Monday, 1 December 2014

The Late Show: Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980)

   Shadowplay's The Late Show: Late Movie Blogathon runs between 1st and 7th December - check out David Cairns's site to find links to other contributions. The aim is to focus on a film from late in a person's career - whether people go out on a high or not - but it doesn't have to be a recent film, or someone who has recently died. Learning from my mistake last year, I decided to find an interesting film as the starting point rather than the person whose 'late film' it is. So, having watched it for the first time earlier this year, my contribution (and my 200th post!) is on the influential underground classic Arrebato / Rapture (Iván Zulueta, 1980) and the stories around it.

Will More and Iván Zulueta on the set of Arrebato

   The plot: [I'm going to avoid giving too many specific details because this is a rare occasion where the film I'm writing about is actually available in an edition with English subtitles (details at the end of the post)] In the present (Madrid in the late 1970s), film director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela) returns home to find that his actress ex-girlfriend Ana (Cecilia Roth) - a heroin addict like himself - has returned to his apartment after several weeks of absence. In between arguing with Ana and sliding into a drugged oblivion, José starts listening to a recording - and eventually watching a film - sent by an old acquaintance, Pedro (Will More), a younger man who is obsessed with shooting film. A lot of the film plays out in flashback as the recording causes José to remember his first strange encounter with Pedro (the cousin of a old girlfriend (Marta Fernández Muro)) at a country house, and then his second visit a year ago with Ana in tow (not long after he had introduced her to heroin and she already shows signs of addiction). In the last section of the film José goes to Pedro's apartment to try to solve the mystery contained within the recording and accompanying film. 

Some of Zulueta's poster designs - more of his work can be found on his official website.

   Zulueta only made two feature films. He died in 2009 at the age of 66 having spent years in the wilderness in thrall to heroin addiction and a self-imposed exile in San Sebastián (his home city). I've only seen clips of his first feature - Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés (1970) - but the pop musical about a group of music fans attempting to boycott a song contest (one that sounds similar to Eurovision) is often described as taking inspiration from Richard Lester's films with The Beatles. He had spent time in London and New York during the 1960s and 70s and was strongly influenced by both the Carnaby Street vibe and psychedelia of the former and the underground filmmaking (specifically Warhol) and grubby aesthetic of the latter. He made a multitude of abstract and experimental Super 8 films during the 1960s and 70s: a large proportion of them were apparently either confiscated or lost, but several can be found online (they are all dialogue free - Frank Stein (1972), Masaje (1972), Aquarium (1975), En la ciudad (1976-77), A Malgam A (1976), and Leo es pardo (1976)) and Pedro's Super 8 films in Arrebato are fragments of Zulueta's own work. From the 1970s onwards he was also a film poster designer for a range of Spanish directors including José Luis Borau (his mentor), Manuel Gutiérrez Aragon, Luis Buñuel (Viridiana (1961) was banned in Spain - in fact the regime declared that it didn't exist - until 1977, and Zulueta's poster for it can be seen on the wall of José's apartment) and Pedro Almodóvar (including one of my favourites, Entre tinieblas / Dark Habits), and also for the San Sebastián Film Festival (Zulueta had a long relationship with the festival as his father was the Festival Director between 1957 and 1960). In TV tribute programmes made after his death (in fact some were made while he was still alive, but even there his friends talk about Zulueta in the past tense) and all of the interviewees stress that his cultural focus was exclusively visual (almost everyone describes him as incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of art and design but someone who never read books) - in one he is described as 'an author but not a writer'.
   It is perhaps appropriate then that my first experience of watching Arrebato was a copy with no subtitles and murky sound (from El País's collection of DVDs - I'm starting to think that the existence of their series is the reason why many of the key Spanish films included are unavailable in better editions): I clung to the images like a life raft. I can usually get by without subtitles but here I think I would have struggled even with clearer sound because the script is full of gnomic utterances and Will More's delivery is deliberately strange (Pedro's voice is usually exaggeratedly deep, but rises when he becomes excited or 'enraptured' and increasingly childlike) and large parts of the film are conveyed via his voiceover (the recording that José is listening to). The desire to lose yourself in something (or someone) is a common enough impulse but in Arrebato this ecstasy is tinged with horror, suggesting that both cinema and drugs (the chosen routes into the sublime in this instance) are vampiric forces. The film is full of moments of beguiling but unsettling beauty (cinema as enchantment) in conjunction with a building sense of claustrophobia. The latter is generated via the film's limited locations (José's apartment during the course of that one night, the country house, or the bedroom of Pedro's Madrid apartment), the action frequently taking place in the shadows (their faces usually illuminated by the flickering lights of projectors), and aurally through certain repetitive elements on the soundtrack (a recurring theme features the sound of children's toys in a kind of uneasy lullaby, but there's also the insistent clicking of the timer on Pedro's camera).

