Short notes on the impressive and unexpected retrospective of Spanish-Catalan auteur Agustí Villaronga:
His debut Tras en cristal (1987) reveals the filmmaker belonging to the post-Hitchcock group of filmmakers like Chabrol, De Palma, Argento, and Lynch who use a stylized decoupage of specific sequences to express subjective psychological states often involving sexuality and suspense. Villaronga here likes the gaudy camera pen set-piece as much as De Palma, and can be as twisted in his subject as Argento. Why Villaronga leapt to immediate fame with this first film is probably the extra element Argento or De Palma wouldn’t touch, that is, specifically linking a cinema of sensual-psychological suspense and violence to actual history. The subject here is of an exiled Nazi who used to torture and abuse children and is now paralyzed and terrorized by a former victim.
What’s particularly interesting about Villaronga is that in comparison to these 2nd Stage Hitchcocks (side note: where is the 3rd Stage? Who has inherited the ways of master from the second generation?) it is far more uncertain what the central, driving idea-sensation-perspective is that is being visualized by the director. In an Argento or De Palma the heavy hand of the stylist inevitably makes it clear precisely why the director is shooting a point of view with a steady cam, or why this or that jarring cut to another space or event or perspective exists—there is a nearly one to one relationship between the form applied and the effect desired. But Villaronga here comes closer to the attitude though certainly not the sensibility of Lynch’s 2nd Stage Hitchockianism in staging elaborately perceived psycho-violent events without a direct correlation between the style and the meaning.
The effect is powerfully more atmospheric than the comparatively rigidly architectural and modular Argento-De Palma, with the best moments of Tras en cristal even at its most sadistic and cruel achieving a sensuality dreamily removed into an almost contemplative feeling. The sequences almost become objects to contemplate, and those objects tend to accumulate into an emblematic language of sensuality, décor, and typage that seems to me bordering on a camp or kitsch aesthetic, and reminded me of Werner Schroeter film I recently watched, DerRosenkönig (1986).
Villaronga’s second film, of a much higher budget following the success of his debut, is El Niño de la luna (1989), which, in being more sprawling in scale and more ambitious in scope, loses the sticky, removed claustrophobia of Tras en cristal. But it unexpectedly seems a rival of and response to the Lucas-Spielberg 1980s’ aesthetic of resurrecting old comic books and serials and absorbing them into mainstream, big budgeted genre cinema. Except this isn’t Spielberg and it’s not Indiana Jones—it’s Villaronga and a story about an orphaned boy who has telekinesis and may or may not be the mythologically preordained moon child.
The mystery of the boy’s true inner occult worth spurs the child’s adoption by and later escape from a vaguely fascist institute that trains similar special beings (shades of X-Men’s mutants) and a flight of the powerfully white and rather slack-jawed titular child to Africa to be embraced by shamans. Villaronga thus apes the genre, scale, and movement of the successful American prototype but is more invested in the gauzy-mystery occult undercurrents of comic book (and pre-WW2) bildungsroman tales that power the subtexts of such films as Indiana Jones and even Star Wars. Unlike those American examples, Villagaronga pursues the various sensual, mystical, unknowing, and abstract threads he sees in his inspirations and sources. (That David Lynch was once tapped for a Star Wars sequel comes to mind here, as does his radical and equally weird interpretation of similar American genre blockbusters, Dune.)