Economic Entertaining: Tenemos que hablar (Serrano, 2016)

Last week I watched Tenemos que hablar (We Need to Talk), a 2016 romantic comedy directed by David Serrano whose previous works include Días de fútbol (2003), Días de cine (2007) and Una hora más en Canarias (2010). The film is currently showing on UK Netflix. It stars Michelle Jenner (who I also saw recently in Almodóvar’s latest offering, Julieta) as Núria, a young woman recently engaged to her Argentinian boyfriend Víctor (Ilay Kurelovic). Her forthcoming nuptials mean that she must make contact with her ex-husband Jorge (Hugo Silva) to whom she is still married. A misunderstanding leads Núria to believe that Jorge is suicidal following her declaration that “Tenemos que hablar”. This in turn leads to Núria’s decision not to reveal her recent engagement to Jorge and her fabrication of a false reality whereby she attempts to convince Jorge that all is well in her and her parents’ life in an effort to improve his psychological instability.

I had initially watched Tenemos que hablar in some much-deserved downtime with the expectation that it would provide nothing more than light entertainment. I was by no means expecting the film to inspire an intellectual response. However, it quickly gripped me as being invested in a political commentary informed by the current economic climate, and concurrent related societal phenomena, both within and beyond Spain. The film appeals to me for two main reasons, both of which correspond to my forthcoming monograph on the politics of performance in contemporary Spanish cinema. Indeed, while I have already selected my case studies for the book, I may make reference to this work in the introduction to the text. The reasons for my interest in Tenemos que hablar are: 1) that it explicitly indexes the contemporary economic climate in Spain with specific reference to political involvement in this crisis; and 2) that it deploys performance as a means of dealing with this situation. In this post, I focus on the first of these aspects. I hope to write a follow-up entry on the role of performance in the film but want to rewatch it and spend a bit more time thinking about the significance of this trope. I welcome any thoughts on either of these themes. Feel free to share these with me either through the comments function below or via Twitter (@FionaFNoble).


Figure 1

Seseña: The Future Centre

The film immediately positions itself within the spatio-temporal framework of the current economic crisis gripping contemporary Spain. The scene-setting prologue takes place between the years of 2006 and 2012 with specific reference to the economic crash and its impact on contemporary Spain. The action begins in 2006 with a confident Jorge instructing his future in-laws to invest in a new-build apartment in the neighbourhood of Seseña (Figure 1) – one of Spain’s so-called ghost towns, situated to the south of Madrid. Half-finished towns like Seseña are the result of the 2000s construction boom, a phenomenon about which you can read here. While Jorge’s mother-in-law expresses concerns about the isolated locale of the apartment block, she is reassured that this is an up-and-coming area and will eventually be well-connected – a fact that the audience know not to be the case from the contemporary vantage point of 2016. They make reference to Spain’s financial buoyancy with Jorge self-assuredly asserting that things are only set to improve.

The subsequent scene takes place in 2007 at the wedding of Jorge and Núria as the hapless couple persuade Núria’s parents to invest in a company called Fórum Filatélico – a well-known pyramid scheme that defrauded thousands of investors. This is followed by a scene in 2008 in which Núria’s mother bemoans the fact that they’ve still never found anyone to rent out their flat in Seseña. Jorge advises them to put up their print shop as collateral as well as advising them to rent two units in the infamous Castellón airport – like Seseña, a spectral remnant of earlier economic buoyancy. Built to the tune of 150 million euros, the airport only welcomed its first flights – thanks to budget airline Ryanair – in 2015 despite opening in 2011 with the politician responsible for the project currently behind bars for tax fraud (you can read more about Castellón airport here). When Núria’s parents express concern at the contemporaneous economic climate, namely the crisis in the US, the young couple insist that this will not reach Spain, that Spain has the most solid banking system in Europe.


Figure 2

2012: Jorge’s Final Attempt

The final scene of this opening prologue takes place in 2012 with Jorge asking for what little money his in-laws have remaining for an investment in priority shares that will purportedly allow them to recuperate what they have lost (Figure 2) – a scheme that clearly fails as the opening scene of the film proper depicts Núria and her new partner Víctor as he proposes to her. This prologue thus provides a panorama of the Spanish economy, and its interlacing with politics and society, in recent years. In so doing, it offers a pessimistic survey of contemporary Spanish society.
This sequence sets the scene for the rest of the film which meditates on the hopelessness of individuals such as Jorge, who we subsequently discover is unemployed and flat-sharing with Lucas, the manager for whom he previously worked. Indeed the first post-credits scene featuring this pair reveals that they scrape by financially by letting out their spare room on Air BnB. In spite of its initially disheartening tone, the film does conclude with a triumphant ending in which [*SPOILER ALERT] Jorge successfully wins back his ex-wife’s affection. For Lucas, the fact that am unemployed Spaniard steals the girlfriend of an Argentinian is some victory!

