Violence in Spanish Cinema: Te doy mis ojos and Tesis

Violence is indeed recurrent in Contemporary Spanish Cinema, which is “frequently described as excessive in its graphic depiction of violence” because Spanish history “is marked by a fratricidal civil war [and] by a long period of Francoism that glamourized death.”[1] The two films I will discuss in my essay, Tesis (Alejandro Amenabar, 1995) and Te doy mis ojos (Iciar Bollain, 2003), make no exception. They present interesting similarities in their treatment of violence despite their opposed genre or tone. Both address violence against women and in both films violence is linked to fear and repression. In the thriller Tesis, Angela (Ana Torrent) writes a thesis on violence in the audio-visual sector. Her supervisor dies watching a snuff film, found in a secret location of the university library. Angela steals the video, actually featuring the torture and murder of a female student. With the help of snuff-lover geek Chema, they will try the resolves the murder and find the authors of the films. Te doy mis ojos is a social realist melodrama about domestic abuse. It tells the progressive independence of Pilar (Laia Marull) from her abusive husband Antonio (Luis Tosar). Its originality relies on the equal treatment of both aggressor and victim. Both these films treat about violence however they do not at first sight mention the Civil War or the dictatorship. This absence of direct reference to the dictatorship would actually be symptom of the Francoist violence, as contemporary Spanish films “incorporate a repressed historical memory, suggesting their reaction against Francoist ideology and oppositional cinema in the search for a contemporary identity.”[2]

How do those films refer to violence, or I might add, allude/avoid it?

I will first show that violence in Te doy mis ojos explained through social and historical factors. I will focus on the film’s mise-en-scène which relies partly on evocation of History and displacement of violence. In Tesis, violence is a pretext to question the viewer and media’s ethics. I will show that the film’s mise-en-scène relies on the deferral of violence and the pastiche of different genres. Lastly I will question the films’ relation to the representation of women as regards voyeurism and ethics.

Te doy mis ojos denounces domestic abuse in Spain, at a time where gender-based violence was at the centre of the political debate. B. M. Gross called the film “an intervention.”[3] In 2004, the Organic Law was set to protect the victims and reinforce the sentences against domestic abusers.[4] Indeed, Bollain argued that this film “is not simply a denunciation of domestic violence but rather an attempt to investigate and explain the reasons why couples remain together in spite of abuse.”[5] Bollain and her scriptwriter Alicia Luna did thorough researches and numerous interviews of both victims and abusers to have a deep understanding of domestic abuse.[6]

This sociological and documentarist approach à la Ken Loach (by whom Bollain was inspired) demonstrates that male chauvinism creates a pressure on men.[7] It projects the impossible ideal of an omnipotent man, referred to as “hegemonic masculinity,”[8] which domestic abusers fail to achieve. Therefore, to compensate their fear of failure, physical violence imposed on women is a way to feel strong and in control. Studies have shown that “less educated men, and men in low-status jobs [are] more likely to subscribe to an ideology of familial patriarchy [and are] also more likely to have beaten their wives.”[9] This profile corresponds to Antonio’s. Thus, the reasons for domestic violence are not only sociological but also economical. Antonio’s inferiority complex is due to a lack of recognition in a boring job (seller in an electric shop), a social inferiority (Antonio is humiliated by his successful brother) and an intellectual inferiority (his wife’s new job at the museum of Toledo). He denigrates what she does, which is a form of psychological violence.

The weight of Spanish history is evoked through the mother in the wedding dress scene. The mother’s implicit complicity to Antonio’s violence personifies the old Spanish patriarchal order. The injuries Pilar suffered from – tendonitis, temporary sight loss – are verbally expressed by her sister Ana during this scene. Pilar finds her way out thanks to art – intellectuality- understood as a means against violence. Antonio mistakes emotional vulnerability and weakness and is not capable of acknowledging it during his thrapy sessions. As Pilar was able to read his fear (“No tengas miedo/Don’t be scared”) stripping his feelings bare with good intentions, he therefore “had” to take revenge by literally stripping her naked and humiliating her, locking her outside on the balcony. This scene is psychologically incredibly violent: “The type of torture he uses on Pilar in this scene is symbolic in that he seeks to humiliate her precisely through exposure, what he himself fears most.”[10]

Te doy mis ojos was qualified as “timid realism” and even a “tragic case study”[11] because of its apparent absence of formalist style. However “Bollain’s tightly-framed shots conveys meaning, especially in connection with Antonio.”[12] Indeed, as in the scene I analyse, Bollain privileges a claustrophobic atmosphere, achieved through composed frame and close shots of Antonio, so as to express the constraints he imposes on his wife as well as the own social and psychological trap – explained earlier – from which he feels he cannot escape. As documentarist and realistic, the mise-en-scène relies mostly on the actor’s performance.

