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Foreplays #15: Víctor Erice's "La Morte Rouge"

What impact on your life does the first film you see have? In an intimate and personal short film, Víctor Erice explores his own encounter.
Cristina Álvarez López
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Víctor Erice's La Morte Rouge (2006) is free to watch below.
In his book The Cinema Hypothesis, Alain Bergala discusses the moment in childhood when a person encounters a film that will become essential in their relationship to cinema, noting that this experience is not subordinated to distinctions of taste or culture, but rather is defined by "aspects of the encounter, in its uniqueness, its unpredictability, and its power to astonish." There is perhaps no more beautiful film dealing intimately with this kind of encounter than Víctor Erice's thirty-minute essay, La Morte Rouge (2006).  
At the age of five, in the company of his older sister, Erice watched the first film of his life: The Scarlet Claw (Roy William Neill, 1944), a horror-mystery belonging to the Sherlock Holmes series. The screening of The Scarlet Claw is at the heart of La Morte Rouge, but Erice is interested in all the folds and contours of the event: the theater and the historical context, the cinematic experience and its lasting effects. Narrated by the director himself, La Morte Rouge is a ghost story and a tale of awakening, built with archival pictures and recordings, extracts from The Scarlet Claw, and some recreated scenes that take minimalism as their golden rule.
The film starts with a bewitching investigation of the spirit of the place—the Kursaal Theatre—where Erice attended the screening of The Scarlet Claw. Situated at the mouth of the Urumea River, next to the Cantabric Sea, the Kursaal was and remains an emblem of the city of San Sebastián in Spain. We travel backwards: from color images of the reconstructed edifice as it is today to black-and-white photos of the building as it was in 1922, when it was inaugurated as a casino. Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961) casts its spell on the space: huge, empty rooms; sumptuous columns and arches; large windows and lamps; vaulted ceilings and mosaic floors.  
One of the few moving-images used in this segment shows us a spinning roulette wheel. Obviously, this wheel is a reference to gambling activity, but it also manages to evoke both a séance—the summoning of the spirits of those anonymous workers, artists, and members of the bourgeoisie who frequented the place—and the turning of History: soon afterwards, gambling was banned and the casino had to close its doors. Erice compares the abandoned building to a ship after a wreck. Images of the Kursaal—rotting adrift, whipped by the sea, eroded by the salt—bring to our minds a whole new saga of ghosts: those inhabiting phantom ships and desert islands, in tales of castaways and pirates. It seems only natural—destiny's fulfilment— that this place should end up becoming a cinema theater, kingdom of shadows and refuge for specters.   
This is all part of Erice's magic. As a writer, he finds beautiful, fitting metaphors that arouse in our imagination a constellation of related images. As a director—with his selection, treatment, and combination of materials—he unleashes multiple connotations, references, ideas. A marvelous photograph used in this section can give as a good example of this: it shows a group of twenty people, all gathered around a small, circular table; their gazes are fixed on a card that a striking, monocled woman holds, suspended in the air, under a foggy light that resembles a puff of smoke. What a chain of associations this image unfolds! The spirits of gamblers, certainly, but also the spirit of a séance, and the spirit of cinema itself—the moment of expectation, frozen in time by a photographer, that precedes a miraculous apparition.
In the second section of La Morte Rouge, Erice approaches the socio-historical reality in which the screening of The Scarlet Claw (January 24, 1946) was embedded. Images of demolished cities and concentration camps, rows of political prisoners and impoverished families, evoke the horrors of this historical period: the end of the Second World War and the first years of Franco's dictatorship after the Spanish Civil War. Cinema offered a refuge from those horrors, but a paradoxical one. The very design of the cinematic double session—each feature preceded by a documentary newsreel (a “No-Do”) that served as a propagandistic tool for the regime—can give us an idea of how fiction and reality intertwined.   
These everyday terrors were echoed on the screen. In one photo, we see a barbershop with one of its walls completely covered by the Francoist coat of arms: a black eagle with the inscription "Spain. One, great, and free." Those symbols, spread in the everyday landscape and replicated in the newsreels, project their deadly shadow upon apparently unrelated elements of the motion pictures. That's how the innocuous, leisure-time character of fictions such as The Scarlet Claw established uncanny connections with reality. This idea is best exemplified in the way Erice makes one image—Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Watson (Nigel Bruce) in an attitude of close examination—fade into the next: two children performing the fascist salute in front of a white façade bearing a poster of Franco.  
The central part of La Morte Rouge contains two differentiated sections: the first recreates the screening of The Scarlet Claw, the second deals with the imprint that this experience leaves on the child's psyche. Erice's film has a very deliberate structure—four separate segments, bookended by an introduction and a denouement—but this construction passes completely unnoticed when we watch the film for the first time. Captured by Erice's narration, transported by the slow, hypnotic cadence of his intonation, we fall into the enchantment of a kid listening to a tale before going to sleep. The atmosphere, the suspense, the severed audiovisual linkages, the spell of the music, the sparse use of sounds, the primal character of the images: Everything conspires to take us back to a time of innocence—while, at the same time, we are made recipients of a tale dealing, precisely, with the loss of innocence. This is what will eventually be revealed to us. 