The Politics of Performance in Noviembre (Achero Mañas, 2003)

Figure 1: The Gun as Performance Prop (Noviembre, 2003)
Figure 1: The Gun as Performance Prop (Noviembre, 2003)

Screams and gasps accompany a dark, black and white image of a gun fading into focus.  A shot is fired and a paper explosion escapes from the barrel of the gun, which is not a lethal weapon but rather a prop in an artistic performance (Figure 1).  This is the opening image of Noviembre (2003), a relatively little-known and under-studied Spanish film directed by Achero Mañas.  (The film is available to view here).  Though extremely brief, this pre-credits scene microcosmically embodies the key themes and ideas of the film as a whole, which include the intermingling of performance and everyday life as well as the relationship between representation and reality.  Noviembre is one of the films I am currently working on as part of a book proposal based on one of my thesis chapters and this post constitutes a starting point for me to think about the film in more detail.  In what follows, I address the legacy of performance to which Noviembre alludes as well as the film’s reflection on the politics of spectatorship.  Beyond this post, I am interested in further unpacking the ethics of spectatorship, and its therapeutic potential, in this film and I am keen to analyse the sequences involving death in this regard.  Please feel free to leave feedback through the comments function below if you have any thoughts you would like to share on these or other related matters; you’ll also find me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).  More than a film, Noviembre is an artistic manifesto that produces a potent political statement about the radical potential of the arts, not just in the context of twenty-first century Spain but also more broadly in our contemporary globalised world.

Continue reading The Politics of Performance in Noviembre (Achero Mañas, 2003)

A Family That Is Not A Family: Familia (Fernando León de Aranoa, 1996)

A middle-aged man opens his birthday gifts surrounded by his family.  He receives a sports top from his adolescent daughter and a stopwatch from his mother.  From his youngest son, he receives a pipe.  His reaction to this last gift is one of anger.  He irritably accuses his son of screwing everything up, of being an idiot: ‘¿De dónde ha salido este idiota?  ¿Por qué no sabe que no fumo?’ (‘Where did you find this idiot?  Why does he not know that I don’t smoke?’).  His wife urges him to calm down, noting that he is upsetting his son who apologetically declares that he loves his father.  ‘Pues no me lo creo’ (‘Well I don’t believe it’), he responds, adding that ‘Yo no quería un hijo gordo […] ni con gafas’ (‘I did not want a fat son […] nor one with glasses’).

The first feature-length film of Spanish socio-realist filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa, the critically-acclaimed Familia (1996) focuses on Santiago, a middle-aged man so lonely, he hires a troupe of actors to perform the role of his family on his birthday.  Like many of León de Aranoa’s subsequent works, Familia takes the heteronormative family unit as its starting point and gradually reveals its dysfunctionality over the course of the film.  Performance and representation constitute key themes of this work, epitomised by the unwanted birthday gift of the pipe.  Recalling Magritte’s pipe which is not a pipe, the family in Familia is not a family but rather a representation of a family.  In this post, I discuss the opening credits of the film in terms of the ways that they immediately signal the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s central concerns.

A Family That Is Not A Family (Familia, 1996)
Figure 1: A Family That Is Not A Family (Familia, 1996)

From its opening credits, Familia addresses the relationship between reality and representation.  The film begins with a series of extreme close-ups detailing the various characters upon whom the film will focus.  These extreme close-ups all form part of a family photograph, which is revealed in its entirety along with the title of the film (Figure 1).  The extreme close-ups concentrate primarily on the faces of the individuals as well as on their hands (Figure 2).  Rather than remaining static, the camera zooms into and pans across the photograph, enacting a scrutinising gaze that is unable to penetrate – at least at this point in the film – the performance that masquerades the underlying reality of this family portrait.  Transitions between shots typically take the form of dissolves, combining the distinct individuals together (Figure 3).  While initially this appears to emphasise the familial union of and relations amongst the distinct generations depicted in this family photograph, these fusing dissolves read retrospectively as highly ironic.  As actors performing roles, both diegetically and non-diegetically, the connections amongst these individuals are not familial but are rather wholly fictional.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Holding Hands (Familia, 1996)
Figure 3: Fusing Dissolves (Familia, 1996)
Figure 3: Fusing Dissolves (Familia, 1996)
Figure 4: Playing with Perspective
Figure 4: Playing with Perspective

A second aspect of the opening credits that highlights the relationship between reality and representation lies in the figure of the photographer responsible for creating this family portrait.  As Figure 1 (above) shows, the photograph includes the photographer through the use of a mirror that incorporates the individual responsible for taking the photograph by means of their reflection.  The implied presence of the photographer, of the person who facilitates photographic representation, is made manifest in this image through the mirror, which can itself be understood as a means of visual representation.  Through this incorporative gesture, the family photograph in Familia recalls Diego Velázquez’s infamous royal portrait Las Meninas (1656) (Figure 4), an image which plays with perspective and representation and which exposes the gulf between representation and reality.