In the scene starting at (1:06:10) Antonio questions Pilar about where she had been. He is shot in a medium long shot (1). The door frame encloses him into a sharp, constrained place, echoing the anger that gradually takes control over him preventing him from thinking straight. Pilar, in reverse shot (2) is afraid. Bollain uses the shot revers shot to emphasize the conflict between the characters. Antonio is then shot in a closer shot, as to show the danger and oppression is getting more threatening to Pilar (3). The camera, behind Antonio, is hand-held, shaking, faithful to the documentary style but also illustrating the fury that consumes Antonio (4). This device makes Pilar appear even smaller since Antonio’s neck, back and shoulder occupies most of the frame. Her red suit and Antonio’s fury could remind of a bull charging into the red cape. When Antonio pushes her, Pilar immediately self-protect herself, it shows that she is used to being hit (6). Her shivers and panting (7) testifies of the horror she is daily put through. The actual physical violence is not shown but Pilar’s reactions and body language make the viewer imagine the worst. As Alberto Mira puts it, “ ‘not seeing [the acts of violence] only increases our perception of the horror.’”[13]

For Sally Faulkner, the film is not lacking formalist qualities, because, according to her, the film is not an example of social realism because “it is a film about physical violence in which we never see physical violence… the displacement strategies more commonly associate with melodrama.”[14] When Ana comes to Pilar and Antonio’s flat to pick up her sister’s possessions after her sudden leaving, we see from Ana’s point of view the kitchen wall spattered with tomato sauce, evoking spilled blood. The displacement of the violent act into mise-en-scène would be a melodramatic approach and not a documentary one. Therefore the mise-en-scène relies also on the displacement of violence through evocations of violence.

Other sublte evocations of violence can be found through the use of the architecture of Toledo, which is “the paragon of patriarchy,”[15] because this city is historically charged fro being the heart of the rise of Francoism. The siege of the military fortress of Alcazar is a symbol of Francoist victory. After Pilar and Antonio had sex in Ana’s apartment, he asks Pilar to return home. At this moment, there is a shot of Alcazar from the window, linking Antonio’s demands to “the militaristic and patriarchal values of the monument, which is a famous symbol of Nationalist resistance during the Civil War.”[16]

Anchoring Tesis in the Spanish historical background can seem farfetched but the casting of Ana Torrent is a direct allusion to the dictatorship. She played in two films (El espíritu de la colmena, 1973, Cría cuervos, 1976) shot a little before and at the end of the dictatorship both contesting the Francoist ideology. She was then a child, but the films and her famous profound questioning gaze marked Spanish audiences.[17]

Tesis is violent by its genre: a thriller film about violent films (snuff, slashers and mondo). This metafilmic approach is used to question the viewer’s and media’s ethics. The film was in part inspired by the Alcasser case in Spain, where three girls were kidnapped, tortured and murdered, possibly for snuff film purposes.  Amenabar sought to denunciate of the shameless exploitation and consumption of gruesomeness by Spanish TV and the audience.[18] Is it the media that forge what the public wants or is it the public that forges what the media produce? This issue – supply and demand- is directly addressed by the caricatural character Jorge Castro (Pilar’s professor and villain) during his bombastic speech to the students: “The filmmaker is obliged to do nothing expect deliver on the demands of the audience.” This sentence is an expression of the anxiety of the Spanish Cinema in the 1990s, which attracted only 7,64 % of moviegoers. According to Dolores Tierney, the recourse to violence in the 1990s was a commercial tactic to counter Hollywood box-office supremacy.[19] The film questions both the media and the audience’ ethics “by transforming his characters into spectators as well as protagonists and victims of their own voyeuristic spectacle”:[20] Chema and Angela watch snuff and then will be subjected to actual violence, Angela on the verge of being the object of Bosco’s snuff film. It is a voyeuristic mise-en-abyme as Chema and Angela both grow up from this experience; they encounter violence against themselves and not only through the screen.

The film includes humour and the unrealistic elements corresponding to the campus film/horror genre. Does this comical approach contradict Amenabar’s own statement since making this film enjoyable could be interpreted as making violent images acceptable? The spectator in the viewing process will inevitably identify to Angel, who is drawn towards violent images and the attractive Bosco – the killer. The ethic and disgust opposed to the voyeuristic fascination is illustrated by Angela’s reactions: first repulsed, yet getting gradually used to bloody images. First Angela only listens to the tape, then watch it through her fingers and finally watch it again and again: “with a little practice Angela learns to look and consume.”[21]

There is no explanation to why Bosco kills women. I would argue that we do not need one because the film does not aim to be realistic because it is a thriller/campus film, making the film not Hollywoodian copy but a pastiche of several genres.

