Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Carlos Saura Challenge, Part 4: El jardín de las delicias / The Garden of Delights (1970)

Director: Carlos Saura
Screenplay: Rafael Azcona and Carlos Saura
Cast: José Luis López Vázquez, Francisco Pierrá, Luchy Soto, Lina Canalejas, Esperanza Roy, Charo Soriano.
Synopsis: Antonio Cano (López Vázquez), an important businessman, is left partially-paralysed and an amnesiac after a car crash. His family and friends try to recreate key moments in his life in order to give him an emotional jolt and aid his recuperation. He spends each day sitting in his garden, accompanied by memories and ghosts of the past.

Warning: contains spoilers.

   After the relatively straightforward linearity of Peppermint frappé (and skipping Stress-es-tres-tres and La madriguera due to their unavailability) comes El jardín de las delicias, in structural terms by far the most complex film Saura had made. The film operates in five planes, identified within the shooting script (D'Lugo 1991: 101), which we move between without transition (although Pavlović notes that Antonio's amnesia 'links all five continua' (2006: 151)) - Kovacs (1981) has labelled the planes thus: 'the recreated past', a series of scenes staged by Antonio's father (Pierrá) of key moments in his son's life, but which parallel key moments in Spanish history; 'the present day frame', Antonio being taken care of by his wife (Soto) and father, and being pushed to remember via memory tests with collections of old photos, or a staged reencounter with his mistress (Roy) who was in the car crash with him; 'evoked past', Antonio's own independent memories of the key moments in his life; 'the "oneiric" world', threatening hallucinations that Antonio suffers while sitting in the garden; 'a future plane', as Antonio starts coming back to himself, he begins to '[resist] the pattern of existence his family has thrust upon him' (D'Lugo 1991: 102). This intentionally intricate structure was to act as a kind of smokescreen, or a least a counterbalance, to the more political aspects of the film in an era when censorship by the Franco regime was becoming increasingly arbitrary. The original script was passed by the censors, with one writing in his evaluation that 'the advantage of such an intellectualised plot is that nobody can grasp the key to it, and the set-ups are so extremely limited in meaning that nobody can identify with anything' (D'Lugo 1991: 106) - although specific cuts were then made to the film by the censors (but unlike the case of Llanto por un bandido, those cut elements seem to have been reinstated in the version I watched).
    Despite the structure appearing complex when laid out as above, it is comprehensible when watched onscreen (although some confusion/disorientation is intentional - it is a point of connection between Antonio and the audience), with differing levels of theatricality being utilised in the different planes (for example, there is some wonderful over-acting by the actress hired to impersonate Antonio's late mother in the scenes from his childhood, whereas his wife Luchy is more subtle in her manipulation of 'reality' -we see that she is playing 'mood music' on a cassette player when she takes Antonio for a walk). Also, you don't have to be aware of all of the references to know that a point is being made - I didn't know that Antonio's car crash was inspired by the 1962 death (in a car crash) of Juan March, an industrialist who had helped bankroll the July 1936 military uprising against the Republic (there are enough parallels to see Saura as deliberately baiting the censors), but the moments of historical significance that parallel (and interrupt) the restaged moments of Antonio's life clearly indicate that 'Antonio's identity is inseparable from a broader historical context. [...] These national "traumas" give rise to personal ones, showing how the individual is an inscrutable product of the nation' (Pavlović 2006: 156).
    Likewise, Saura uses the institution of the family to equate with the state apparatus: the film 'insistently identifies the Francoist family as the social apparatus that replicates on the personal plane the ideology of the state, constructing the prismatic frame of reference through which the individual's consciousness of himself takes place' (D'Lugo 1991: 102). The 'ideal' family, so deified by the state, is shown to be anything but: not only are they collectively a suffocating and repressive force in Antonio's life, but we eventually find that their interest in his recuperation isn't entirely motivated by love and affection (his father needs to know the number of the Swiss bank account, and his wife wants the combination to the safe in the bedroom). [side-note: some of the events that they chose to recreate to jog Antonio's memory include childhood traumas - being locked in a dark room, aged 5, with an enormous pig that you've been told will eat your hands off, seems an horrific thing to inflict on someone twice in their lifetime]. D'Lugo suggests that the final sequence of the film, another of Antonio's hallucinations - this time of each family member in their own wheelchair on the vast lawn, is a tableau 'approximating a contemporary version of one of Bosch's panels in his "Garden of Delights"' (1991: 106), while Pavlović suggests that it 'points to the endless proliferation of cruelty in a system where both victims and victimisers are irreparably crippled' (2006: 158). But with his family in a similar state to Antonio (who having made progress, is now regressing) I read it as representing the wilful amnesia of people avoiding their own culpability, and also (as they are all facing in different directions) unable to see things from alternative viewpoints.
    The impression that we get of Antonio as he recovers what he was (before seemingly rejecting that vision and sliding back into oblivion) is that he was not a particularly likeable man (he is 'a prototypical product of dictatorial structure, an embodiment of Francoist zeitgeist' (Pavlović 2006: 156)). But when we first meet him, he is a blank slate (and as confused as we are by the events being staged in front of him) and I think that the audience remains on his side because of that initial blankness (the innocence of a child) and also because of the associated affability of López Vázquez, who is quite brilliant in the role. The film is also darkly funny (Colmeiro points to the film following in the tradition of Buñuel, Berlanga, and the esperpento of Valle-Inclán (2001: 284)) -alongside Peppermint frappé, this is the film that I have most enjoyed watching so far in the challenge.

a blank slate
Colmeiro, J.F. (2001) - 'Metateatralidad y psicodrama: los escenarios de la memoria en el cine de Carlos Saura', Anales de la literatura española contemporánea, 26:1, pp.277-298.
D'Lugo, M (1991) - The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kovacs, K. (1981) - 'Loss and Recuperation in The Garden of Delights', Cine-Tracts, 4:2-3, pp.45-54. [I haven't managed to get hold of this yet but the outline of the narrational planes is quoted in D'Lugo]
Pavlović, T. (2006) - 'Allegorising the body politic: Masculinity and history in Saura's El jardín de las delicias (1970) and Almodóvar's Carne trémula (1997)', Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 3:3, pp.149-167.