“…what matters most is not ideas as such, but their resonances and suggestions, the drama of their possibilities and impossibilities…”
James E. Irby – from his introduction to Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths
(Penguin edition, first published 1964)
a Puta y la Ballena (The Whore and the Whale) is an Argentinean-Spanish co-production, set both in the present and in the 1930’s, taking place largely in Patagonia, but also in Buenos Ares and Madrid. It is, superficially at least, the tale of a Spanish writer who becomes intrigued by a letter and a set of photographs from the 1930s and at the behest of her editor travels to Buenos Ares to uncover the story behind the documents. One might say this is La Oficial Historia, - that being the title of a previous film by Argentine director Luis Puenzo, and one which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language feature in 1986. (There is a short human rights message relating to the subject matter of that earlier film on the DVD, available on selection of the Argentine version of the menu.)
Watching the on-line trailer for La Puta y la Bellena, one might anticipate a cross between Land and Freedom (a present day protagonist investigates old letters and uncovers a personal connection to a drama in the Spanish Civil War,) and The English Patient (elegantly evoked period romance, an aeroplane and exotic cinematography). Nothing could be further from the truth, and perhaps the recent film La Puta y la Bellena most resembles is Sex and Lucia. Both are erotic Spanish language dramas much concerned with writing and water, in which the nature of reality and fiction become entangled in complex, enigmatic ways. The film also bears some resemblance to the much less ambitious, and ultimately trite Swimming Pool – another recent film in which a female writer has a long-standing, complex relationship with her editor, which involves sex and water to a considerable degree, and in which reality and fiction become intertwined.
On every level though, La Puta y la Bellena is superior to all four of the above mentioned films. Visually it is by far the most accomplished, being shot wide in Panavision ratio and clearly designed to be seen on a big screen (DVD clearly doesn’t do it justice), with gorgeous images from darkly lit bordellos to the vast and stark beauty of the Patagonian coast being photographed with a real sense of scale and cinematic imagination. There is a painterly beauty to La Puta y la Bellena, a depth of field to the images sadly lacking from most modern films, and a real eye for composition. Equally, the score by Andrés Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab is lush, rich, melodic and filled with melancholy beauty.
The result is a luxuriant film with a large scale, classical sensibility and an elegance rarely seen in the age of mindless digital blockbusters. Beyond these aspects of the film, that which most critics immediately latch onto – the performances – are all first rate, but without a worthwhile script all this would be for nothing. And it is in the sophisticated storyline that La Puta y la Bellena excels (though non-Spanish speakers will not be able to appreciate the contrasting styles of Spanish spoken in the various sections of the film).
Luis Puenzo hails from Buenos Ares. He co-wrote the intricately constructed drama with his daughter, Lucía Puenzo and Ángeles González Sinde. This is significant, because taken on face value, the film rests upon one huge coincidence which leads to further unlikely circumstances, such as will likely test to the limit the credulity of the more literal minded film goer. There are likely to be three main responses to the film; that it is a realist drama which despite being handsomely mounted doesn’t work because the story isn’t believable. This is likely to be the response of many English language mainstream critics, should they ever get a chance to see the film. A second response is that La Puta y la Bellena shows its Latin American heart by being a mainstream drama shot through with an element of Magical Realism – there is one fantastical element to the story, a self-powering light bulb, which cannot be explained in ‘realistic’ terms.
The third response, and one essential to unlocking the mystery of this very fine film is note that Buenos Ares was the birth place and first home of the great Argentine short story writer and essayist, Jorge Luis Borges. La Puta y la Bellena can only be understood as a work which is both a homage to Borges and a first rate Borgesian tale in its own right.
The story concerns a journalist, Vera (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who aged 20 wrote an erotic semi-autobiographical novel but then threw it away (a plot element which very closely echoes Swimming Pool). The book was rescued by her publisher lover, the print edition leading to Vera’s estrangement from her father and presumably contributing to the split between herself and her lover. Some years later Vera travels from Madrid to Buenos Ares, then on to Patagonia to trace a story from the 1930’s, one involving a love letter, old photographs, a whale, a bordello and the tango. Vera, we discover, has hereditary breast cancer – a fact which leads to a life changing event in Buenos Ares… and her entrance into a Borgesian labyrinth.
Borges grew up around the world of bordellos and the music of the tango. He travelled from Buenos Ares to Madrid, where he wrote two books which he destroyed, unpublished, aged 22. A magazine writer, he inherited a medical condition from his anarchist father which resulted in his eventual blindness. The themes of his stories were doubles, echoing patterns, the repetition of history, elegant philosophical paradoxes, the crossing of the line between ‘objective’ reality and another world which functions to psychological, often subconscious dictates, so that the protagonist looks back and can not see that the line ever existed at all.
There is a moment when Vera ‘crosses the line’ – by conventional film standards a key scene is missing – and suddenly Vera is in hospital, has already been operated on, and determines from now on to do exactly as she likes. She has crossed into a world governed by her psychological needs, and suddenly ‘coincidence’ flowers around her. The lady in the very next bed to her turns out to be, against obviously incredible odds, Matilde, one of the women from the 1934 photographs Vera is tracing… soon events become stranger still, as a whale central to the events of 1934 reappears stranded on the beach in exactly the same place 70 years later… (a whale which like Vera is ‘scarred’ – both she and the whale are told they are the only ones who can wriggle out of their predicament, but has the whale come to live or die?)
The line between the filmmaker conventionally inter-cutting the events of past and present dissolves as Vera literally writes the story herself – how much of what happens in the past is ‘real’ how much ‘interpretation’ is left to the audience. But then the film implies, is not recounting the past always to interpret it; like Schrödinger’s Cat, life and death is all in the eye of the beholder.
Vera recreates herself through the story of Lola, and Lola’s story becomes one of the quest, and price, for personal freedom. If Lola’s tale begins and ends with references to Vertigo, the film suggests there are different ways to freedom. For Vera the film climaxes with a homage to The Tempest, freeing both herself from the past, and our heroine in the past through the most powerful act a writer can commit… And manipulating events in the past is the figure of Suárez (Miguel Ángel Solá), who sets a Sophie’s Choice-lite dilemma around which the central tragedy and paradox of freedom resolves. The arch-manipulator of destinies, Suárez is, just like Borges, blind…
La Puta y la Bellena is a film of paradoxes, mirrors, reflections and repetitions. A rare example of truly adult cinema, those with a taste for Borges, Roeg and Resnais will appreciate it as little short of a masterpiece. It is certainly by far the finest film of 2004. Yet so far it has only been released in Argentina and Spain. If it does not receive a wide international release with the same sort of fanfare as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it will be a crime against cinema.
Presentation: The NTSC disc looks and sounds very good, the only real glitch being a logo imposed by the company responsible for the digital transfer the moment the end credits begin. This is something I have never seen before, but perhaps is common practice on Argentinean DVDs. It is somewhat distracting for a moment, though nothing like as bad as the treatment films routinely get on television.
Extras: These are routine, comprising a trailer, TV spot (another trailer), 5 Filmographies, a page of credits and a stills gallery. The only significant extra is a 19 minute long making-of documentary. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles, though from the point of view of FMOTW, there is a brief section on the score showing Andrés Goldstein Daniel Tarrab in a studio.