Category: Melodrama

The Human Voice (La voz humana, Spain 2020)

Pedro Almodóvar’s short film (30 minutes) made during the 2020 lockdown in Madrid is currently streaming on MUBI. I was not sure what to expect from one of my favourite filmmakers working in English for the first time and featuring only Tilda Swinton and a collie dog – apart from a brief appearance by Agustín Almodóvar. I read afterwards that Pedro was relieved that working with Ms Swinton turned out to be straightforward. He’d been very worried about working in English. The Human Voice is loosely based on the short theatrical performance piece written by Jean Cocteau in 1928 and staged for the first time in 1930. It has since been performed by a host of female stars, including Anna Magnani for Roberto Rossellini’s L’amore (1948) in which it is paired with another short piece, Il miracolo. Almodóvar had first referenced the piece in Law of Desire (1987) and it then provided inspiration for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

‘The woman’ (Tilda Swinton) and the set of the apartment. Many of the books, paintings and DVDs are from Pedro Almodóvar’s own apartment.

This version of The Human Voice has received much more attention than most short films, partly because of the the unusual circumstances of its production and release during the pandemic but also because of the combination of Almodóvar and Swinton. In formal terms and in its production values, the film is a familiar production from El Deseo. The mode is melodrama and the glories that an experienced team can produce are evident in the lush score by Alberto Iglesias, the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine and the production design by Antxon Gómez. Editor Teresa Font, art director María Clara Notari and others all have at least one earlier Almodóvar production under their belts. From the stunning opening titles through the design of the two studio sets, the presentation of sound, colour and mise en scène delivers everything that we might hope for. I won’t spoil the ending which is slightly different, but the main setting which takes up the bulk of the 30 minutes is an apartment built within a sound stage and presented to us as precisely that, a construction emphasising its own artificialty as it references familiar scenes from Almodóvar’s films, especially the balcony with flowers that features in slightly different versions in both Women on the Verge and Tie Me Up!, Tie Me Down!. But this is very much up market Madrid as evidenced by the costumes and the paintings and the ‘designerware’. Almodóvar emphasises the references with the books and DVDs that his character has lying about the apartment, copies of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956) amongst others, the only jarring note being a copy of Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) – but maybe that’s just me. The books include works by Alice Munro, Truman Capote and Edna O’Brien but many of these references are only visible if you freeze-frame the image. As in most of Almodóvar’s choices, these ‘significant objects’ are carefully chosen. There is a print of a watercolour by Alberto Vargas, whose 1940s paintings of Hollywood female stars became iconic as a form of Hollywood sexuality, and a 17th century study of ‘Venus and Cupid’ (Sleeping Venus) by Artemisia Gentileschi.

Tilda in red with ear-buds in front of ‘Venus and Cupid’ in her bedroom.

The role of ‘the woman’ is seemingly constructed to offer a star actress the opportunity to demonstrate all she can do. Almodóvar makes the role even more challenging by adopting modern technology, thus depriving the actor of a key prop. In the original stage production and presumably in the later Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman (on TV) performances ‘the woman’ is featured for much of the time in a telephone conversation with the lover who is leaving her. The woman has a physical telephone and a cord linking the telephone to the receiver. She can manipulate the ‘phone and the cord. Swinton however has ear-buds/ear pods and a smartphone in another room. She is effectively delivering a monologue as she moves around the apartment. I found her performance riveting but also slightly unreal. I think her voice, as the title suggests, is the key to the narrative – and, of course, Almodóvar is possibly not able to judge how it sounds to British audiences. I’m not sure if he is a better judge of American voices? This sense of the artificial ‘performance’ voice matches the presentation of the set which straddles a form of realism but also the excess of melodrama and consciously presents its artificialty.

I’m not sure whether the whole thing works for me. As someone who doesn’t use a smartphone and has never tried ear-buds, I generally don’t like to see people wandering about, speaking to themselves. I’m also not really a Tilda Swinton fan, though I admire her acting skills and some of her key performances. In this film the camera is often very close to her face, offering us every detail of her skin and bone structure. She is brave in her wholehearted performance but I guess I just don’t feel the emotion. There are complicated questions about how emotions work in melodramas. In one interview, with Almodóvar we discover:

an otherworldly Tilda Swinton – a cross between David Bowie and Deborah Kerr, according to Almodóvar himself – as an emotionally trapped woman who retains her anonymity, just as in Cocteau’s play.

