La Loba y la Paloma (Gonzalo Suárez, Spain, 1974)

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The hoary old plot of the villain returning to reclaim his loot is behind this Spanish chiller with heavy gothic trappings. Wily desperado Donald Pleasance stabbed a man to death over this particular loot, leaving himself unconscious and his victim’s daughter in an enduring catatonic state. All in a night’s work for The Plez, but now the treasure has vanished and only the girl holds the key to its location…

Director Gonzalo Suárez is best known for his arthouse work, but wasn’t ashamed to make crowd-pleasing horror-themed films as well back in the early ‘seventies. Using a cast of familiar genre stars, his strengths of mobile camerawork, attention to detail in art direction, and carefully composed atmospheric photography suited the prevailing gothic style very well. Beatriz (1976) featuring Nadiuska and Sandra Mozarowsky is a fine dark period drama, while the Psycho inspired Morbo (1972) is a true modern classic. It’s no surprise that this one (distributed in English as House of the Damned) turns out to be a minor classic as well, but what is puzzling is the obscurity it has fallen into, especially considering the rise in popularity of Spanish horror in recent years.

Standing in for the traditional gothic castle is a large house in the Spanish hills, a gatekeeper’s house apparently, that controls the sluices that drain the dank reservoir behind it. The householders are a swarthy thug with a menacing version of the looming physique of Bernard Bresslaw (Aldo Sambrell), and his wife a fantastically juicy red-headed tart in the shape of Carmen Sevilla. These are the remaining family of our orphaned heroine Maria. Pleasance, the cause of the orphaning, turns up on the doorstep one day with a cunning plan. Why don’t they bring Maria home from the convent, nurse the thoroughly mute and withdrawn girl back to health, then (and this is the really cunning part) have her tell them where the treasure is hidden?!

Unfortunately these unsophisticated people have the ‘grab, shake and slap’ approach to extracting information from a young female, going about it in much the same way as they would get a dog to tell them where it buried the Sunday joint. Clearly something more subtle is called for, so step up manservant Michael Dunn, a dwarf, and a small one at that. An alternatively cheery and scheming fellow (who walks like Mr. Bean), he has the advantages of both intelligence and closeness to Maria’s emotional wavelength. Egged on by Pleasance he uses the girl’s mangy old dolls to re-enact the tragic night of her father’s murder. It’s a grotesque and disturbing performance in which the puppet artiste gets quite carried away, but it draws the first glimmer of a response from Maria…

Muriel Catalá makes a classic gothic heroine, something of a surprise to those of us who only remember her for splashing around with nothing on in Le sauveur (1971). The camera loves her with her clothes on too, and never misses a chance to focus on a new angle of her distant and fragile beauty. She is the timeless gothic archetype, struggling against all the odds, fortified only by resourcefulness and inner purity, while the villains, cursed by innate wickedness, destine themselves to DOOM.

Suárez treats it all with tongue a little in cheek, sometimes verging on parody with overheated melodrama. It is probably significant that the treasure is a shapeless lump of a statuette that nobody could possibly want if it was not made of precious metal, and its all-important location hardly a secret from the audience given that the imagery is positively drenched in clues. But overall the film hangs together very well, and the best parts are visually intense and memorably thrilling.

Clip with Carmen Sevilla

scene from La Loba y la Paloma scene from La Loba y la Paloma scene from La Loba y la Paloma

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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Laughter in the Dark (Tony Richardson, UK, 1969)

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One of a number of cynical romances of the time, this one has a wealthy art expert falling in love with penniless young cinema usherette Margot (Anna Karina). This expert, Sir Edward More (Nicol Williamson), has a beautiful wife and bright young child, a house in the country in spacious grounds, even spots on the telly. Clearly he’s no fool, yet he falls for this scheming bint head-over-heels.

This is the first problem with the film. Williamson is an engaging actor, sometimes fragile and irrational, so very believable and easy to empathise with if not to like. Here you just want to give him a slap. The girl taunts him with greedy demands to be set up in a flat with everything to match while turning up at his house unasked and wrecking his marriage. And all before he’s even slept with her. Sometimes the less you get the more you want, but this is taking it too far.

