Friday, 4 March 2011

La madre muerta / The Dead Mother (Bajo Ulloa, 1993)

Director: Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Screenplay: Juanma and Eduardo Bajo Ulloa
Cast: Karra Elejalde, Ana Álvarez, Lio, Silvia Marsó
Synopsis: During a burglary, Ismael (Elejalde) casually murders a woman and shoots her young daughter. Fifteen years later, the girl (Leire – Álvarez) is mute and has the mental age of a three-year-old. By chance Ismael sees Leire in the street and becomes convinced that she can recognise him. He decides to kidnap her with the intention of killing her but….
Trailer: here (wordless apart from someone shouting “Leire!”).
Availability: Not available in the UK, but a re-mastered 3-disc ‘edición coleccionista’ (with optional English subtitles for the film) was released in Spain in 2008 and can often be found on Ebay UK and Amazon Marketplace. Is available on Region 1 DVD as well.

‘La madre muerta is the story of a killer without scruples who steals chocolate from a little girl, and of how the little girl takes back the chocolate from her (now) victim years later’ –Juanma Bajo Ulloa (DVD booklet [my translation])

Note: contains some spoilers but I have tried to avoid major plot points and the ending.

     A few weeks ago I said that I needed a starting point for this blog and decided that I would look at some of the many directorial debuts that were shot in Spain in the last twenty years. Wanting to start at the beginning of the period, I thought that my first port of call would be Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s Alas de mariposa / Butterfly Wings (1991). Then I watched it for the first time. It is usually easy to write about a film if it provokes strong feelings (either positive or negative) in you, but it is considerably harder if a film leaves you indifferent to its charms. Unfortunately I hit a brick wall with Alas de mariposa because, although I can appreciate its strengths (it makes good use of genre conventions, and often uses them to mislead the viewer, it is very atmospheric, and stylishly and beautifully shot, and the little girl (Laura Vaquero) is brilliant), I struggle to find anything to ‘say’ about it. It is worth watching, but it is not really my sort of film. So I’m going to finesse the original brief that I gave myself and say that I’ll start with the work of new directors who emerged in the last twenty years, but not necessarily their directorial debuts. I’m doing this for ‘fun’, so I don’t want it to turn into a chore. Therefore we move on to Bajo Ulloa’s second film, La madre muerta.

       I first saw La madre muerta more than ten years ago on VHS (which actually makes it all the more strange to me that it’s not available on DVD in the UK –by what process of logic do we get DVD releases of things like Días de fútbol / Football Days (Serrano, 2003) and Mentiras y gordas / Sex, Party, and Lies (Albacete & Menkes, 2009), but not this?). The scenes / things that I remembered most strongly were the prologue (the burglary), the scene in which Ismael tries to kidnap Leire from her grandmother’s care and knocks himself out with the chloroform he has prepared for the grandmother (I’ll write a separate post on that specific scene because it is a fantastic set piece), the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael pretends to be a clown to try to make Leire laugh, the intrepid investigating nurse hiding down the side of the wardrobe, and the image of Leire chained to the bed with a dog collar. Watching the DVD, I was surprised that I had no memory whatsoever of the scene in the bar, which is incredibly violent and nasty (leaving us in no doubt, if we had any after the prologue, that Ismael is capable of anything), but it is perhaps the case that the other scenes stand out more in their originality (or their stylishness, at least) and that is why I remember them better.
       From the beginning of the film Bajo Ulloa plays with genre conventions and perspectives (i.e. the (physical) angle from which we view events can radically alter our perception of what we have seen) to continually wrongfoot the viewer. As Mark Allinson observes, the prologue has all the hallmarks of a thriller and the viewer’s ‘generic expectations’ (2003: 147) initially lead us to think that the woman we see being woken up by the intruder’s noise will be the protagonist of the film. But we barely have time to register the woman’s presence in the same room as the intruder (we hear her, rather than see her –she says ‘No hay dinero’ [‘There is no money’]) before the intruder raises and fires the shotgun, and the woman (and mother of the title) drops to the floor (Ismael steps over her with barely a glance). Allinson notes that our assumptions then turn to the possibilities of the investigative crime thriller, but that is also not to be, and the character who later on thinks that she is in a detective film (Blanca) does not triumph in her endeavours (Bajo Ulloa chirpily comments on the audio-commentary at the ‘end’ of that narrative strand that ‘in real life, the good don’t win’ [my translation]).