   The title refers to a state of being that the central trio - or at least the two men - are seeking. As Pedro explains it, what they are pursuing is that sense of being enraptured in something (that an object is involved is important as for Pedro this state relies upon the act of looking, but all three of them also use drugs as their gateway into rapture) that we have as a child, when we could spend hours focussed on one thing and in our own little world. Zulueta described these symbolic items as "an object that condenses a whole series of things that have shaped you". Pedro tests the (rare) people he meets by trying to find a) their special object, and b) how susceptible they are to being enraptured. For José the item is an album of collectible stickers depicting scenes from King Solomon's Mines (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950) (actually from Zulueta's own childhood collection), for Ana it is a Betty Boop doll, but for Pedro it is (or will be) his own Super 8 films - his sharing of them during José's first visit becomes a performance of grimaces and pained squeals as he hasn't managed to capture the precise (but ephemeral) thing he is after. By José's second visit - between which times José has sent the younger man a timer for his camera so that he can record his timelapse images with more precision - Pedro has accomplished his filmmaking intentions as far as he can at home, and in the aftermath of the visit will set out into the world to capture new images. Much like José and Ana he will slide into a world of sex and drugs (the latter eventually curtailing the former), but Pedro's dissatisfaction with those experiences leads him back into his cinematic obsession with an even greater intensity. At the point at which he sends the recording and film to José, he has come to believe that his Super 8 camera has taken on a life of its own, and is vampirically taking his life force from him while simultaneously allowing him to reach an ever heightened state of rapture.

Pedro's films are initially timelapse images of cloud formations, the light shifting as time passes, and elements of the natural world, but begin to include architectural features and masses of people after he leaves home.

   Even during my somewhat incomprehensible first viewing, the charisma and chemistry of the central trio was plain to see. Eusebio Poncela - already associated with nonconformist roles at this point - was the most experienced of the three, with a certain amount of blurring between life and art given his participation in the movida (a cultural phenomena in post-dictatorship Madrid, it's described in The A to Z of Spanish Cinema as 'expressed through sexual liberation, a hyperactive nightlife, the first taste of freedom of expression, and an interest in artistic manifestations that assimilated the lessons of various avant-gardes of the period, particularly punk and the Warhol Factory' (Mira 2010: 214) - some of its key figures appear in Pedro's Super 8 film of a party, including Zulueta himself). Despite José's uncertain disintegration (the vampire film he has just directed is turning into a disaster, his relationship with Ana is mutually-destructive, and he's in a downward spiral with drugs), Poncela's stillness is the calm centre around which the more volatile other two circulate. In the reunion documentary (filmed in 1998 and therefore not featuring Zulueta, who was in self-exile at that point) both Poncela and Will More state that their character is Zulueta's alter-ego - the truth is probably that the two both represent different aspects of the director. More was also part of the same social crowd and had appeared in one of Zulueta's Super 8 short films - the role of Pedro was written specifically for him. By turns childlike and sinister, More's performance is unsettling with deliberately exaggerated vocal tics and gestures, and a breathily insinuating style of delivery on the recording. More so than José or Ana, Pedro is someone on the margins by inclination rather than social circumstances (in terms of class and money he seems comfortably off, and unlike the other two he doesn't work). Arrebato would be More's only significant role - he accompanied Zulueta into heroin addiction and cuts a ravaged figure in recent footage.

José (Eusebio Poncela) and Pedro (Will More) during their second encounter
Pedro in pursuit of rapture

   Although the film is undoubtedly 'about' the men, Cecilia Roth is nonetheless equally memorable in what was her first substantial film role. She says during the reunion documentary that as the youngest member of the team (she was 23 at the time of filming, whereas her co-stars and director were in their 30s) she was worried about playing a character older than herself - a woman "with a past" as she describes it, whereas she feels that Arrebato was "the beginning of [her] own past". Roth (like Poncela) obviously went on to significant roles with Almodóvar but arguably she has never been as incandescent as she is in the sequence in Arrebato where she dresses as Betty Boop and sings along to the record player. It is an overt and conscious performance by Ana - she stands in front of the screen José is about to project Pedro's film onto, with the light of the projector acting as a spotlight - and an attempt to win José back (although undercut, as I noticed on my second viewing, by the fact that the song she sings is the same one playing in the earlier scene where he introduces her to heroin). She is so alive that she jolts the camera into movement - in the only travelling shot of the film, and possessing a dynamism that is otherwise only seen in Pedro's films, the camera follows her as she dances towards José. It's a genuine 'a star is born' kind of sequence, in someways at odds with the rest of the film but perhaps all the more effective for that.