No sooner is Margot shacked up with her sugar daddy than she takes up with an old flame, a French art forger and all-round chancer (Jean-Claude Drouot). Together they plot to fleece the older man, under the cover story of the virile lover being in fact a homosexual. Older men with nymphette lovers are renowned for raging jealousy, but that of Sir Edward is ridiculously easily dispelled. Later, when he has become entirely dependent on the girl, we the viewers are aware of things that he himself is not. But he clearly ought to be, so the necessary suspension of disbelief is not there.

Another weak point surprisingly enough is Anna Karina. She is a little too old for the part, and is an unenticing presence with an unpleasant (and unplaceable) European accent. Worse, the camera doesn’t really love her. Sometimes she doesn’t even look beautiful.

The story is adapted from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, and here lies another common problem. Perhaps because they are too attached to the dialogue on the printed page the characters don’t come alive, and neither does the story. Something similar happened with another Nabokov adaptation, Jerzy Skolimowski’s King, Queen, Knave (1972). Visually the film is uninspired, though the photography is acceptable if a little limpid. Tony Richardson is one of those journeyman directors who made his name undeservedly by attaching it to the work of other rising stars of the time.

The film gets better as it nears the end, with the atmosphere becoming more dreamy and thus believability no longer a concern, but in the end the viewer is left with the realisation that’s he’s been promised a challenging arthouse drama and been served up nothing but a B-movie, and a slack one at that. People wonder why these films get neglected and forgotten.

Three clips with Anna Karina

scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark scene from Laughter in the Dark

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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Thais (Ryszard Ber, Poland, 1984)

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The St. Thaïs of the title lived in the fourth century as a pampered courtesan, before converting to Christianity and retreating to an abbey in the desert. Pafnucy is the name given to the hermit sent to convert her only to find she was already a believer. According to the cynical version in the novel by Anatole France he then set about an uncompromisingly lecherous campaign to unconvert the woman whose beauty had bewitched him, not letting up even on her deathbed. Thus he was one of the first dirty old men in history; presumably he’s the same character Rafael Corkidi made Pafnucio Santo (1977) about.

It’s an odd choice of subject for a film from communist-era Poland. If there’s any moral appropriate to that particular society it’s hard to pick it out, and Caligula-style orgiastics, while fashionable in the West, were hardly encouraged. Maybe it’s an odd choice for me to watch as well, but I can clear that one up easily enough: I saw a picture of star Dorota Kwiatkowska bathing in asses’ milk, and I like watching beautiful women bathing in asses’ milk. So there.

The opening is stark, with the ascetic Pafnucy (Jerzy Kryszak) praying amongst dilapidated desert temples. Right away we have an unfortunate credibility problem: he looks like the It’s Man from Monty Python. In fact with his cadaverous features and golf-ball eyes he’s better than the It’s Man, but in point of fairness we’ll try to put that aside. In a series of decreasingly austere and grubby stages the action moves to Roman-occupied Alexandria, and our hero has his first bath. But in the interests of decency he politely asks the topless handmaidens to leave before he undresses – what a guy!

At an outdoor party amongst fragrant greenery Pafnucy first encounters the beautiful Thaïs, and never forgets her. The subsequent images contrast the poverty and martyrdom of life for the masses with the luxuriant lifestyle of the courtesan. One scene is particularly memorable; Thaïs leads a Dionysian orgy, sacrificing a lamb with a dagger as the women revellers frenziedly tear at each other’s clothes and bodies with blood-soaked hands. I’ve watched a lot of scenes in the same vein, but I don’t think I’ve seen a pagan revel done more intensely than this. Another long scene is of a Roman banquet, a sort of toned-down version of the one in D’Amato’s Caligula: The Untold Story, gladiators and all (though mercifully absent the horse).

Inevitably the film is a clash of styles. There’s just a hint of the filmed opera about it. Pafnucy is often shown in the shadows, looking on like we viewers, brooding, fantasising. Plenty of naked flesh is on show, though the treatment remains fairly tasteful. Dorota Kwiatkowska sometimes looks like she’s in a bubble-bath commercial, leaving more explicit views to the extras. Even here, when the camera has the chance to zoom in Franco-style on female pudenda, it “makes its excuses and leaves” as the News of the World used to say. Glimpses of nudity come across as a delightful bonus, rather than seeming like the intensive aversion therapy of a work by D’Amato and his ilk. Recommended as a not-too-shamefully indulgent piece of spicy entertainment.

