Undertow (2009)

In the Peruvian Undertow (Contracorriente), it takes a tragic loss of life – and the appearance of a ghost – to make a family man comfortable with his own sexuality, which, the film suggests, also makes him more of a man.

Cotracorriente / Undertow (2009)Peru
4*

Director:
Javier Fuentes-León

Screenwriters:
Javier Fuentes-León
Julio Rojas
Director of Photography:
Mauricio Vidal

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Contracorriente

“There are a thousand ways to be a man”, says the boyfriend of Undertow‘s main character, the handsome curly-haired Miguel (Cristian Mercado), whose wife, Mariela, is close to giving birth to their first child. In his tiny fishing village on the Peruvian coast, being a man necessarily involves having a family (unless you’re the priest), and having friends depends on acting like a man.

In the film’s stunning opening close-up, Miguel turns his head and gently places it on Mariela’s bare belly to feel the baby kicking. He suggests it will be a boy and playfully calls the baby “Miguelito”. Mariela scolds him, concerned it might be a girl and that she might be confused if she heard her father calling her “Miguelito” through the womb. Babies can hear everything, she says. So can we, just a few minutes in, as it is made clear that in this town a man is a man and a woman a woman.

This makes Miguel’s extra-conjugal relationship with Santiago (Manolo Cardona) something of an existential problem, and despite being in a relationship that has clearly matured over time, Miguel is still far from comfortable viewing their bond as something entirely “manly”.

And yet, it is clear the relationship is not some infatuation. Eschewing the uncertainty that so often accompanies the start of a same-sex liaison, especially in a conservative society like this one in rural Peru with its (religious and non-religious) traditions, director Javier Fuentes-León starts his début feature in medias res, after the two have already known each other for a period of time.

Santiago, an artist who mostly keeps to himself, is an outsider in town and gets on some people’s nerves as he goes around taking photos of people and events to paint at home. His house even gets egged on a regular basis by children whose parents no doubt sanction their actions.

The first time we see Santiago and Miguel together, their interaction is intimate and informal. Clearly, this is not some fugacious fling. But Miguel has compartmentalised it as something that only takes place far from home, and he takes care never to meet or speak to Santiago in public. Understandably, Santiago’s frustration eventually reaches boiling point, particularly as Miguel is settling further into his role as a traditional family man. “I’m sick of playing dumb. You can; I can’t”, he admonishes him.

And then, out of the blue, a mere 30 minutes into the film, Santiago drowns. But there is no time to grieve as he announces his own death to Miguel, by showing up in the form of a (very lifelike) phantom in Miguel’s own home. And he keeps showing up, everywhere, the physical manifestation of Miguel’s memory of him, or of his guilt. Santiago is bound to wander aimlessly until his spirit finds peace. 

Thus begins one of the most thrilling, emotionally gripping sequence of scenes imaginable, as Miguel grows used to being out and about in public with his (albeit late and invisible) boyfriend, because no one can see them. It goes without saying that this is the perfect way for Miguel to grow in confidence, at least until the inevitable ceiling hits him on the head: The moment the town finds out about Miguel’s recent dalliances with the man they all simply refer to as “the artist”.

Along the way, former obstacles fall the one after the other, and halfway through the film, when the couple even recreates the most famous shot from Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, there can no longer be any question in even the most conservative viewer’s mind that Miguel and Santiago should be afforded the same empathy we have always granted their equally fictional mixed-sex counterparts.

Santiago’s persistent presence in the film is as comical as it is beautiful. There are no scenes of anguish over him being dead – after all, to Miguel he looks and feels just as real as before – and even in death he has remained as understanding of Miguel’s fragile domestic situation as before: When he turns up next to the bed while Miguel is having sex with his wife (but thinking of Santiago), he covers his eyes but encourages Miguel to continue as if he weren’t there.

Undertow‘s final moments are deeply moving and tie a neat bow on Miguel’s blossoming into manhood, adding colour and closure by way of an honest conversation whose absence made the final moments of Brokeback Mountain feel like an open wound that would never heal. 

Yes, love is selfish. Miguel doesn’t play right by Santiago while he is alive, and even after his death he refuses to acknowledge their relationship. He wants to maintain his reputation in the eyes of the community by having a wife and a son. He wants to have his cake but eat his banana, too.