The vivid primary colours and especially the red dress make me think of Michael Powell and Deborah Kerr, and also of Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. I’m already trying to imagine the Deborah Kerr of Black Narcissus in the role of ‘the woman’. She had a similar background to Swinton and a similar voice but I have had a very different emotional involvement with her screen presence. With Kerr as Sister Clodagh I am emotionally drained, but with Swinton I’m emotionally distanced. I thought it might be an issue of social class but the two actors have a similar background. Kerr was much younger (and potentially vulnerable) when she worked with Powell, perhaps that is important?

One of the ‘painterly’ images of the woman in a Balenciaga (?) dress

I’ve picked out Tilda Swinton’s performance but there are other elements of the narrative. She does have a companion, the dog Dash also pining for the lover, and there are separate discourses of camerawork and of fashion and designer culture (the latter which I feel powerless to interpret). The film is certainly a noteworthy achievement by Almodóvar and Swinton but I’m looking forward to the next feature. Two have been discussed in trade press reports and the first, Parallel Mothers with Penélope Cruz and Rossy de Palma is said to me opening at Venice in September. It sounds more my kind of thing. The second is likely to be an adaptation of the novel A Manual for Cleaning Ladies by Lucia Berlin – a novel which is, I think, in the piles of books on the table in The Human Voice.

Here’s a short US trailer for The Human Voice:

I think that when this short was released in UK cinemas it was accompanied by a pre-recorded Q&A with Almodóvar and Swinton.

Talk to Her (Hable con ella, Spain 2002)

Benigno and Marco at the Pina Bausch show

Talk to Her is part of MUBI’s current streaming programme of Pedro Almodóvar films. I assumed I’d seen it and I remembered that several friends and colleagues rated it highly. It also won its writer-director a writing Oscar. But when I started to watch the film, I could remember nothing about the narrative. I think it must be one of those famous films that you know about without seeing properly. It may be that the casting fooled me – none of the leads are Almodóvar regulars though Darío Grandinetti as Marco later appeared in Julieta (2016) and Javier Cámara as Benigno in I’m So Excited (Spain 2013). On the other hand, several of the secondary roles are taken by familiar faces. Talk to Her is a different kind of Almodóvar melodrama. In some ways a quieter and more restrained narrative it also has a striking score by Alberto Iglesias, an extraordinary fantasy sequence and the usual exquisite art design of the more familiar melodramas by Almodóvar’s team. The subject matter is potentially ‘disturbing’ and perhaps the impact of the film comes from its delicate treatment, almost like an anti-melodrama. For many film scholars and critics the film represents a peak of creativity.

Rosario Flores as Lydia

The film is written as a series of scenes over several years that are introduced by on-screen titles. Some of the set-ups are recognisable from earlier and later films by Almodóvar. Two men, Marco and Benigno, sit next to each other at a dance theatre performance of Café Müller by Pina Bausch, though they don’t yet know each other. Benigno lives in an apartment that offers a view down into a dance studio where he sees a young woman, Alicia (Leonor Watling) being coached by an older woman, Katerina (Geraldine Chaplin). Marco is a writer who one day finds himself watching a female bullfighter, Lydia (Rosario Flores). He decides to write a profile of her for a magazine and she will eventually become his girlfriend. Some time later the two men meet in an unusual situation in which the two women they have been watching are both in a coma after separate serious accidents (Lydia is gored by a bull). The men begin to get to know each other. Benigno is an unusual young man who has trained as both a nurse and as a beautician. He has managed to become the main carer for Alicia in a small hospital facility known as ‘El Bosque’. There are other (female) members of Alicia’s care team but Benigno spends most days and nights with her, maintaining her body in excellent condition and, of course, talking to her. Marco is also unusual as a highly sensitive man who Benigno remembers from the theatre performance because Marco cried in response to the emotion on stage. The two men form a strong bond that becomes important for each of them. Benigno allows rumours about his sexuality to circulate but he tells the other workers that he isn’t gay. 