Four clips from Thais starring Dorota Kwiatkowska

Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais Dorota Kwiatkowska in Thais

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (Barbet Schroeder, France, 1972)

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Some imposingly desolate and rugged mountain scenery opens this story of a group of young people’s spiritual quest for a remote valley in Papua New Guinea. You think the location is being established impressively well. But then the mist clears a little, and it seems like maybe it’s the Scottish Highlands after all. Obscured by Clouds is literally what this “lost” valley is called on the map. (It reminds me of the time I spent weeks trying to get in to a website called 403 Forbidden – with a saucy name like that it’s no wonder they went to such lengths to protect it.) Here’s one of the problems already; the locations just don’t come across on screen as hostile and dangerous enough. I was going to call it a credibility gap, but how about “intrepidity gap”. Some of us have been on more perilous journeys and still been back in time for our teas.

Viviane (Bulle Ogier) is a bored diplomat’s wife left to fill her days browsing the bric-a-brac stalls for native arts and crafts. One day she bumps into Olivier (Michael Gothard) and he shows her some feathers from an exotic bird of paradise. She joins him and his band of hippie travellers in a search for the hidden valley where the bird is said to live. Will the feathers, and thus the quest itself, turn out to be a metaphor for a journey of self-discovery? Let’s hope not, I can never get my head around things like that.

Not much that is unpredicatble happens. Viviane may be a diplomat’s wife, but first and foremost she is a Frenchwoman. Thus she falls into bed with Olivier the very day they meet. Then off they head into the mountains, and they all take part in a tribal festival; rather coyly unfortunately – one of the girls takes her top off, but Viviane remains disappointingly clothed. Things look like they are about to take a turn for the better when she takes deep draughts of a native shaman’s potion. That stuff isn’t known for making people act more sensibly. Will she check her credit card statements, and wonder aloud whether she’s paying too much for home insurance? I don’t think so! But actually it just makes her act a little bit wet.

La vallée is amateurishly made. It neglects simple things like establishing the core characters, and tends to film in medium shot without interleaving close-ups. Scenes sometimes come to an end before they’ve barely even started, leaving what they were trying to establish something of a mystery. All this acts against any sort of involvement with the characters, who seem irredeemably dull anyway.

Of course this is not an attempt to tell a story of riproaring adventure with heart-stopping incidents along the way. It meditates on how the view of the tourist is literally a world apart from that of the native, who has to take the good with the bad parts of their way of life, and can’t leave it all behind once the fortnight is over. But I knew that already. Even people back in the ‘seventies knew that already.

The ending, again predictably, is open but downbeat (cf. The Holy Mountain (1973)). This film is one part of a nihilist cinematic journey that would end the decade with Cannibal Holocaust.

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) clip with Bulle Ogier

Bulle Ogier in The Valley Bulle Ogier in The Valley

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) clip with Valérie Lagrange

Valérie Lagrange in The Valley Valérie Lagrange in The Valley

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

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Dokter Vlimmen (Guido Pieters, Netherlands, 1977)

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A dog gets knocked down by a car in the opening of this Dutch period drama. Not just any kind of dog either, it was a St. Bernard that was left whimpering in the road. Back in the ‘seventies, when St. Bernards were massive! Crude, but effective as a way of pulling at the heartstrings. It made me wonder for a moment about the validity of how they measure TV ratings. Do you count towards the official viewing figures if your view of the programme was blocked by a haze of tears?

Enough of whimsical diversions, this is about a country vet in the pre-war Netherlands. It immediately makes you think of the much-loved English TV equivalent “All Creatures Great and Small”, but despite the hero suffering similar indignities in farmyard mishaps this is altogether darker stuff. Our easy-going vet is a frequenter of brothels for instance – I don’t remember notorious waster Tristan Farnon visiting a house of ill repute even at his lowest ebb. It doesn’t shy away from showing actual animal slaughter either – even when it is totally unnecessary. The photography is dark and rich too, portraying an authentically damp and grimy countryside and verging towards noirish in the towns.