But by the time we reach the ending, an allegorical connection with Jesus Christ, who carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa in full view of a crowd of people after fighting long and hard with his inner demons, becomes clear. This is a man. This is what a man does when he is honest about who he is. He keeps his promise. And he ensures the one he loves finds peace, even if that means he has to sacrifice his companionship forever.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Complex narrative structure of Swedish ghost story is easy to follow and underlines actor-director Victor Sjöström’s impact on the development of the cinema. 

The Phantom Carriage / KörkarlenSweden
4*

Director:
Victor Sjöström

Screenwriter:
Victor Sjöström

Director of Photography:
J. Julius

Original title: Körkarlen

Running time: 110 minutes

The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 Swedish feature film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström as the boorish central character, may be the most intelligent film made during the movie industry’s first 25 years. Not only does it utilise double exposure in a sustained fashion that is rooted in the material itself and comes across very well, but it also flashes forwards, backwards and inwards with a Russian doll structure that very early on produces a story within a story within a story (i.e. a second-level hypodiegesis).

Offering a slightly different take on Dickens’s The Christmas Carol and its Ghost of Christmas Past, The Phantom Carriage is based on the eponymous novel by esteemed novelist Selma Lagerlöf, first published in 1912. It tells the story of David Holm, a bitter and malicious man who is killed just before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by Death, the carriage driver who collects the spirits of the dead, he has to look back over the past year and the events leading up to his demise. In his acts, he recognises how his recklessness and lack of care for those closest to him have led to desperation, suffering and tragedy, and this recognition eventually leads to a choice that could save him from eternal damnation.

The first 30 minutes of The Phantom Carriage easily constitute the most impressive part of the production, at least from a narrative point of view. Opening on New Year’s Eve, the film presents us with Sister Edith, a Salvation Army nurse afflicted with galloping consumption (tuberculosis) and lying on her deathbed. She desperately wants those around her to bring a man by the name of David Holm to her bedside, but no one – including his wife – is able or willing to find him. Holm gets quite a build-up, as his name is mentioned frequently, and the effect on the audience is one of enormous expectation.

This first half-hour contains multiple instances of parallel cutting to compare the sober scenes in Edith’s bedroom with the carousing trio of friends drinking in the town’s cemetery. Close to midnight, the focus shifts to one of the three men: He tells a story he heard about a late friend of his, Georges, who passed away one year earlier. Inside the flashback showing Georges one year earlier, yet another story is embedded, as Georges explains that Death allegedly trades places with whoever dies last during the year. And yet, the narrative hierarchy is very easy to understand, as the film eventually slides back through the different levels of narration one by one until it reaches the narrator in the cemetery.

At this point, however, the film takes another sharp turn. We learn it is David Holm telling the story, and after falling out with his two night comrades, he is killed and left for dead. Right on cue, Death arrives on the scene, snatches David’s soul from his body and then transports him (and us) back into the past to trace the journey of bad judgement that eventually led him here to the symbolically apropos graveyard. All the while, there are cuts back to David and Death (ghostly apparitions thanks to the double exposure) to remind us of the dynamic narrative hierarchy whose actions continue to move not only in the past but also in the present.

It is obligatory to mention that actor-director Sjöström would go on to star in one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated films about life and death, Wild Strawberries, and it is impossible to ignore the resemblance between the two embodiments of Death in The Phantom Carriage and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Both wear black cloaks, and their faces are covered by giant hoods. They also carry a large scythe – the physical manifestation of their function as reapers of souls.

The film is at its best when it focuses sharply on Holm, particularly because his mere presence and unpredictable nature can evoke anxiety in the viewer. However, when the focus shifts to Sister Edith, who is possessed by a wholly unreasonable desire that Holm, despite his evidently malicious and uncaring nature, have a beautiful life, it is difficult to take the film seriously. Holm is responsible for Edith contracting consumption, and yet, while they have never had a conversation, she laughably calls him, “the man I love”.

It goes without saying that Edith’s “love” for Holm goes unrequited, but while she pines for him, our empathy for her drops precipitously despite the opening scene’s very successful juggling act of creating mystery and anticipation, as well as a measure of compassion for a bedridden stranger.

The Phantom Carriage is a gem of movie. It deals with serious issues in a novel way by being formally creative, in terms of both structure and visuals, and the nearly two-hour running time flies past at a relatively brisk pace, even though the scenes are generally longer than viewers of contemporary films might be used to. Sjöström’s Holm is the protagonist, the villain and a tragic anti-hero, and he delivers a powerful re-enactment of the Damascus moment at the film’s climax.

It is no wonder this film is often considered to be among the earliest masterpieces in Swedish cinema.