   Arrebato's reputation as a film maudit was established from the outset. It was turned down by both Berlin and Cannes on the basis of its pro-drugs attitude (although that is arguably a matter of perception given that those onscreen are devoured by their addictions) and it had a limited release in Spain, sinking more or less without a trace. In the documentary Iván Z (Andrés Duque, 2003) - a series of conversations with Zulueta who by then was on methadone and attempting to reenter the film business (without success) - he says that he was burnt out after Arrebato but had known while he was making it that it would likely be his only chance. He is animated when discussing cinema (and his admiration for David Lynch) and very candid about his addictions, but falters when talking about his then-current situation (he was back living with his mother in the house he was born in and likens it to The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962) - the sensation of being stuck in the same place but not knowing how to get out). The recurring assertion in interviews with his former colleagues is that he was a genuinely exceptional talent and a unique figure in Spanish cinema who could have had an international career. The influence of his film however has had a far greater reach than one might suppose for a film that never had a proper theatrical release (and belies the 'cult' label that is often attached to the film). Pedro Almodóvar is the most obvious (and possibly facile) example to give. He was a near contemporary (his voice appears in Arrebato - he dubbed Helena Fernán Gómez - and he wrote this eulogy for his friend) and his 1980s films share certain aspects of Zulueta's aesthetic style (and indeed most of Arrebato's cast), but there's a lot of unnecessary snarking in the television profiles of Zulueta about how much of a debt Almodóvar owes him (Arrebato's producer rather acidly comments that Almodóvar would not have been considered as innovative if Zulueta had continued making films). I would argue that they had influences in common but that there's also a distinction between copying and paying homage (which Almodóvar does quite explicitly in several instances that I can think of) - and wherever he draws inspiration from, Almodóvar's films are nonetheless clearly his own. But there's a freshness to Arrebato that survives, and its influence lives on more than thirty years later - my first viewing of the film was just a couple of weeks before I saw El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013) at the Bradford International Film Festival in April, and it's a clear point of reference for the latter (confirmed by the director in this interview).

Images from Pedro's party film, one of the inspirations for El Futuro (Luis López Carrasco, 2013)

   Writing in 2002, and arguing that the film deserved better than to be fetishised with the label 'cult', critic Ángel Fernández-Santos summarised Arrebato thus:
'Arrebato is a dark instance of pessimism. It is intricate cinema, unfathomable at some points of its crooked and tumultuous journey. And it is, above all, cinema in a raw state, disturbing, painful and great, that situates us with rare elegance in front of a vigorous and devastating image of the dissolution of conscience and the search for death. The film was conceived and built - in a long and bumpy creative process - by a complex and refined filmmaker, a one-off, gifted as few are to perceive and express feelings of desolation and despair.' [my translation - the original is here]
So not exactly a laugh riot and it won't be everyone's cup of tea (if you're offended by nudity and depictions of drug usage or general debauchery, best give it a miss), but it has stayed with me the seven months since I first saw it and if anything my second viewing last week has elevated it further in my consideration. My second viewing also had the luxury of subtitles, so certain things (but not everything) became clearer. For some unexplained - but fortunate - reason, the German DVD of the film (this one) has optional English subtitles, and even more strangely so do the couple of hours of extras (the reunion documentary and Iván Z - I particularly recommend the latter because aside from showing Zulueta talking about himself rather than his being filtered through other people, it also features examples of his paintings, illustrations and film posters (some of them are stunning)). Arrebato is a haunting film - even without knowing how its tragedy carried over into the lives of those who worked on it - and one that gets under your skin.



Excellent article from an excellent movie ! Try watching IXE from my friend Lionel Soukaz !
Xandre Rodríguez

Rebecca said...

Thanks Xandre! And thanks for the link to your own piece on Arrebato :)


My pleasure Rebecca ! :)

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