Dokter Vlimmen has a rival in Dokter Treeborg. He is established as the bad guy straight away. By owning a more expensive car, cultivating a moustache, and generally looking menacingly like an upper-class Englishman. A villain through and through. The plot unfolds via the workmanlike device of a court case. At this point a cynical viewer can give up on the story. On every occasion the liberal doctor will be shown, despite the odd personal failing, as effortlessly more intelligent, caring, open-minded, and just plain better-all-round than his conservative churchgoing fascist-scum counterpart. Oh, and he’ll be better at fighting too.

If filmmakers want to argue for the superiority of a liberal outlook it’s a shame they choose such illiberal ways of doing it. Example: to show what a really cool guy he is Dr. Vlimmen rescues a piglet from drowning in a muck pit by throwing himself in after it. It’s just a shame they had to nearly kill a real piglet in slurry to film the scene.

Like many pre-war dramas I found the atmosphere heavy and oppressive; perhaps this isn’t intentional. The people always seem stuffy and unlikable, and it just doesn’t feel like a pleasant world in which to live. Mixed with a hackneyed agitprop storyline I didn’t enjoy this at all.

 

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

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L’Alliance (Christian de Chalonge, France, 1971)

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The wedding of the title is so perfunctory you are left uncertain that such a thing has actually taken place. Was it even consummated? It’s not like a French film to leave you in the dark about something like that. Hugues had advertised for a bride via an agency. “Shy vet seeks young beauty with rambling old house containing mysterious locked room”, he wrote, “please send photo of mysterious locked room”. Or at least if he had done he would have saved me a certain amount of exposition.

The young beauty who answers in the positive is Jeanne (Anna Karina). Surely there must be a catch in this? The house is musty and decrepit as only a locked-up town house can be. Putting aside any nagging doubts he may have over what happened to all the other shy young men who went before him and what she did with the bones, Hugues sets about renovating the place and turning it into a modern veterinary surgery.

They make a very dull household; just husband, wife, and housekeeper – and little to look forward to at bedtime either. At first Jeanne seems to be the sinister presence, with her mysterious shopping expeditions, and the vanishing chemical supplies. “What’s happened to all my ether?” – not a question you ever want to ask of your wife. Eventually we suspect that Hugues may be the odd one.

Initially this film shares much of the same atmosphere of the contemporary Le seuil du vide. The black-clad greying old matrons who bring increasingly exotic pets in for consultation are a peculiarly French thing. But the sinister shadow of the past is slowly replaced with the menacing trappings of a scientific age as Hugues gradually installs modern lighting and decor; a research laboratory follows. The animals that inhabit the cages around the walls become more bizarre. Not exactly dangerous, but forbiddingly strange. The housekeeper is the first to crack: “J’ai peur des animaux” she says before leaving. But what of Jeanne?

An absorbing curiosity, a little pretentious maybe, but with an original atmosphere and a notably peculiar ending.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Duvidha (Mani Kaul, India, 1973)

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Few films can be as painterly as this piece of Rajasthani folklore, In Two Minds. The careful compositions suggest The Colour of Pomegranates (1968); visually it may be much less inventive in its animated tableaux, but the lighting here has more range and atmosphere. The background is filled with traditional music and song. Everything is about creating an ethereal sense of place and, not time, but timelessness. Mostly this is a world of veils and cloisters, the camera framing very tightly and reluctant to go outdoors and spread its field of view.

The story is simple. When a bride passes on her way home in an ox cart, a ghost in a banyan tree spies her and is jealous of the groom. As her husband must leave on business immediately after the wedding, the ghost takes his form and his place alongside the unwitting girl. When the man (little more than a boy) returns he appeals to the village elders to set a series of trials to banish the interloping spirit…

There’s little that can be usefully said about this piece without becoming pretentious; the beautiful visuals speak for themselves. But though a film must move slowly to build an atmosphere, at over eighty minutes to tell a simple story Duvidha drags on far too long and the pacing becomes self-defeating. It’s so long that I was sick of it by the end to be honest, and was magnifying its faults out of all proportion. It doesn’t help that the bride appears to be played by a man for example.

