when he tells Leire that she smells of chocolate).

The camera then starts to zoom in as Ismael raises his hand, holding the cloth dosed with chloroform, level with the grandmother’s head. There is then a sudden cut to a shot from behind Ismael as a clattering noise is heard (a woman in the opposite apartment is opening the shutters on her window). Cut back to in front of the grandmother (the window position), with Ismael looking up and frozen in position. Cut back to the shot from behind where a woman at the opposite window is now clearly visible as Ismael starts to move backwards. He continues to move backwards while looking forward (something my mother always told me off for as a child) and we cut to a shot behind Ismael, this time another close-up of the jar of Bovril, now visible on the edge of the table. Ismael knocks the jar off the table. Cut to: him managing to catch it before it hits the floor. He stands upright, with a fleeting smile, but his attention is again drawn back to the window (the woman opposite is now leaning out of the window, hanging washing on a line).

The camera cuts back to its position at the window as the grandmother now starts to turn around. Because he pushed the door semi-closed Ismael cannot escape the way he came in (he would be in her line of sight), so in a deft bit of gymnastics he manages to squeeze down the side of a cupboard (still images can’t really capture the comic deftness of Elejalde’s physical performance in this sequence). Note that the jar of Bovril is visible in his hand as he heads for cover. His hiding down the side of the cupboard foreshadows the position that Blanca (Silvia Marsó) will later find herself in (hiding down the side of wardrobe) when she goes looking for Leire and breaks into Ismael’s house. The grandmother heads for the cupboard. As she roots around on the shelf we get a close-up of Ismael’s face, his eyes comically widening when the woman holds onto the cupboard door with the hand with which she also holds the knife.

The camera then cuts to a (slightly-odd) low angle, to the side of the grandmother, looking towards the cupboard door. I think the odd low angle is actually because of the camera set-up a couple of shots later, but at this point it raises the expectation that Ismael is about to burst out from behind the door (although as the woman is holding the knife, and he would have to emerge with his back to her, this seems unlikely). We cut back to the close-up of Ismael’s face and the position of the knife now draws our attention to the fact that he is holding the chloroformed cloth directly in front of his face –his face shows a moment of awareness just as he starts to become woozy. Cut to: the grandmother walking away from the cupboard. The camera stays in the same position, focussed on the door of the cupboard. A few seconds later, Ismael slides out from behind the door and falls backwards towards the camera. On the audio commentary at this point, Bajo Ulloa notes that a lot of scenes of suspense or horror are usually very dramatic and / or serious, but it occurred to him that killers are just like the rest of us –they make mistakes and have days when everything goes wrong- and there is an absurd humour in that. This is one of those days for Ismael.

We then cut to Ismael’s head smacking onto the floor, followed by a shot of the jar of Bovril making a similar sound as it hits the floor. There is still no reaction from the grandmother –she is deaf, but this is something that the viewer does not necessarily pick up on until this scene (it is mentioned in passing in a conversation between Blanca and the director of the clinic). We cut to a sideways close-up of Ismael’s groggy face and then his POV of the old lady’s feet. The camera then cuts to a shot that is level with the woman’s waist as she turns around (towards Ismael) carrying a saucepan of vegetables. We then have an overhead shot that shows Ismael spreadeagled on the floor, the Bovril spill, and the grandmother at the edge of the frame, heading towards them. As she gets closer the screen fades to black. The screen is black for several seconds with just the sound of Ismael’s deep breathing.

When the image comes back it is a return of the sideways close-up of Ismael’s face as he first twitches his nose (again, the emphasis on his sense of smell), and then blearily opens his eyes. There is then a very quick shot-reverse-shot as his POV shows a close-up of the (now dead) grandmother’s face, which gives him a fright, and as he sits bolt upright in shock we cut back to the overhead shot, which now shows the grandmother laid out surrounded by vegetables and Bovril. The close-up of the woman’s face is also the first time in the sequence that there is any non-diegetic sound (the sequence takes place in silence, apart from the woman opening the shutters) –the soundtrack music suddenly comes in on that cut and stops just as abruptly when Ismael sits up and starts laughing.

We then cut to a shot that is tilted down slightly towards Ismael sitting on the floor, as he looks down at the woman and chuckles. Something attracts his attention, and wipes the smile off his face - a shot from over his shoulder reveals Leire, sitting at the kitchen table, looking at Ismael. She then looks away. This is a further example (an earlier one being the viewing through the hedge that I discussed in the post last week) of Leire looking at Ismael, and unsettling him in the process, but arguably not really seeing him. The viewer sees several instances in the film where something attracts Leire’s attention momentarily before she is distracted by something else; she does not ‘engage’ with what she is looking at (but Ismael believes that she does). Bajo Ulloa says that the way things go wrong for Ismael in this sequence, but then by chance work out in the end (it is unclear whether the grandmother died from fright when she saw a strange man on her kitchen floor, or if she slipped in the Bovril and broke her neck –the black screen was intended to leave it to the imagination of the viewer), is kind of a ‘big joke’. But Leire’s appearance right at the end of the sequence undermines that humour by bringing us back to Ismael’s reasons for being there in the first place –and indeed he stops laughing when he realises that she is present. 

The sequence as a whole (it only last two minutes –from 00:21:12-00:23:11) encapsulates not only the combination of suspense and dark humour (and elements of the grotesque) that run through the film, but also the ambiguity of Ismael’s character and the ambiguousness of the viewer’s feelings towards him (insofar as he is someone who does despicable things but in this scene you get caught up in his actions and end up hoping that he’s not going to get caught as things go wrong –but then Leire appears and the viewer’s ‘loyalty’ reverts to her).