The Red Squirrel Review
I was initially surprised to discover that Stanley Kubrick, a director renowned for his exacting demands and meticulous composition, adored The Red Squirrel (original title, La Ardilla Roja) - a dreamily shot and paced film where spontaneity counts for more than careful preparation. Yet upon closer inspection it’s clear that the film, with its fascinating treatise on the nature of illusion and desire, both prefigures Kubrick’s own grossly underrated Eyes Wide Shut and also provides an interesting comparison piece to Medem’s later, rather less successful, film Sex and Lucia.
The film begins with Jota, a has-been rock star, preparing to commit suicide by throwing himself from a bridge. Already hesitant, he is further distracted when a motorcyclist crashes through the railings and lands on the beach below. Medem captures this moment of realisation with an astonishing tracking shot along the bridge’s railings, following the impact’s vibrations until they reach Jota’s fingertips. Jota proves to be a character of exceptional physical reflexes - quickly attending to the felled motorcyclist, who turns out to be female - although it will become increasingly apparent as the film progresses that these attributes belie his only sluggish ability for emotional understanding. Upon arrival at the hospital he explains to the orderlies that the attractive woman is his girlfriend, naming her Lisa (after his ex, appropriately enough) and affirming their four-year relationship with a particularly voluptuous kiss. ‘Lisa’ offers not the slightest resistance to this behaviour: she’s suffering from amnesia but is a trusting sort, and when Jota announces a trip to ‘The Red Squirrel’ (a lakeside holiday camp) she willingly complies, believing a period of convalescence in the sun will help her memories to return to her.
Hollywood mined similar territory in the amnesia-farce Overboard (which featured Goldie Hawn as an uppity and spoilt heiress, learning to live the simple life, courtesy of Kurt Russell) and doubtless Claude Chabrol will eventually use the conceit to deliriously nasty effect in one of his unsettling bourgeois-bashing French thrillers, but The Red Squirrel does not follow such clearly-defined paradigms. The film in fact offers a genuine sense of romance amid its whimsy and elliptical digressions – heightened by the frequent, and completely unironic, use of Nat King Cole’s ‘Let there be Love’ on the soundtrack. And yet there’s always something darker simmering beneath the film’s bucolically placid surface: Jota’s efforts to imprint character onto Lisa coincide with the film’s subtext of outmoded Spanish machismo, and Lisa’s fragmentary reminiscences about life before Jota are ominous to say the least. Upon arriving at the camp, Jota and Lisa are befriended by Carmen (frequent Almodovar collaborator, Maria Barranco) and her bullying husband Antón (Kerra Elejalde); the former admiring Lisa’s free-spiritedness and independence, the latter envying Jota’s – increasingly tenuous – hold over his lover.
With regards to its attitude towards gender and sexuality, the film is very much a product of post-Franco Spain. Franco’s patriarchal insistence on women occupying a subservient position to their husbands received a vitriolic backlash with the rejuvenation of Spanish cinema in the ‘80s: directors such as Almodovar and Bigas Lunas flouting convention and, on occasion, good taste to give their irreverent reversing of preconceived notions about gender roles an extra shot of joyful taboo. The Red Squirrel reiterates this derisory stance on undue machismo: Antón exerts a physically non-violent but emotionally debilitating control over Carmen, makes a point of slapping his adolescent son on the occasions he joins his sister and her friend in an affectionately innocent game of playing families (itself an interesting parallel to the rather more dubious role-play between Jota and Lisa) and shows obvious disquietude at the self-possessed Lisa’s fiery individuality. Jota’s passivity – he doesn’t intercede when Lisa and Antón begin arguing, even when Antón slides from blandly abrasive to grotesquely lewd – is equally mocked and it is with dark amusement that Medem orchestrates his realisation that Lisa’s propensity for recreating her forgotten past has surpassed his own ability to invent it.
Medem equates the mystery of Lisa’s identity and her past with the fundamental enigma of her personality; she remains an elusive figure throughout but - as played to perfection by Emma Suarez - she evokes any earthy sensuosity and a playful knowingness about her ‘boyfriend’s’ ostensible influence over her behaviour. As Jota, Nancho Novo has the harder task; beyond his sly grins and feigned indifference we witness only brief flashes of neediness and vulnerability. The inevitable reversal of roles in the film’s latter half, as Jota finds himself no longer in a position to instruct Lisa and having instead to react to her increasing autonomy, perhaps reflects on the title of the film: the red squirrel is fickle and cunning, and hence adaptable, but also evasive and cowardly - it is only when this mould is broken that a resolution can be reached. Like Tom Cruise’s voyage for sexual vengeance in Eyes Wide Shut or Tristán Ulloa’s imagined liaisons with invented women in Medem’s own Sex and Lucia, La Ardilla Roja explores the fugacity of erotic fulfilment and its associations with the illusory appeal of fantasy and the transient satisfaction of pretence. It may not reach a conclusion, but it’s never less than spellbinding.
This is something of a trickier area. The image is presented anamorphically in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 but also exhibits a number of problems. In the earlier stages of the film there’s some noticeable print damage and although the image seems to be more or less free of digital manipulation or artefacting it’s also lacking in sharpness. The picture also has a rather washed out appearance, although - on the evidence of the intentionally overexposed look of Sex and Lucia - this just might have been an aesthetic choice by Medem. The stereo audio track is a little better: both the dialogue and the film’s beautiful music score are rendered clearly and there’s no audio hiss, but the soundtrack never really comes alive and feels rather flat throughout.
There aren’t many extra features. Alan Stone provides an interesting but unfortunately brief essay on the film, there are filmographies for Medem, Emma Suarez and Nancho Novo and there is also the film’s theatrical trailer. Also available are trailers for Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Terrorist, Thesis, Battle Royale, Freezer and Julien Donkey-Boy.
At its heart The Red Squirrel is a magnificently fabulist love story; it is also a mystery - much in the manner of its magnetic female protagonist. The film’s oneiric atmosphere, aided immeasurably by Medem’s assured direction and Alberto Iglesias’s sensuous musical score, lends the film a deliciously off-beam edge of surrealism which, coupled with the intelligence of the performances and the skill of the plotting, make it too good an experience to miss. Tartan’s DVD is adequate - compared some of the company’s earlier releases it’s downright exceptional - but nothing special.
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