(The version I saw had been recorded off TV and before it even finished the announcer (UK Channel 4) spoke over it advertising the next programme, incidentally dropping into a “village idiot” accent as he did so. I just thought I’d mention as a postscript one of the reasons I don’t watch television any more.)

 


Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Le seuil du vide (Jean-François Davy, France, 1972)

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What’s the single most boring way you can start a film? With an airliner taking off probably. (Remember the Jet Age?) That keynote of ‘sixties and ‘seventies glamour familiar from countless formulaic thrillers is enough to provoke a groan of despair. But the focus immediately pulls back to the foreground to show a young woman watching it depart. Short haired, handsome but a little gaunt, she seems to have been crying. Why has she been left behind? The cliché has worked for once; I want to know her story.

Putting aside her past for now, Wanda (Dominique Erlanger) on the spur of the moment takes a train to Paris. Already on the journey, independent and confident though she may be, she is feeling hints of alienation from the passengers packing her in to the threadbare compartment. Her most pressing worries are solved when a kindly old lady offers her a room; shabby it may be, but it’s cheap. Wanda, a painter, could be thirty but is part of the perpetual student class endemic to Paris. The black-clad old lady is a shadow of a bygone age. Nevertheless the two become close, the younger woman reminding her landlady of her youth. But she must promise to never, ever, no matter what, open the mysterious door in her room with the rusty lock. (Seriously folks, don’t open those kind of doors; you’ll have nothing but trouble.)

This is a story of a young woman’s alienation and breakdown, of shifting identities, of present times and lost times, and maybe of evil outside forces. This genre was especially common at the time, though of course can be traced back to The Yellow Wallpaper and beyond. The most obvious comparisons are from Roman Polanski (Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976)), amongst many others such as Larraz’s Symptoms (1974). Threshhold of the Void stands up quite strongly against them.

It picks up well on the particular loneliness of rooms at night in a strange city, the unfamiliar creaks from inside and the traffic noises from outside, the rare human voices becoming lost amongst them. The camera is used skillfully, and the art direction is sometimes uniquely beautiful and sinister. A weak point is a lack of range from the lead; she’s unconvincing once she has to go beyond the rather assured and distant persona of the earlier parts of the film. A good example of a rare genre, the French horror film.

 


Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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Abigail’s Party (Mike Leigh, UK, 1977)

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This is a legendary TV play that seems as familiar as any other, but one I’ve never actually got around to seeing in full until now. For those in the same boat, it’s not actually about Abigail’s party at all – worth bearing in mind before opening your mouth and betraying your ignorance. The ghastly nasal-voiced hostess played by Alison Steadman is called Beverly. Abigail is fifteen, and her party is going on next door. This, on reflection, is very significant.

Beverly and her husband Laurence, a prosperous couple who aspire to belong to the middle class (and believe that they actually do), have invited their new neighbours around for drinks to get to know them. And at the same time no doubt establish their superior social standing. Sue, Abigail’s mother and hence refugee from the teenage party, is dropping by too. Mike Leigh’s play of suburban pretensions is remarkable primarily for what it doesn’t show. These characters are mostly hidden beneath the surface, and just like with real people it’s fascinating to speculate on the experiences that shaped them the way they are. Laurence the workaholic estate agent for instance. When he tries to run a business errand instead of getting ready Beverly chastens him like a naughty pup. His response is wheedling. Is he really so ambitious he puts his customers first, or just desperate to get away from this overbearing Juno-with-fag-in-gob matron?

Angela and Tony the new neighbours are about ten years younger, and evidently in a lower income bracket despite them both working. Angela is a nurse, Tony a ‘computer operator’, whatever that means (probably less than it sounds – changing the tape reels in those days maybe). You immediately get a sense of where things are heading from his demeanour. It’s sort of a military bearing, but not in a good way; rather it’s suggestive of an especially officious and disliked corporal. She has the complacent boastful manner of a child, thoughtlessly running off at the mouth with anything that seems to show her in a good light regardless of its effect on anybody else (“I helped take her to the toilet”). Not a terrible couple to be sure. You can’t help feeling protective towards Angie, and Tony’s extreme monosyllabic gruffness is the sort of thing many women go for; Beverly certainly does. But they are totally unsuited. How did they come to be together? You start to think of explanations, and they tend not to be happy ones.