The pairing of image and word in the credits of Familia constitutes a third dimension of the interaction between reality and representation.  Following the listing of the principal cast and the revelation of the film’s title (see Figure 1 above), the sequence proceeds with the pairing of technical credits with appropriate images.  As an example, the title of ‘ayudante de producción’ (‘production assistant’), fulfilled by José Luis Gago, appears superimposed over an image of the grandmother’s hands clasped tightly together (Figure 5).  The image of two hands intertwined appeals to the notion of assistance.  Further examples include the superimposition of the title of ‘maquilladora’ (‘make-up artist’) (Milu Cabrer) over an image of one of the women’s lips and of ‘vestuario’ (‘wardrobe’) (Maiki Marin) over an image of one of the men’s suit jackets.  In this way, Familia self-consciously draws attention to its status as a constructed image, a representation fostered by a host of individuals and not just those present in the image.

Figure 5: Self-Conscious Credits (Familia, 1996)
Figure 5: Self-Conscious Credits (Familia, 1996)

As this brief analysis demonstrates, Familia immediately foregrounds the relationship between reality and representation as one of the film’s primary concerns.  This film is one I want to work on in more detail moving forward with my research and I’m still processing my thoughts and ideas on this work.  I’m currently preparing a book proposal for a monograph on the films of León de Aranoa which features a chapter on this film.  I’m also considering including Familia as a case study for a monograph focused on performance in contemporary Spanish cinema, which will in part be based on my doctoral research.  With that in mind, any feedback on the ideas I’ve presented here would be most welcome!  Please feel free to leave comments below or to contact me on Twitter (@FionaFNoble).

Silencing Snow White: Blancanieves (Berger, 2012) (BAFTSS 3rd Annual Conference 2015)

As described in my last post, I recently attended the 3rd annual BAFTSS conference at Manchester Metropolitan University (16th-18th April 2015).  While my last post provided an overview of my experience at the conference, in this post I discuss my panel and presentation in more detail.

Myself and three colleagues – Dr Francisca Sánchez Ortiz (Manchester Metropolitan University), Dr Paula Blair (Newcastle University) and Dr Lorna Muir (University of Aberdeen) – proposed a panel entitled ‘Performing Woman/Women: Visual Representations of Body, Voice and Space’.  You can read our panel proposal and individual abstracts here.  As the panel title indicates, body, voice, gender and space constituted the thematic and conceptual constellation at the heart of all of our papers.  Alongside my paper were the following presentations:

  • ‘Adaptation and the Problems of Representation: Dead Female Bodies and Human Waste in The Bridge’ – Francisca Sánchez Ortiz (Manchester Metropolitan University).
  • ‘Mediated Women in Post/Conflict Northern Ireland – Paula Blair (Newcastle University).
  • ‘Hearing Her: Voice, Gender and Performing Surveillance Systems’ – Lorna Muir (University of Aberdeen).

All four of us were concerned with the interrelations amongst body, voice and space in contemporary feminist contexts.  The strength of the panel lay in its expansive and inclusive scope, encompassing visual media such as cinema, television and installations from a range of diverse contexts including contemporary Spain, the US-Mexico border, Post/Conflict Northern Ireland and contemporary Hollywood cinema.

My presentation – ‘Silencing Snow White: Blancanieves (Berger, 2012)’ – launched our panel and focused, as the title suggests, on Pablo Berger’s black and white adaptation of the Snow White narrative, set in 1920s Spain.  While I offer an overview of my presentation here, if interested you can view my accompanying Prezi here and listen to an early practice version of my paper here.  An earlier response to the film can be found here.

I began by discussing the manifold ways in which Blancanieves silences its eponymous protagonist: as a child in lidded glass crib at the beginning of the film (Figure 1) and as a young woman and a silent spectacle at the end of the film (Figure 2).  As a means of analysing Snow White and her absent voice, I opened with a quotation from Mary Ann Doane on the transposition of the voice onto the body and intertitles in silent cinema and proposed to examine three aspects of Blancanieves: the body as silent spectacle, the intertitles in terms of who speaks and music in its relation to the maternal.

