This dark, eerie—and stunted—coming-of-age story has been following me around for months since I recently saw it for the first time. In a word, it’s the story of an idealistic French provincial who has come to Paris to study law; we know he’s doomed when he walks into a bookstore and, to the urbane bookseller’s chagrin, asks for a novel by Balzac. He believes in love, writes his mother daily. And yet, for all his innocence, it’s that fatal cocktail of self-seriousness and credulity that ultimately does him in. His pimpish, libertine older cousin, in whose Parisian digs he’s been living, may seem the sinister figure here, but it’s the young provincial who, in the end, cooks up the greatest threat. By the movie’s close, he’s spiraling into an abyss with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” playing in the background. To those who have recently seen Black Swan, the familial foils in the two cousins—like the twinned Natalie Portmans of the ballet—may feel familiar.
Bienvenido Mister Marshall
In the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and now Libya and Yemen, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has just announced that Spain should launch something of a “Marshall Plan” in the region to finance and support the growth of democracy. Mere mention of the Marshall Plan summons a loaded history here in Spain, leavened in the cultural imagination over the years by this epochal Berlanga film. Spain was initially excluded from the Marshall Plan, and when, in 1953, Eisenhower struck a deal with Franco to build American military bases on Spanish soil, the die seemed cast: in the eyes of Spaniards, the defining American maneuvers of the decade were first a rebuff and then a flash of presumptuous deal-making. But it was the Marshall rebuff that stung.
The joke in the movie—about a small town in Castilla y Leon preparing itself for the arrival of Marshall aid, and Americans, that never come—is that the town converts itself into, of all things, an Andalusian pueblo. Staid, nondescript northern Spanish tradition goes in for a flashy, southern makeover. The mayor, under heavy advisement by the small-town equivalent of a private contractor, thinks the Americans will prefer Andalusian color to the traditional castiza culture of the town. So the town goes from Spanish to “Spanish,” from being itself to playing at its own cultural stereotype. The Americans, finally, drive through but never stop; the preparations are in vain. And the townspeople, willing and credulous participants in the charade, eventually have to restock the municipal coffers to pay back their collective flight of fancy.