Friday, 8 August 2014

A film review: "El amante bilingüe" [1993 Spain]

Vicente Aranda isn't particularly renowned for comedy, because he hardly makes any - passionate melodrama is his preferred cup of tea. That's why "El amante bilingüe" [Eng. Title: The Bilingual Lover] stands out in his filmography, for trying to be one.

Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias in El amante bilingüe Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias in El amante bilingüe
Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias in El amante bilingüe Imanol Arias and Ornella Muti in El amante bilingüe

Set against the backdrop of resurgent nationalism in seventies Barcelona, the film is about an unusual romance between an oddly matched couple; Norma (Ornella Muti) is a wealthy and pretty Catalan woman, where as Juan Mares' (Imanol Arias) just another 'immigrant' (i.e., not from Catalunya), street-hawking his talents along the famed La Rambla boulevard. They marry after a whirlwind romance.

Returning early from work one day, Juan surprises Norma and a shoe-shine boy (Javier Bardem) frolicking in the bedroom, nude. Norma rebukes him for his unannounced entry and leaves home in anger, but allows him to stay in the flat that she owns. Fired from his job at the family business, Juan heads back to the streets where he plied his trade earlier.

One day, he becomes the target of an apparently random petrol-bomb attack by a group of skinheads and gets disfigured, loosing an eye in the process. Ashamed of his disfigurement, he dons a mask, and broods his fate in the apartment that he once shared with Norma. He misses her; often calling her at work just to hear her voice while pretending to be someone else, Juan will also confront her on streets disguised, and hurl a mouthful of choice expletives at her in Catalan, which he knows will only turn her on - she loves being talked dirty to in that language.

After inventing a new 'look' for himself, Juan will practice his seduction techniques on lonely neighbour Griselda (Loles León), who'll duly be taken by his 'mysterious persona'. With the new found confidence, Juan will plan a scheme that'd enable him to strike up a new relationship with Norma. He'll pretend to be Juan Faneca, a childhood friend of his, who'll be the last person to have seen Juan Mares alive...

While the storyline is quintessentially Catalan, it is also not a comedy that'll cheer audience immensely. Vicente Aranda, by mixing lighter moments with his customary dark satire, has tried to make a film that would generally be associated with fellow Catalan Bigas Luna, whose hugely successful Jamón Jamón coincidentally reached a new and wider world audience only the previous year. There are, of course, several uniquely typical Vicente Aranda symbolisms and moments on display. The house that Juan lives in has tiles constantly falling off the brickwork - a critique of crumbling family and society. A totally blind hotel receptionist, who can also foretell future, advices a half-blind Juan not to give up, since his predicament might just be slightly better off than hers.

Also typical of Aranda's films are the passionate, if slightly unconventional scenes of sex that they often feature, alongside a non-PC sense of humour. Ornella Muti and Imanol Arias were established stars but the rest were rising fast too, like Javier Bardem who appears in just a single scene but certainly creates an impression, and an uncredited Maribel Verdú who appears for no more than four seconds, playing a saxophone. Ms. Muti is as bold and classy as ever, and while this may not be Arias' best film, it is at least a different role to the ones he's used to. Whether you love or hate Vicente Aranda films, you'll certainly find them remarkably original, and for want of a better word - 'memorable' even. This film isn't any different. DVD Link [PAL] | English Subtitles

The Nudity: Ornella Muti, Javier Bardem, Loles León, and Imanol Arias
Prepare yourself for some kinky goings-on and dirty talk during the film's sex scenes. The leading lady here likes to play with her lovers using a shoe (and both Bardem and Arias enthusiastically oblige), and in one scene Ms. Muti also begs Juan to pee while still inside her - they'd just finished having sex and he was about to pull out, to use the toilet. There's also a scene of a voluptuous Loles León purring as she invites Juan to join her in bed. Spaniards are indeed a fascinating people when it comes to sex..! :-)

Ornella Muti, Javier Bardem, Loles León, and Imanol Arias nude in Vicente Aranda's "El amante bilingüe"


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