Benigno meets Alicia

I won’t spoil any more of the plot if you haven’t yet seen the film. It is a highly complex and sometimes surprising narrative with an emotional climax. As an Almodóvar film it is consistent with his adoration of beautiful women and his interest in male relationships. The script is indeed remarkable. When the film was released in the UK in the summer of 2002, Sight & Sound invited two well known Spanish film scholars to write about it. Paul Julian Smith wrote a feature for the July 2002 issue and José Arroyo reviewed the film for the September issue. These two writers are aware of the reception of the film in Spain and they are able to spot all the numerous cultural references. Almodóvar is the cover star of the July issue and tagged ‘putting the ‘A’ in art film’. Smith’s piece is given the heading ‘Only Connect’ and the kicker is a suggestion that the film is a change of direction for Almodóvar. With the advantage of a nearly twenty years retrospective view, how should we view the idea of a change of direction now? Looking over the seven features completed since Talk to Her, it seems to me that they represent a mix of stories, genres and ‘personal’/autobiographical interest by the director. What has changed is the nature of art cinema and the status of a filmmaker like Almodóvar both in Spain and Hispanic cinemas and in global cinema more generally.

Two men, two women and three relationships?

Smith describes the reception that Talk to Her received in Spain and the promotion of the film by Almodóvar himself – something that he has become increasingly skilled in organising and presenting. Like many writer-directors, Almodóvar tells us things about himself and why he has included scenes in his films etc. I’m always a little wary of these comments as his promotions of his work are performances in themselves and possibly just as fictional. His comments are useful guides or ‘ways in’ to his films but I’d rather rely on the listings of cultural references in his films by scholars and what I can determine by my own and other more informed readings that are available. In this case there are a number of interesting issues. The first is about the gender discourse in the film and whether its focus is the male relationship between Benigno and Marco or the story of the women – both of which in Almodóvar’s films are informed by his own sexual history and by the women who have inspired him. As Smith argues, there is an initial ambiguity about Benigno’s sexuality. Smith also comments on the way in which Lydia is presented during her ‘robing’ as a bullfighter, with an almost fetishistic focus on the constraints the tight costume creates across her breasts and thighs. Arroyo suggests that the narrative presents Benigno as “his mother’s daughter” and Lydia as “her father’s son”. Sexual ambiguity pervades the narrative.

Benigno shows an image of Pina Bausch to Alicia as he talks to her . . .

The second issue for Almodóvar watchers is the inspirational source for his aesthetics in the film. Unlike the maternal melodrama, fuelled by the director’s affection for All About Eve (1950) which informs All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her draws upon Rossellini and Antonioni (according to Almodóvar himself) to enable “the intensity of emotion with transparency of style”. I’m quoting Paul Julian Smith’s reading of Almodóvar’s statements here. Smith refers to the ‘classic neo-realism’ of Rome, Open City (1945) and adds the “hip Mexican urbanism of Amores perros (2000)”. I haven’t seen the latter film by Alejandro González Iñárritu so I can’t comment but the Rossellini reference makes sense. Smith also mentions Almodóvar’s reference to Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours (1999) which was adapted as a film in 2002. I saw the film but I don’t remember it well enough to make the connection, apart from the narrative shifts between the stories of different characters during different time periods.

For Smith the cumulative effect of the above and a range of other elements of the film is to create a distinctly arthouse aesthetic. He goes as far as suggesting that the appearance of Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Alicia’s dance tutor is a clear sign to Spanish audiences that Almodóvar is “aiming for the outer reaches of the art movie”. I’m not sure that stands up or the claim that the first few minutes of the film (the dance-theatre sequence) is alienating as an opening. However the cultural references and what Smith calls an “aesthetic patterning” do add up to a rich and compelling narrative. I think I prefer José Arroyo’s conclusion that Almodóvar manages to present a complex story as “simply told”, presenting “a range of feeling at once precise and endlessly evocative”. The more I think about the reception of this film (and its promotion by Almodóvar), the more I am reminded by the similar reception of Julieta in 2016.

One of the performances

The one aspect of the film I haven’t discussed is the most controversial aspect of the story – and that is something I think viewers should come across without any previous knowledge. What I will point out is that Almodóvar presents the whole question through a fantasy dream sequence and that this sequence, several minutes long, is matched by other ‘performances’ by the dance-theatre troupe and by musical sequences, one staged as part of the narrative by the Brazilian singer and musical legend Caetano Veloso. Talk to Her is a joy and I don’t understand how or why I didn’t appreciate it first time around.