The sequence that utilises Blanca's POV by the wardrobe to mislead the viewer before offering a comic reveal (to the viewer, but not to Blanca).
       Leslie Felperin points out that ‘throughout the film, an edit or a camera angle obscures a view’ (1996: 46), with the intention of making events and motivations ambiguous; there are several sequences in the film where the camera takes on a character's POV in such a way that the viewer is misled. The most infamous of these is the sequence where Blanca (Marsó), the nurse who cares for Leire at the medical daycare clinic, breaks into the house to rescue Leire but then finds herself trapped. She hides down the side of the wardrobe in the room where Leire is chained to the bed. When Ismael enters the room, the camera takes Blanca’s POV. Initially she cannot see him but leans forward when she hears a zip being undone and sees Ismael’s back as he stands alongside the bed, with Leire kneeling on the bed in front of him: from Blanca’s POV it looks as if Ismael is forcing Leire to perform oral sex on him. The camera then cuts to what is effectively Leire’s POV, in front of Ismael, and in a darkly comic ‘reveal’ the audience sees that he has actually been feeding her a bar of chocolate (both of them have a sweet tooth) that is hidden in the pocket of his jacket. We then see a shot of Maite’s (Ismael's girlfriend, played by Lio) eye at the doorframe –she is seeing the same scene from the mirror angle of Blanca (she is also behind Ismael but on his other side). Both women then see Leire eating chocolate and come to the same conclusion as to what they have seen (they take the chocolate to be a ‘reward’ -both mutter ‘hijo de puta’, although for slightly different reasons). 

      That sequence not only misleads the viewer for a comic payoff but also plays on the deep unease felt by the audience because of the ambiguous ‘attraction’ that Leire holds for Ismael. When he goes in search of her (after his accidental sighting of her), his initial perspective is through a hedge and the above shot encapsulates how Ismael treats Leire as something to be looked at and watched –the framing through the gap in the hedge giving the shot a peep show quality. The disquiet created by his watching her is shared by Maite, who starts to become jealous of Leire, and question Ismael’s feelings for her, when she discovers him asleep in a chair opposite Leire’s bed. His excuse (that he was worried she might escape) leads Maite to suggest chaining her up, which only increases the tension; as the review in the Time Out Film Guide says, ‘the fact that Leire, a helpless child trapped in a woman's body, is fetishistically manacled to a bed lends a dangerous, almost perverse erotic edge to some scenes’. This comes to a head in the ‘Aguadilu’ scene where Ismael (desperately) tries to make Leire laugh (he is preoccupied throughout the film by the fact that she does not smile or laugh) by putting on silly voices, making noises, and painting his face like a clown. In a final attempt, he decides to tickle her during which he grabs her breast, an action that was innocently intended (consciously, at least) but which visibly shocks him as he is confronted by the fact that Leire may have the mind of a child (and Álvarez’s performance of wide-eyed wonderment during the clown sequence is brilliantly observed), but she has the body of a woman. Although she has previously shocked him by returning his gaze (in a second sequence where he looks at her through the hedge at the clinic, a noise attracts her attention and she looks straight at him –he runs off), this scene seems to be the first time that he acknowledges to himself that he views her as something more than a child (he furtively looks over his shoulder after he touches her breast, as if someone might catch him in the act –also an acknowledgement that what he’s doing is wrong), but also something more than just a hostage. He looks at her sadly, and then moves away from her: he is unable to look at his own reflection when he sits back down in his normal chair / observation post, and he slams the mirrored wardrobe door shut.

The 'Aguadilu' scene -this is why children are scared of clowns
       That the film allows him to become self-aware points to its humane treatment of the characters; although Ismael is not allowed off the hook, he is offered the chance of redemption. The film has a fairytale quality (something that it has in common with Alas de mariposa and Bajo Ulloa’s later film, Frágil / Fragile (2004)), but Ismael is allowed to be something other than just a monster –Karra Elejalde’s performance is as central to this as anything in the script. In an introductory piece in the DVD booklet, director Nacho Vigalondo (who cast Elejalde in his directorial debut, Los cronocrímenes / Timecrimes (2007)) describes the actor and his performance as ‘creating a character that, like the rest of the film, is a balancing act between ‘costumbrismo’ [something very specifically local] and impossible cliché, summed up in the red painted face [in the Aguadilu scene –see above] that is as much circus-like as it is demonic. Your father’s friend, and an extraterrestrial. At the same time’ (my translation). Bajo Ulloa says on the audio-commentary that his main problem after writing the script was finding the right actors to play the two central roles. Álvarez is outstanding as Leire, and utterly believable as the child trapped in a woman’s body (you do not see her ‘acting’ at any point), but Elejalde (who makes a brief appearance in Alas de mariposa) has to walk a tightrope of charm and menace while also carrying off some darkly comic sequences. The film was not warmly received by Spanish critics (the El País review linked to below is so scathing that it will make you wince), but the English reviews that I have found take a more positive view of the combination of the tender and the twisted that the film manages to pull together through plot, character, and performance.

Further reading:
Allinson, M. (2003) –‘Is the auteur dead? The case of Juanma Bajo Ulloa', International Journal of Iberian Studies, 15:3, pp.143-151.  
Cáceres Tapia, J.D. (2009) –‘Juanma Bajo Ulloa en DVD’, Miradas de cine, no.83 (February).
Felperin, L. (1996) –‘La Madre Muerta’, Sight & Sound, March, pp.45-46.
Fernández-Santos, Á. (1994) –‘La madre muerta: El cine como engaño', El País, 15th January.
Floyd, N. (1996) –‘La Madre Muerta', Time Out Film Guide [other details unknown –although the review is on p.652 of the 2008 edition]
Newman, K. (1996) -‘La Madre Muerta' (****), Empire, [I don’t know which issue, but it was released in the UK in March]

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