Watching The Scarlet Claw, the child discovers that a man can kill his fellow men; he discovers, too, that an actor is someone without a soul. The child learns things that he can't quite understand but that, nonetheless, he tries to make sense of. Following the reflections of Jean-Louis Schefer and Serge Daney, Bergala writes about how, when experiencing the first encounters with cinema, a child has the certainty that the film "knows something about my mysterious relationship to the world, something about which I myself am ignorant but which the film contains as a secret to decipher." In La Morte Rouge, this secret is inscribed not only in the film, but also in the collective, theatrical experience. From the film, the child learns about the killer's hand—the claw of postman Potts (Gerald Hamer). But, from the spectators who surround him, he learns about the attentive passivity of the eye—about a pact of complicity of which he knew nothing.
There's a captivating passage in La Morte Rouge that functions as a bridge between the screening experience and its aftermath. Returning home, the boy and his sister stop at the edge of the river, looking at reflections in the water. The girl tries to initiate a game but the boy, still affected by the film, doesn't respond. Erice proceeds to fade a black-and-white picture of the siblings in and out; repeatedly, their faces emerge from and disappear into the glittering, dark waters. The moment strongly evokes the eerie apparition of Frankenstein's monster in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973).
In fact, we can see La Morte Rouge as a kind of photochemical developer, in essay form, in relation to Erice's earlier, fictional film. Thanks to the brief but moving segments devoted to the sister in La Morte Rouge, we get a renewed understanding of the relationship between the two sisters in The Spirit of the Beehive. In both, the older child torments the younger one as a way of coping with their own fears. The games played by Ana and Isabel in The Spirit of the Beehive (“I spy,” Chinese shadows, playing dead) return vividly in La Morte Rouge. And so does the primal experience of cinema, with its terrors and disturbances.
Every night, before falling asleep, the child hears a piano tune. And thoughts about the killer-postman invade his mind. Aided by the use of isolated sounds, this section of the film is built as a veritable tren de sombras, a train of shadows. As often happens at that nocturnal hour, everyday objects which appeared perfectly normal in the light of day are imbued with a sinister aura: ticking clocks, oval mirrors, the figurine of a clown, the boy's school uniform hanging on a stand, the religious painting of an angel surrounded by children—everything has an air of menace, carrying an omen of death. The drama of light fully animates this passage: a huge window is bathed in a supernatural brightness; multiple vertical bars spread across the corridors; a reflection crosses the ceiling, drawing a diagonal line; the shadow of a toy tram advances, distorted, across the undulations of a curtain; finally, the silhouette of the postman's face, and his hand: a huge, monstrous, curved claw.
Shaped by the child's fears, the images return obsessively, once and again. The nightmares last for weeks; the editing works to convey the cyclical pattern of this theater of shadows. In the last part of this section, we hear a violin performance of Arvo Pärt's "Fratres": an image of the performer splits, revealing Rathbone/Holmes as a violinist. What follows is a wonderful, rapid montage of a handful of key moments from The Scarlet Claw (the speed of some shots has been altered): a perfect distillation of the inner workings of cinema. The child has been possessed and, night after night, he'll be tormented by his memories of the film. Until, eventually, other films come to his aid, curing his fever. This dual game of pain and relief, Erice tells us, founded the child's "contradictory relationship with moving images."
La Morte Rouge reminds us that there was a time when children were fascinated by maps. This reminds me of the opening lines of Charles Baudelaire's The Voyage: "For the child, in love with maps and engravings, the universe is equal to his vast appetite." Erice borrows the title for his film from the Canadian village, near Quebec, in which the action of The Scarlet Claw is set. This village, however, doesn't exist on the maps. And yet, Erice sets out to find it in a solitary quest, on a journey made at night. He sets out to map this village anew, in a slow homecoming to the territories of childhood.
Simply recalling childhood doesn't suffice; childhood must always be a "time regained." La Morte Rouge starts and ends with images of the sea's waves, revealing and removing the traces of footsteps in the sand—footsteps that the film retraces, in a work that has as much to do with fabulation as with memory. It's important to note that Erice's voice-over rarely resorts to the first person—only in the initial and final passages of La Morte Rouge does Erice use the "I." For the most part, he is "the child." A picture of this child reappears several times, as a leitmotif that punctuates the film. The child interrogates us, demands that he be rediscovered, reinserted into our world.
There's no doubt that La Morte Rouge is a very personal project, woven throughout with intimate, autobiographical elements. But, in this film, the personal, the intimate, the autobiographical take flight; they become the generative principle of an exercise in mythologizing. This is what La Morte Rouge ultimately gives us: the child's rebirth, his birth into cinema—a myth of initiation for those who don’t have one; a myth to cling onto in times of scarcity and disappearance. 


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