Ramen Shop (Singapore-Japan-France 2018)

Producer-writer-director Eric Khoo has an interest in Japanese culture as seen in his animated film about a manga writer Tatsumi (Singapore 2011). Khoo has also long been interested in films about food and cooking. Ramen Shop is therefore a logical choice of subject for a film which is about national and personal/familial relationships and centred on identity issues.

Masato (right) working in his family shop with his father in the centre and his uncle on the left of the image

Masato is a very handsome young man (played by Saitō Takumi who worked as a model in his teens and who is rather older than he appears to be in this film). Masato’s mother was from Singapore where the family lived for ten years before his father took them back to Japan. Lian Mei (Jeanette Aw) died in Japan when Masato was still a young teenager and life with his father Kazuo (Ihara Tsuyoshi) was quite difficult as his father tended to ‘shut down’ after his wife’s death. Masato began to work in the family ramen shop in Takasaki in Central Honshu alongside his father’s brother, a man with a much more open personality. Suddenly one day his father collapses and dies. After the funeral Masato discovers his mother’s diaries which detail her life in Singapore. Unfortunately, they are all written in Mandarin which Masato is not able to read. (We assume that as a child he spoke either English or Japanese.) Masato doesn’t remember much about his childhood but as a chef he has been interested in Singaporean food and has kept up a correspondence with a blogger called Miki in Singapore who sends him recipes and spices. He makes a decision to travel to Singapore to try to find out more about his mother’s past. He also wants to find the secret to making the best ‘pork rib soup’, in some ways the Singapore equivalent of ramen. The narrative will develop with a parallel set of flashbacks as Masato uncovers the history of his parents’ relationship.

Masato and Miki enjoying views of Singapore when he first arrives

When Masato arrives in Singapore he meets Miki and she begins his education about Singaporean culture. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to say that eventually Masato finds his other uncle, Wee (Mark Lee) and through Wee he uncovers the family history and answers to some of the puzzles that are in his mother’s scrapbook/diary. Ramen Shop is a family melodrama and in some ways a quite conventional film narrative, but alongside the food angle it has one other important narrative line. Masato’s mother’s family suffered Occupation by Japanese forces in 1942 with various consequences. Masato learns about the War through a visit to a museum in Singapore. I was struck by this sequence, partly because I experienced something similar in New Zealand, in the National Museum in Wellington which at the time I visited was commemorating the New Zealand experiences of 1915 and the abortive landing of Anzac troops at Gallipoli. New Zealand troops suffered heavy losses and terrible conditions in the Gallipoli Campaign. I’ve always seen Winston Churchill as the villain in this instance, being reckless and risking high casualties in his support for the landings (as First Lord of the Admiralty). The Australians and New Zealanders took the events very seriously and Anzac Day is held annually to remember the fallen. As a Brit I felt humbled and shamed in that Museum. There is clearly a Singapore ‘folk memory’ of the Japanese Occupation and for younger Japanese I can imagine that taking on board the prosecution of the Occupation must be an uncomfortable aspect of modern history. There are still questions, I think, about how Japan has dealt with memories of the militarism of the 1930s and the subsequent wars in China and across South and South East Asia. It is ironic that at first Kazuo and Lian Mei must converse in English but I’m still not sure what to make of this.

Father as a young man with Lian Mei

The search for authenticity in cooking both ramen and pork rib soup acts in the film as a way of exploring globalisation. Part of this is connected to the history of both ramen and pork rib soup which were introduced or more correctly popularised and ‘commodified’ at more or less the same time. Both were Chinese in origin. In Japan around the end of the nineteenth century when the Japanese industrial revolution was developing rapidly, the new army of industrial workers facing early starts and tiring days needed hot food available close to workplaces. ‘Chinese noodles’ in broth developed as a form of fast food with a distinctive method of ‘pulling’ noodle dough by hand and using a form of alkaline water to produce round yellow noodles. Various different forms of broth and meat and vegetables have been developed over time and now ramen are eaten in many parts of the world, famously becoming a staple of student life in their dried ‘cup noodle’ form, for cheap instant meals as well as a popular restaurant option. At the same late 19th century point in the exploitation of the potential of the British colonial possessions of Singapore and Malaya, the day labourers on the docks and in the warehouses of Singapore needed food for energy. The labourers were mainly Chinese migrant workers and the solution to the problem of developing a new ‘fast food’ was to import the idea of pork bone soup from Hokkien China (the region from which many migrants came). This proved successful and the Singapore dish of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ developed in which the soup is always accompanied by traditionally mashed Chinese tea. All of this is recognised in the film script and Masato comes to recognise what it means.