Sue meanwhile, a genuine representative of the middle class of the previous generation, her natural diffidence exacerbated by a painful divorce, plainly would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere, even (perhaps especially) her daughter’s party. The guests have rather little to say to each other. Beverly unwittingly stirs the powder keg, her domineering nature forcing gin down Sue’s throat and making Angie start smoking after giving up. Any attempt at showing off superior cultural sophistication backfires as hollow pretension. Worries mount over the party next door. The men take a look on poor Sue’s behalf, and when they come back (separately) one is soaked in water. Whatever happened? Ominously it’s not explained. You come up with theories that are the stuff of nightmare.

The unseen Abigail’s Party of the title is intended to symbolise the parts of people’s lives hidden beneath the surface. Which, of course, is very clever. To rub it in, Sue’s closing phone call to Abigail is one of wordless horror. Less intellectually, the play is a slow-burning but sometimes hilarious mix of subtle observation and coarse physical comedy. Mike Leigh’s condescending attacks on the snobberies of the “little people” do make me a little uncomfortable however, especially in the light of the gloomy pretentiousness of his later works of the ‘nineties and beyond.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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A Mulher Sensual (Antônio Calmon, Brazil, 1981)

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There’s something very wrong with the cars in Latin America. At first you could mistake them for European models, but look closer and the styles are different. Just hideous ugly, like someone had put them through a crusher then had them fashioned back to shape again by a retarded panel-beater working from memory. The vintage roadster Helena Ramos drives to the TV studio in the opening of The Sensual Woman for instance. It reminds you of the really cool one driven by Camille Keaton in Madeleine, Study of a Nightmare. Except it’s not cool at all, it’s an embarrassment, practically in the jalopy class. Helena doesn’t drive it at all well either. She seems under-confident, and when she parks on the pavement looks sheepish, like she’d messed up the take. And surely in this cheapo psycho-drama from Brazil one take was all she had.

So Marina (for that is the name of the actress Helena is playing) bounces into make-up. Except she doesn’t bounce, she slips in shyly in glasses clutching her script to her chest, like she was a production assistant on her first day in the job rather than the star of a hot colonial era costume drama she is. This woman, struggling in her relationship with her TV executive lover, has become highly strung, withdrawn and almost frigid. Clearly something must be done.

The plot is very similar to Helena’s classic Mulher Objeto. They were apparently made around the same time, though it’s not clear which was first. But whereas Objeto has imaginative ideas, executed with great cinematic flair, this has clichéd plot devices wearily ground out in the tackiest ways. Some of the “erotic fantasies” look like the ones with Julie Andrews in S.O.B.. Bleurgh.

The saving grace of this production is Helena’s glasses. They make her look delectable. What a contrast to the ugly squat rectangles worn by women today. Now here’s a chance to do something about it; point to a picture of them – “look at those glasses, what a beautiful style, see how they suit her”, you can say, “why don’t you ask about having a pair made up like that?”.

Lots of dull things happen. Marina buys a place in the country; “New house, new life” she says (yes, I’ve watched so many of these things I’m actually starting to understand snatches of dialogue). The best episode is when Marina’s therapist (Monique Lafond) asks her to take her clothes off and pose for photographs. Not that it’s an original idea, or very well executed. It’s just that two women shyly taking snaps of each other in the nude is an archetypal plot device that can never be done wrong. Eventually Marina is caught by her lover being sodomised by a stranger while Bizet’s Carmen blares from the stereo. The sordid act is even reflected in the cuckolded guy’s cool shades, yet he turns away with only the sort of mildly embarrassed distaste usually reserved for those who insist on showing off their verrucas. Not recommended then, except naturally for those of us who prefer girls in glasses.



Clip: Helena Ramos shy nude photos (26.0MB)

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

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