The Orphanage (2007)

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The Orphanage
El Orfanato
Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona
Premiered at Cannes May 20, 2007

It’s 2007. The [First] Cold War is over, and Europe has entered a rapid program of economic integration, expanding the continent’s wealth and influence beyond the traditional power centers and into the underdeveloped periphery. The term “New Europe” is mostly used to describe the former Eastern Bloc, Yugoslavia, and Turkey, but easily fits some western countries such as Ireland (as already seen in Once) and Spain. That fact is made manifest in both The Orphanage’s existence and its overall vibe.

When Spain came back out to the world, its cinema bet everything on high-class genre films, and it paid off enormously. In 2006, Pan’s Labyrinth made Guillermo del Toro a household name in America, leading him to help raise the profile of other Spanish filmmakers, starting with a producer credit on Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage.

Thirtysomething Laura (Belén Rueda) has just returned to an abandoned orphanage on the cold, rocky coast of Asturias, where she lived before being adopted just as fascism ended in the country. Her goal is to rehabilitate the ancient structure as a school for mentally disabled children. But all is not well: her adopted son (Roger Príncep) has always had a vivid imagination, but his new imaginary friend Tomás is getting him into wholly new kinds of trouble; Tomás even seems to know things about the orphanage that Laura herself doesn’t. One day, Simon disappears, and Laura herself sees a distant apparition of Tomás.

Simon’s disappearance, and traditionalist Laura’s steadfast refusal to accept that he has passed (the child was born HIV-positive and required daily medication) quickly opens a rift between her and her strict rationalist husband (Fernando Cayo). But the mystery deepens, as Laura discovers that she may have been rescued at a young age from a grisly fate that’s taken more children in the house than just her son…

Both my friend and I described this movie as “extremely Spanish.” Despite the contemporary setting, the aesthetic of The Orphanage is deeply old-fashioned in a way that would have been wildly out of place in any country that hadn’t experienced decades of despotic isolation within living memory. No wonder so many gothic creepfests love to shoot on the wind-hewn northern reaches of the country.

But most of all, it’s a character-based supernatural thriller. When screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez wrote the script back in the 1990s, he claimed to have based the film in his love of New Hollywood horror flicks like Rosemary’s Baby and Poltergeist, but more than anything it feels like an exceptionally good Stephen King adaptation, where what normally becomes goofy on screen is instead intensely watchable; a ghost story to remember.

How Did It Do?
The Orphanage was lauded by critics, earning it an 87% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and a place on a whole bunch of year-end lists. It was also a smash hit compared to its tight $4 million budget, earning a whopping $78.6 million.

An English-language remake went into pre-production soon after the accolades, with Del Toro and Sánchez staying on as producer and screenwriter, respectively. But it’s been in development hell for the better part of a decade, so the odds are against it ever being made, as if it needed to be.

Next Time: A Mighty Heart

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That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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That Obscure Object of Desire
Cet Obscure Objet du Desir
Dir. Luis Buñuel
Premiered August 17, 1977

In the final scene of Luis Buñuel’s last directorial effort, a radio announcer proclaims that an assortment of terrorist groups, who have overrun the oddly placid version of contemporary France and Spain here depicted and made random violence as common as ordering pizza, have suddenly all joined forces. That this should happen is incredibly strange, as the insurgents range from Communists to Anarchists to hardline Catholics. But all have a common interest in changing your mind, and so too does Conchita, the film’s unpredictable titular object of desire.

The film opens in Seville, as wealthy French widower Mathieu (Fernando Rey) cleans up the remains of a violent affair in his hotel. Hoping to return to Paris as quickly as possible, he is disappointed to discover he must change trains in Madrid. Nevertheless, all of the other passengers in his compartment are also headed to Paris, and are intrigued to hear what led him to dump a bucket of cold water on a mysterious woman on the platform. Mathieu assures his captive audience that they will soon understand his actions, but I’m not so certain.

Conchita, comes into Mathieu’s life as his maid. Mathieu immediately takes an erotic interest in her. He claims only to be interested in sex with a woman he truly loves, but Conchita strongly doubts him, and sets out to test whether he truly loves her. So begins an endlessly repeated cat-and-mouse game whereby Mathieu unexpectedly meets Conchita, attempts to woo her, Conchita refuses to have sex with him (but will do anything else), but then angrily leaves him whenever he pushes the issue; over and over from one day to the next, and one country to another. Accordingly, Mathieu, a wealthy man of influence who seems never to have faced rejection, is driven to madness by Conchita’s actions, driving his obsession further.

Adding brilliantly to the confusion is that Conchita is played by two different actresses. At times, the role is performed by Carole Bouquet, at others she is more aggressively inhabited by Angela Molina. That Obscure Object of Desire is one of several adaptations (and amazingly the last to date) of the 1898 novel The Girl and the Puppet, a cautionary tale about the danger of falling into a trap of only wanting what you can’t have. Leave it to Buñuel to take it to an extreme.

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Signs This Was Made in 1977
The terrorist content is a particular feature. Nearly every sequence is accompanied by an act of terror. Jokes are made about the ubiquity of airplane hijackings. The trial of a terrorist group is a major plot point.

How Did It Do?
That Obscure Object of Desire was a hit with critics then and now, earning a 100% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. The decision to cast two actresses as Conchita was particularly praised, impressively for a gimmick born from the adversity of working with the unknown actress who was first hired to play her, and has found its place in the work of filmmakers from B.P. Paquette, to Todd Haynes, to (ugh) Todd Solondz, to me.

Luis Buñuel never made another film, passing away in 1983. His 48-year directorial career was never forgotten.

Next Time: The Duellists