Masato with Uncle Wee, taking notes about preparing pork rib soup

Ramen Shop has not been released in the UK but it has opened in North America and many parts of Europe as well as South-East and East Asia. ‘Ramen’ as such haven’t made the same kind of impact on British food culture, simply because, I think, of the competition from Indian, Italian and other cuisines. Chinese food in the UK was at first dominated by Cantonese cuisine as migrants were mainly from Hong Kong or Southern China. More recently Sichuan food seems to have become important. Has the UK missed out by not getting to see Ramen Shop? I found this an enjoyable and informative film. The script is written by two of Eric Khoo’s long-term collaborators, Tan Fong Chen and Wong Kim Hoh. I think these kind of food-focused stories tend to produce ‘feelgood’ endings and that’s the case here but there is enough drama to leaven the overall effect. Ramen Shop is currently available on MUBI in the UK and I would recommend it.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (¡Átame!, Spain 1989)

The plotline of the film as illustrated by Ricky’s drawing.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was the follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK/US and much of the international market was Pedro Almodóvar’s break-out film. What this meant for me was a period of catching up on the earlier films and looking out for the new ones as they arrived. I must have watched Tie MeUp! Tie Me Down! in the early 1990s, probably on a rented VHS tape. I don’t remember too much about that viewing but I doubt that I fully appreciated the beauty of the colours and art direction or indeed the many other striking features. Over time I began to realise that the more of Almodóvar’s films I saw, the more my appreciation grew and the more enjoyable the films became and possibly the more I understood about how they worked. MUBI UK currently offers a selection of Almodóvar titles and watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in HD this time was a joy – but also raised quite a few questions.

Ricky and Marina go through this every time he leaves the apartment.

The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Marina (Victoria Abril) has been a porn actress and is now starring in a mainstream genre film for an ageing director who is a little obsessed with her. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is a young man of 23 who has spent most of his life in care and for the last few years has been kept in a state home for observation of his mental health. But now he has been deemed fit to join the wider community and he is released having learned a number of trades to go alongside his drawing abilities. His first action is to seek out Marina and to kidnap her in the belief that as she gets to know him, she will fall in love with him and agree to marry him and together produce a family. Not until the latter part of the narrative will we learn more of Ricky’s early life and what has informed his quest.

One of my favourite images from the film. Ricky visits the hardware store just like a serial killer in a genre film but he’s actually buying the strongest but softest rope in red with which to tie up Marina.

In many ways this is a familiar Almodóvar scenario but the elements of the story perhaps refer back to the earlier films a little more than some of the other post-1988 films. Certainly the film initially caused some classification problems in territories outside of Spain. In the US it was first classified as an ‘X’ before eventually being re-classified as ‘NC 17′. In the UK it received an ’18’ certificate, now reduced to ’15’. Almodóvar began his filmmaking career as a provocateur in that strange period after the death of Franco in 1975, using stories about sexuality, drug use  and ‘excess’ to expose and undermine the conservative ideologies that had held Spain in thrall for decades. Gradually his style has matured but it still carries the promise of something disruptive. In 2021, however, in the age of #metoo, how should we approach these earlier films? When Ricky breaks in to Marina’s flat he assaults her and later ties her up and tapes over her mouth. In the ensuing interchanges in Marina’s bedroom and bathroom she is sometimes naked or partially dressed. In what Kim Newman in his Monthly Film Bulletin review from July 1990 refers to as Almodóvar’s “regulation sleaze”, we have already seen Marina in her bath indulging in a little erotic play with a motorised frogman (perhaps a porn actress doubled for Ms Abril?) and we’ve seen Marina ‘posing’ in a conventional vamp mode in the film she has just finished. But is there anything here to suggest that Almodóvar is exploiting his star? I think one of the challenges offered by the film is the detailed plot which if taken as the basis for a realist drama may be too disturbing and/or offensive for many audiences. But, remember that this is an Almodóvar film – and a sumptuous melodrama. Trying to see it as a realist exploration of a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ narrative is a mistake, I think.

Marina ‘posing’ in the film she is making – ‘Midnight Phantom’.