The film is inspired by three film tradition: snuff, mondo and gore films. As a thriller, it is defined by its form: sharp and fast, e.g. the montage sequence when Angela watches the snuff film for the first time: it is a fast juxtaposition of close shots. The snuff film would be an urban legend (no “real” snuff film would have been found/seen)[22], featuring the torturing and death of a random victim. These films would be characterized by one single shot, one room, one camera and bad editing.[23] The mondo film is dedicated to filming of genuine and sudden death (executions, attacks, accidents…) as the mondo film Fresh Blood owned by Chema. Finally, the gore film is a fiction film, based on outrageous and exaggerated plots and effects, often featuring the murder of a young woman.

In the first scene of the film, Amenabar uses a black screen with an intra-diegetic voice, “which appears to address the spectator and the character(s) simultaneously,” implying either way an effect of destabilization and stimulus. The low-angle shot in slow-motion of Angela’s face, dying to see the mutilated body and the reverse high-angle POV shot of the metro platform, emphasises the Angela’s morbid curiosity and ours by the same occasion. Our senses are aroused (sight and sound) yet frustrated since, as it is from Angela’s point of view we do not get to see it. This deferral of violence will be used continuously during of the film. We actually only get to see snippets of violence; thanks to the use of sounds linked to snippets of violent images: the viewer’s imaginative and cognitive causality logic do the rest.

Tierney’s argument is that the illegal recording of a real event that fascinates the viewer more than the violence itself. According to Jean Baudrillard, this “tension between real and false images of life (and death) crystallizes diffuse postmodern anxieties as to whether the real can be accessed at all through media / ted images.”[24] This meets André Bazin’s concern about capturing an aesthetic of reality, and therefore accessing to the truth thanks to the cinema. It is the very illegality and unsophistication of the snuff which make it “real.” Catching death in real-time fascinates the viewer. This tension between reality and images is expressed by Angela who asks Chema “Have you ever seen a real dead person?” “This is real,” he replies, referring to the mondo film they are watching. The snippets we see of the snuff film are film in low-definition, with dull colours, giving a terribly banal aesthetic of violence. This aesthetic of realist violence contrasts with Angela’s fantasies. When Bosco slightly cuts her throat in her dream, the blood is unrealistically red and shiny. There is therefore a code of fictional violence and real violence. It is a an example of cinema of attraction: however the banal aesthetic renders the spectacle of death paradoxically more spectacular since the rustic forms gives an impression of reality.

When Angela is in Bosco’s garage, she recognize the setting (7). The bright red line made by the wall tiles allusions the blood (stylistic mise-en-scène), whereas in her recording of the snuff (8) the blood is literally splattered on the wall and the red of the wall tiles appear dull. Bosco shuts the garage door (9), leaving the screen black (10), as in the beginning. This time we literally “enter” the making of the snuff film, Bosco setting the tripod (11), the crude lightning (12). In a loop effect, Bosco will die both through Amenabar’s camera (13) and through his own camera (14). This is a fusion of the diegetic violence and the snuff; it might be a reflection on the fact that real death cannot be never be real through an image. Nonetheless, we feel pleasure watching Bosco dying.

These films underline the dangerous power of the gaze. “Te doy mis ojos” means “I give you my eyes,” Angela’s teacher literally dies watching a film. Are these films voyeuristic or denunciative towards women’s bodies and violence against? In both films, violence is directed against women. From Laura Mulvey’s perspective, it is due to the fetishistic pleasure of punishing the woman (threatening because of her “lack,” personifying the anxiety of castration) on screen. Both Pilar and Angela are sexually objectified in the films and subjected to male violence with different approaches. Bollain argued that more than a denunciation the film sought to explain the factors favouring domestic abuse. The sex scene between Pilar and Antonio could be reproached of being a typical example of Mulvey’s female looked-at-ness: Pilar’s body, entirely naked, is in the foreground, while Antonio is hidden by the shadow. However, I would argue this scene is not simply voyeuristic. I think Bollain wanted to show the powerful bond linking Pilar and Antonio. In a way, Pilar is also guilty of accepting this treatment. In that scene, Pilar enumerates parts of her body she gives to Antonio and lastly says: “Te doy mis ojos/ I give you my eyes.” She finds herself a role by being completely possessed by Antonio. But when starts standing for herself and not living through his eyes but through her own eyes (which she has symbolically given up), she finds her independence.