Figure 1: The Silencing of Blancanieves Part I
Figure 1: The Silencing of Snow White Part I
Figure 2: The Silencing of Snow White Part II
Figure 2: The Silencing of Snow White Part II

My discussion of the body centred on my initial approach to the film as a potentially feminist rewriting of the Snow White narrative in Blancanieves.  I considered the way in which the film dispenses with certain fairy-tale tropes which are difficult to reconcile with a feminist position, such as the Prince Charming character and the dismissal of the Snow White character as passive and maternal.  By opting to have one of the dwarves, Rafa, save Blancanieves and to replace her as the dwarves’ caretaker with cross-dressing dwarf Josefa, the film enacts a feminist, perhaps even queer, rewriting of the Snow White tale.  That said, the silencing of Snow White across manifold levels in the film tempers any feminist potential it might hold.  Her formal silencing – in that this is a silent film – conjoins with her physical stifling in the film.  She is silenced both as an infant and as a young woman, contained within glass cribs and coffins as seen above, as well as throttled by her evil stepmother’s henchman, her breath literally squeezed from her throat.  As a means of relating this to voice and cinema, I drew upon Kaja Silverman’s work in which she discusses the construction of the female subject as a body and champions the notion of the disembodied voice as a feminist strategy – a possibility that formally escapes the women in silent cinema.

Building on this idea of the stifled female voice in silent cinema, I turned to the film’s intertitles.  Various voices make themselves heard through the film’s intertitles, including those of the film’s third-person omniscient narrator, Blancanieves’ father, Blancanieves herself, her stepmother, the dwarves and Pepe, Blancanieves’ pet chicken.  The voice missing from these intertitles is the voice of Snow White’s mother, which is of particular significance when considering theoretical interventions focused on voice and cinema.  Such frameworks, featured in the work of Doane, Britta Sjorgen and Michel Chion, frequently draw on psychoanalysis and as a result draw heavily on the notion of the maternal voice as a means of conceptualising the spectator’s experience of cinematic sound.

While the maternal voice is absent in terms of the intertitles, I argued that there is an interesting point of connection between voice and the maternal through the music in Blancanieves.  The mother of the eponymous protagonist dies in the opening scenes.  However, she posthumously reappears at other points in the film.  Such appearances are connected to music.  As an example, consider the scene in which a young Blancanieves sits beneath the table, sulking because her father has not attended her first communion.  A flamenco rhythm begins and an image of a gramophone followed by a moving image of her mother dancing and singing appears superimposed on the tablecloth.

The lyrics of the song are as follows:

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te busco y no te puedo encontrar/

Te llamo y no me contestas/

No sé por dónde estarás

(I look for you but I cannot find you/

I look for you but I cannot find you/

I call you and you don’t answer me/

I don’t know where you might be).

The notion of searching for something and not being able to find it, of calling out for someone and not receiving a response chimes with the absence of the maternal voice within this film.  In a later scene, Blancanieves performs to one of her mother’s records for her father, her image morphing into that of her mother during the performance indicating the connection between music, memory and the maternal in this film.  Music in Blancanieves thus renders the maternal voice present, audible in a film which otherwise formally stifles not just female, but all vocal presences.

But what’s even more striking about this is the fact that the voice we hear is not that of Inma Cuesta, the actress who plays Blancanieves’s mother.  Rather, it is the voice of Catalan singer Sílvia Pérez Cruz (Figure 3).  In other words, the maternal voice conceals another female voice that represents not just the repression of female voices, but also those of peripheral nationalities in the Spanish context.

Figure 3: The Silencing of Silvia
Figure 3: The Silencing of Silvia

Relating the relationship between music and the maternal to theoretical explorations of voice and cinema, I drew once again upon Sjogren who describes ‘female voices-off’ as ‘expressly musical’ (65) and upon Chion who draws a connection between the recorded voice and death: ‘Ever since the telephone and gramophone made it possible to isolate voices from bodies, the voice naturally has reminded us of the voice of the dead’ (46).  Given that Blancanieves’ mother dies at the start of the film, the film draws clear connections between music, the maternal voice and death.  At this point in my presentation, I had rapidly ran out of time so had to come to a rather abrupt halt!  I’m still thinking through the significance of voice in Blancanieves and hope to work further on this in the near future.  Given that this is a developing area of interest for me, I would be especially keen to hear any feedback you might have so please do not hesitate to get in touch via Twitter (you’ll find me at @FionaFNoble) or via the comments function below.