The threatening figure (from the giallo?) in Midnight Phantom.

As Newman also points out, Almodóvar doesn’t attempt to develop anything around the fetish possibilities of bondage – which apparently is what so disturbed the MPAA in the US. I wonder what Hitchcock in 1989 would have developed with the same script possibilities? Overall I thought this was almost a ‘sweet’ movie and [SPOILER!] they do eventually get it together. As well as the hugely appealing performances by the two leads, Ennio Morricone’s score is often gorgeous and almost unbearably tender at one point. There are some well-known critics who really seemed to dislike the film or felt unable to come to terms with it when it first appeared. A ‘dark romantic comedy’ is one description, but I’ve seen references to gialli and particularly Dario Argento, mainly related to the ‘film within a film’ in which Marina is appearing titled Midnight Phantom. Almodóvar teases us with a poster on the wall in the Midnight Phantom cutting room for the original version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – the film which satirises the idea of ‘pod people’. Is this a possible reference to audiences who are so brainwashed by conservative ideology that they can’t appreciate what’s really going on? For me the key genre is screwball comedy and this relates to the playing by Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas. I think also that not enough attention is played to the closing section of the film when Ricky tries to find the village and the house in Extremadura where he lived as a child. Almodóvar often draws upon his own experiences as a boy from rural La Mancha who travelled to Madrid to ‘find himself’. He also often includes stories about women like his mother – this time Marina’s mother – and the women he met in Madrid. The same theme is crucial in Volver (2006) and also in his most recent feature Pain and Glory (2019) – which stars Banderas as an ageing film director thinking about his childhood, this time in a cave village community in Valencia. It’s worth remembering too that Marina is trying to go clean after years of drug use and that she has a little family melodrama of her own which includes her sister and her mother.

Marina’s sister also works on the film as production manager. Red, you might have guessed, is the dominant colour in almost every scene.

I genuinely enjoyed this film but I’m worried that the subject matter will already have put some readers off. I thought I’d check out the the film scholar take on the film to see if I was out on a limb. Rob Stone in his 2002 Spanish Cinema book from Longman offers a detailed study of the film, considering Banderas as star and exploring his presentation of ideas about sexuality in the context of Spanish society in the period and Almodóvar’s position as an important cultural figure. At one point he suggests: “For all its scandalous reputation ¡Átame! is the most romantic of features, wholly celebratory in its final union of our beauty and her beast . . .” I’m not going to attempt to present the whole of Stone’s complex analysis and how he reaches this conclusion, but it is certainly convincing for me. I do realise however that I’ve not mentioned the ‘excessive’ use of Christian imagery in the opening titles and in Marina’s apartment. ¡Átame! is a very rich text. But in their book Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Manchester University Press 1998) Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas add a warning to their similar analysis of the film. Referring back to her 1995 contribution to Me Jane. Masculinity, Movies and Women, eds Kirkham and Thumin, Morgan-Tamosunas makes a prescient observation. She argues that Almodóvar’s arguments might work:

within the fictional world that he constructs, free from the constraints of dominant ideological concepts, but that his audiences inhabit a world in which the repression of women is too deeply entrenched within social and psychological consciousness for such representations to be entirely free from mysogynistic interpretation. (1998: 116)

I can’t argue with that. Almodóvar has managed to continue to develop his body of work but it has been a long and complex development and watching the early films now in the current context of #metoo could certainly be seen as disturbing. I think that viewing ¡Átame! in 2021 should make us consider the history of artistic representations carefully and encourage us to read films with more attention to how and why they were constructed in ways which might disturb us. If you’ve never seen Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I urge you to give it a try and to let it run all the way through before you think about the critics’ response.

The Goddess and the Hero (Devi Aur Hero, Hindi, India 2019)

The third film from the Indian author-turned-director Aditya Kripalani was well received at the Kolkata International Film Festival in late 2019 where it won the NETPAC Award (Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema) but was then stalled in distribution by the impact of the COVID pandemic. It is expected to be available on streaming services in the near future.

The ‘Goddess’ and ‘Hero’ of the title are Kaali Ghosh (Chitrangada Chakraborty) and Dr. Vikrant Saraswat (Vinay Sharma). She is a young woman trapped by a history of abuse and he is a practising therapist suffering from a form of sex addiction. She needs his help but he is told by his own therapist that he must try to keep practising for both male and female clients but must not become emotionally involved with his female clients. He must focus on his work.

