Much like the director’s previous film Mondays In The Sun, Fernando León de Aranoa’s Princesas (Princesses) deals with the harsh realities of changing times and the need for a group of workers in an old profession to adapt to the economy of the new world market and find a new way to be competitive. Mondays In The Sun saw this perspective from the male point of view of a group of shipbuilders in the North of Spain, while Princesas’ viewpoint is from a female perspective on an even older profession – that of a prostitute.
It’s an ancient profession that is falling on hard times, its worth being devalued by the influx of South American and Caribbean immigrants, all of them younger, prettier, sexier and – most importantly – cheaper than the rates charged by the girls who have been pounding the streets of Madrid for many years. Things were fine until the newcomers arrived, some of the girls even boasting of a time when they had government Ministers for clients. Now those same Ministers can do nothing for them in the context of the greater modern worldwide economy, and the girls feel bitter about it. There’s also a touch of envy and not a little loss of self-esteem. One of the girls, Cayetana (Candela Peña), is saving what money she can earn to pay for a breast enlargement operation that she thinks will boost her career.
Life on the streets isn’t a bed of roses for the immigrant girls either though, as Caye finds out when she become friendly with one of the girls who is a neighbour, Zulema (Micaela Nevárez), a young woman from the Dominican Republic. Sending her money back home for her young son being looked after by her family who are unaware of the work she is doing, Zule lives in poor accommodation at the mercy of a violent man who uses the promise of official citizenship papers to keep a hold over her. Neither Caye or Zule can seem to break the cycle of abuse and exploitation that they are caught up in, a set of circumstances that also threatens Caye’s home life and a relationship she has struck up with a new man, Manuel, neither of whom know about the kind of work she does either.
It’s a grim situation, and typically Spanish in this respect, the director showing the dreams and ideals that each of the women have - emphasising that with imagery evoking angels, princesses and tightrope walkers - only to have these little hopes crushed by the harsh reality of their everyday lives. It’s perhaps a little overdone in this respect, making the film heart-sinkingly depressing in places, and predictably so – you can see the inevitable fall coming in both women’s lives long before it actually happens. That its impact is undiminished however has a lot to do with the performances of Candela Peña and Micaela Nevárez, both actresses deservedly gaining awards at the Spanish Goyas. Peña (Torremolinos 73, Take My Eyes) in particular is outstanding, with a perfectly judged and note-perfect performance that carries the film through the weaker points with the same authority as Javier Bardem’s Santa in Mondays In The Sun.
Princesas doesn’t quite match the intensity of León’s previous film however and seems to cross the line occasionally from Mondays In The Sun’s perfectly balanced study of threatened masculinity into exploitation of the characters’ misery, but the nature of the women’s profession here perhaps inevitably takes it down this path. While the dialogue is just as sharp, witty, insightful and bitterly ironic here - Manu Chao’s excellent soundtrack being lyrically complementary - there is a reflective quality to the script that makes it somewhat novelistic in the manner of Almudena Grandes. Whereas the closing of the shipyards represented a changing of the times and roles that Spanish masculinity was ill-equipped to deal with, the situation of the prostitutes of Madrid is comparatively romanticised by placing their fates into their own hands and offering them a way out. This is perhaps pardonable as any little bit of hope it offers from the humiliation and abuse the women in Princesas have to endure is most welcome.
Princesses is released in the UK by Drakes Avenue Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is Region 2 encoded.
Typically with Drakes Avenue releases, the transfer on this DVD release is basic, but it at least meets minimum requirements by being presented anamorphically at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and by being progressively encoded. The image itself is also hard to fault with the strong colours and deep contrasts of the gritty, unglamorous cinematography that characterise León’s films. The print has no problems with marks, dust spots or any kind of damage, and is clear and relatively sharp throughout. The only issue with the transfer is with its presentation on a single-layer disc, the compression causing frequent macroblocking and flickering of backgrounds. On a normal CRT television display this will be less of an issue, but progressive LCD displays and PC monitors may highlight this problem. Understandably cutbacks have to be made by smaller independent distributors, but it’s a pity in this case, since otherwise, with a dual-layer disc and higher bit rate, the presentation would be much better.
The audio track doesn’t suffer unduly. It’s not greatly dynamic, but reasonably well-toned, clear and accurate with good ambience and surround effects on the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track.
English subtitles are provided in a white font, but are burnt into the print and cannot be removed. They are reasonably clear, but cause small artefacts and blocking in the surrounding areas of the image. The English translation does a superb job with the Spanish script’s humour and colourful language. Happily, Manu Chao’s songs, which contribute so much to the film, are also fully translated.
The only extra feature on the disc is the original Theatrical Trailer (2:10).
Dealing with the horrors, abuse and humiliation endured by Spanish prostitutes and young immigrant women, Princesas is inevitably rather depressing material, but Fernando León paints the bleakness darker only to let those rare rays of light that occasionally break through shine just that little bit brighter. The film’s script is superb, the writing and song lyrics touching on the situation of the women insightfully with no small amount of irony and black humour, and the central performances are utterly convincing. Drakes Avenue’s UK DVD release gives a barely adequate transfer on a practically barebones edition for a film that deserves much better.