Tesis is very much self-conscious of the gaze and the viewer’s ethics, it is less about the patriarchal structures underlying in the film.[25] Although the film denounces the viewer’s morbid curiosity and the abjection of snuff movies, it does not denounce the violence against women. The heroin is Angela but the motor of the plot is Chema. She is what Buckley call the “final girl” of the slasher movies. She is not threatening because not feminine or obviously sexual. Her androgyny makes her actually a double of the young male spectator and her “exception proves the rule of female weakness.”[26] The traditional patriarchal structure is intact.

The gaze is a means of possession. In Antonio’s perspective, looking is possessing (Pilar). Her presentation of the Danaë painting drives him mad because she is looked-at by other men, who “may possess her through vision.”[27]. The gaze has thus the violent power to parcel out the subjects and dehumanize them. Similarly, Angela only starts to exist for Bosco when she is accidentally shot by his camera. By being “virtualised,” Angela can become objectified.

To conclude, I have shown that violence in Te doy mis ojos is explained through historical and sociological factors which have a direct impact on the characters’ psychology. In Tesis, violence is used to question the media and viewers’ ethics. Amenabar uses an aesthetic of the banal and rustic to recreate an impression of the real, which both fascinates and disgusts the viewer. Both films have tried to deal with the spectator’s conscious or unconscious need to watch violence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1) 2)

3) 4)

5) 6)

7)  8)

9)  10)

11) 12)

 

13)   14)

Bibliography

Begin, Paul. “Regarding The Pain of Others: The Art of Realism in Icíar Bollaín’s Te doy mis ojos.Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 6 no.1 (2009): 31-44.

Buckley, Christina A. “Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis: Art, Commerce and Renewal in Spanish Cinema.” Post Script, 21 no. 2 (2002): 12-25.

Faulkner, Sally. A History of Spanish Film: Cinema and Society 1910-2010. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Hallam, Julia and Margaret Marshment. “Space, Place and Identity: Reviewing Social Realism.” In Realism and Popular Cinema, 184-196. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Jordan, Barry. “The violent image: Tesis.” In Alejandro Amenábar, 44-84. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Kinder, Marsha. Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1993.

Smith, Jennifer. “Violence and Hegemonic Masculinity in Historias del Kronen, El Bola and Te Doy Mis Ojos.” In Prisma Social 13 (Dec 2014-May 2015): 217-256. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1648338598?accountid=11862

Thau, Eric M. “The Eyes of Ana Torrent.” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 8 no. 2 (2011): 131-143.

Tierney, Dolores. “The Appeal of the Real in Snuff: Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis.” Spectator – the University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television, 22 no. 2 (2002): 45-55.

Filmography

Amenabar, Alejandro. Tesis, 1995.

Bollain, Iciar. Te Doy Mis Ojos, 2003.

Erice, Victor. El espíritu de la colmena, 1973.

Saura, Carlos. Cría cuervos, 1976.

[1] Marsha Kinder, Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain, (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1993), 1.

[2] Christina A. Buckley, “Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis: Art, Commerce and Renewal in Spanish Cinema,” Post Script, 21 no. 2 (2002): 13.

[3] Paul Begin, “Regarding the pain of others: The art of realism in Iciar Bollain’s Te doy mis ojos,” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas 6, no. 1 (2009): 31.

[4] http://www.velascolawyers.com/en/civil-law/143-domestic-violence-in-spain.html

[5] Begin, 33.

[6] Begin, 33.

[7] Begin, 34.

[8] Jennifer Smith, “Violence and Hegemonic Masculinity in Historias del Kronen, El Bola and Te Doy Mis Ojos,” Prisma Social 13 (Dec 2014-May 2015). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1648338598?accountid=11862

[9] Smith.

[10] Smith.

[11] Marina Harss, quoted in Begin, 32.

[12] Sally Faulkner, A History of Spanish Film: Cinema and Society 1910-2010, (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 248.

[13] Mira quoted in Faulkner, 248.

[14] Faulkner, 248.

[15] Pascale Thibaudeau quoted by Faulkner, 249.

[16] Faulkner, 249.

[17] Buckley, 13.

[18] Jordan Barry, “The violent image: Tesis,” in Alejandro Amenábar (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 51.

[19] Dolores Tierney, “The Appeal of the Real in Snuff: Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis,” Spectator – the University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television, 22 no. 2 (2002): 45.

[20] Jordan, 59.

[21] Jordan, 76.

[22] Tierney, 46.

[23] Tierney, 41.

[24] Jean Baudrillard, quoted in Tierney, 45.

[25] Buckley, 20.

[26] Buckley, 20.

[27] Begin, 39.

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