Compared to the earlier two films Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017) and The Incessant Fear of Rape (India 2019) this feels like a different kind of narrative though elements are shared across all three films and the main theme is again the misogyny of contemporary Indian society. One of the main common elements of the three films is another notable performance by Chitrangada Chakraborty and Vinay Sharma is also making a return after his role as the male hostage in The Incessant Fear of Rape

Our first view of Kaali (Chitrangada Chakraborty), trapped in her abuser’s apartment

Kaali Ghosh is a young woman from Kolkata now living in Mumbai and seemingly trapped as a sex worker. As a teenager she was abused by her father and subsequently became the sex slave of the son of a wealthy industrialist. When we first meet her she is clearly disturbed but escapes from Mittal Jr’s apartment, sees and advert for Dr. Vikrant and sets out to meet him. During this introduction intertitles are used to emphasise ‘The Problem’, ‘The Hero’ and ‘The Goddess’. I’m not sure if this is intended to present the narrative as a form of ‘Psychiatric Case Study’. Later we will get ‘The Resolution’ but I didn’t notice/remember other titles.

Vikrant (Vinay Sharma) spends perhaps too much time fantasising about his phone contacts . . .

I did find this opening sequence less engaging than those of the other two films but whether this was to do with my reading failure or the difficulty of constructing the introduction of the two characters, I’m not sure. There is a long history of film narratives dealing with the psychiatrist-client relationship, with several well-known Hollywood films released in the 1940s and 1950s when Freudian practice began to become better known in the US. I’m not sure if representations of psychiatry have appeared often in Indian cinemas. In this film we have two therapist-client relationships and then when Vikrant and Kaali meet he will struggle to establish a professional relationship before diagnosing her condition as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In the past this was sometimes known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and it is characterised by moments of blackout and loss of memory associated with the appearance of different distinct identities. The sufferer may see and hear these alternative ‘selves’ and take action according to what the voices are saying. DID/MPD may be brought on by traumatic experiences, including childhood trauma. It can sometimes last just a few weeks, but may last much longer and require extended therapeutic treatment.

Therapist and client both have problems

The relationship between therapist and client/patient is key to successful treatment and the premise for the narrative involving Kaali and Vikrant is doubly problematic because of his sex addiction. She needs his help and he needs to develop a working relationship with her both for her sake and his own. The sensible option would be for him to refer Kaali to another therapist, but to do so would be to ignore his own therapist’s advice – and anyway would not make such an interesting dilemma. The set-up that does develop leads us into a form of melodrama with plenty of action. ‘Kaali’ is presumably a name which refers to ‘Kali’ the Hindu goddess seen as one of the ‘aspects’ of the mother goddess Parvati. She is associated with defeating evil and often depicted

I’m a little out of my depth here but I did note that twice Kaali alters the name board outside Vikrant’s office. She moves the letter ‘i’ of the clip-on characters so that it appears at the end of Vikrant’s family name which now reads Saraswati, the name of the goddess of learning and wisdom. Kaali is an intelligent young woman and she appears to have an interest in art and in martial arts. Once Vikrant has established that Kaali hears voices and these are activated via tex messages and audio, the narrative moves into action sequences as the pacing of the narrative increases. By this stage I was very much engaged and overall I thought film was successful.

Kaali in her warrior identity confronts one of her abusers

I noted a couple of issues around the sexual content in the film. A couple of times the camera focused on parts of the action rather than showing the whole scene. I wasn’t sure if this was a form of self-censorship. Deciding how and what to show in a sex scene is tricky and in this case visualising Vikrant’s compulsion to fantasise about Kaali and her red nails is a real challenge. It is necessary I think for the plot, but it isn’t pretty. My other concern is that as in the other two films, all the men (apart from Vikrant and his struggles) are shown to be misogynistic. Of course there is no real reason why a filmmaker can’t choose to write/direct characters like this but it does make me wonder about the differences between social realism, various forms of genre cinema or a character-driven drama. At times this film has elements of all three. I will be intrigued to see if this kind of mix carries through to the next film by Aditya Kripalani.

From the few comments I have seen this film does speak to audiences and they are prepared to listen. The central story is intriguing and there are other pleasures including the use of Mumbai locations and several music tracks. I would recommend the film as a sensitively handled and thought-provoking action melodrama.

(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)

Binding Sentiments (Holdudvar, Hungary 1969)

Kati (Kati Kovács, left) and Edit

Binding Sentiments is the second feature by Márta Mészáros, following The Girl  (1968) and like the earlier film it is currently streaming on MUBI UK. As in The Girl, Kati Kovács takes a leading role, but in this case not as the protagonist. The film is shot in the CinemaScope ratio, featuring both crowded interiors and some sweeping location footage, especially in a lakeside resort.

The central character is Edit (Mari Töröcsik), who in the film’s opening sequence is seen travelling to the airport to formally receive the ashes of her husband who has died while on official business in Paris. He was a prominent academic turned politician and after a formal trip to a mausoleum in a motor cavalcade, Edit finally returns exhausted to her large city centre apartment where she meets her younger son Gáspár (Gáspár Jancsó). The older son István (Lajos Balázsovits) eventually arrives with his girlfriend Kati (Kati Kovács). All three younger people are students and the couple are sleeping together. The formalities are not yet over and Edit hosts a reception for many of her husband’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances (all men). She is clearly under a lot of strain but she conducts herself properly as she tries to follow proper procedures and deal with men who all knew her husband for different reasons. She has less formal meetings with her women friends. After everything has settled down, she finds herself alone with István and Kati. This whole section covering the husband’s internment and formal mourning makes up the first half of the narrative. The second half will focus on how Edit deals with her situation.

Edit and Mancika (Mari Szemes) – one of her oldest friends? This is the day after the funeral.

Edit’s husband either had family wealth prior to his political career or being a politician in Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s was very well rewarded. The family villa is marvellously situated with a view over the lake and vineyards around the house. Edit has a room with large windows that open directly on the lake view. But all is not well. István believes that his mother is depressed or ‘overwrought’ and he charges Kati with ‘looking after’ Edit – in practice being her gaoler.  It may be that István feels that his mother does not properly recognise her husband’s legacy. In his room in the family apartment he had pinned up large blown-up photos of Kati alongside an image of Lenin. What we have now is a form of psychological drama. Edit is increasingly angry and determined to break out. Kati is unsure why she has been asked to act in this way and ambivalent about how she should behave. Mészáros offers us some examples of life outside the villa, including the antics of Gáspár and his friends. As in The Girl, there is an intriguing glimpse into popular culture for young people in Hungary in the late 1960s – and how it is viewed by the authorities.

István ((Lajos Balázsovits) and Kati

This unusual film narrative has not been widely discussed online and some of the reviews I’ve seen seem just plain wrong in some respects. Márta Mészáros seems always to have made films about women’s relationships and often about relationships between women. When the psychological drama begins to develop it raises questions about three women in particular. As well as Edit and Kati, there are also the women of the region where the villa is situated and Edit meets her aunt who encourages her to indulge in a nostalgia for a more folkloric past. This evokes a very different Hungary to the promise of modernity pursued by Kati. Edit is placed between the the two worlds unsure of how to act. She had fallen out of love with her husband and though she accepts the material rewards that her position has brought her, she is seemingly uncomfortable with them, especially when they seem to anger Kati.

I’m sure that somewhere I have read a commentary on the film which refers to possible political metaphors about the relationship between Hungary and the Soviet Union. After the funeral, Edit and Manci (see the image above) mention 1956 when Edit’s husband fled the country in the face of Soviet intervention. This political subtext would make sense in terms of director Mészáros’ own biography and her continued interest in both women’s lives and the politics of Eastern Europe. However, I can’t now find such a commentary and I don’t feel equipped to pursue it here. (This film is the only one in MUBI’s selection that is not discussed in detail in the notes on the website.) So, I’ll just enjoy the visual splendour of the film as constructed by Mészáros and cinematographer János Kende, working relatively early in his distinguished career. The film looks wonderful in B+W ‘Scope but the documentary experience of Mészáros shines through, especially in relation to the actions of the young people and is not lost in the visual sweep of the lake, the villa and the hills. There is often pop/rock music playing when the young people are around – music in a similar style to West Coast American music of the late 1960s. There is also close attention to fashion and Edit’s son’s bedroom has a familiar image of Che Guevara. The lead performances are all strong. I just wish I could find out more about the film and its production – it seems a big step forward in terms of budget from The Girl.