Wednesday, November 14, 2012

La Residencia (1969) dir. Narciso Ibáñez Serrador

a.k.a. The House that Screamed; Finishing School

Logline: Much to her misfortune, young Teresea (Cristina Galbó) is dropped off as the newest resident at a boarding school run with a steely-eyed strictness by the severe Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer). Teresea makes friends with the other girls well enough, but some spirited flagellation, sexual tension, the creepy boy who peeps from behind the walls, and a spat of "disappearing" girls guarantee that her stay, however brief, will be an interesting one.

Though often shown to other countries of the world in all of their transgressive glory, the Spanish horror films produced under Franco's dictatorship suffered through that regime's relentless censorship until his death in 1975 and the subsequent dissolution of his control, guaranteeing that none of those previous several decades' most controversial works would be seen as intended in their country of origin. What remains surprising is how many subversive films were able to squeak by the censors up through the early 1970s, films that manage to rather explicitly condemn the fascistic tendencies of the exceedingly "moral" Francoist government through metaphor and allegory. Watching a composite copy of Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's La Residencia (sourced from a Spanish print with English audio and VHS-quality inserts of all the kinky cut material derived  from a weathered stateside release) reveals as much. Yes, all the best bits of sadomasochism, lesbianism, and abusive authority are chopped from the reels, but the implications of these events are never eradicated. Thankfully, the main thrust of La Residencia must have whipped its mark right above the censors' heads. Though perhaps that's not too surprising: at first blush, Serrador (who would proceed to direct one more horror film, the exquisitely intense Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), the year after Franco died) casts his film in the creaky Gothic tradition, light on traditional horror elements but high on degraded stately atmosphere. The film's French boarding house, with its proto-Suspiria eeriness-by-way-of-cattiness, hardly seems the obvious setting for some anti-authoritative statements. But La Residencia's early Gothic giallo trappings are a gaudy blanket of fog obscuring the film's rebellious attitudes. More importantly, the film's concerns being more pointedly focused on authoritarianism doesn't devalue it as a horror film-- if anything, it highlights just how frightening and destructive overbearing authority can be. (Plus, those charms as a late Gothic horror, though all smokescreen, are not unsubstantial-- note, with glee, its denouement's Frankensteinian revelations).

What even the butchered Spanish print can't conceal is the film's criticism of Madame Fourneau's  methods for ensuring the "healthy minds and healthy bodies" of her charges. She advocates and enforces a carceral system of conformity in which she employs the girls of her boarding school to spy on and report each other's aberrant behavior. In fact, Fourneau herself has very little to do throughout the film, other than frown menacingly, as her star pupil, Irene (Mary Maude), and a few other minions carry out much of the grunt work of keeping the school's girls in line (analogous to the Guardia Civil, perhaps?). These girls, bundles of raging hormones all, are placed on strict regimens of typical "lady-like" activities (gardening, cooking, needlework) when all they can think about is the next time that they can sneak out to have a rumble in the hay with the fellow who brings the school some wood every couple of weeks (who, they all admit, is no looker, but is the best they have to fantasize about). For all that Fourneau's methods of turning a fancy boarding house into a ornate penitentiary manage to produce is a whole lot of sexual repression that expresses itself in curious ways.

There are the more obvious motions towards this repression, of course. (Look at a scene of a highly sexualized embroidery lesson in which the girls have conspired to allow one of them to slip out of class for a rendezvous with the wood boy. Her moans of sexual ecstasy are overlay a series of rapid cuts of the girls back in class, biting and licking their lips at the imaginative notion of what their friend is up to in the barn, which all ends when (naturally) one of the girls pricks herself). But I was fascinated by the fact that Fourneau's methods of repression appear to be a reflection of her own self-repression. Throughout we see her predilection towards punishing the rebellious Catalina (Pauline Challoner) commingle with her uncomfortable affection for the girl. After a brutal whipping at Irene's hands, Catalina is left alone in her cell with Fourneau, who chastises the young girl for forcing her hand in ordering the punishment while bending down and tenderly, almost passionately kissing the fresh open wounds on her back. Fourneau costumes her abuse and repression in the finery of "order" and "morality"-- a bleeding back is for Catalina's own good, we're assured. (Draw parallels to Spanish life under Franco whenever you desire). Apparently noticing these affections, Catalina later begins to toy with Fourneau, in one memorable scene disrobing in her shower in front of the headmistress while laughing and rubbing her body as only one of Humbert Humbert's "nymphettes" could (because, yes, in a repressed French boarding school the girls shower in dresses; though, more specifically, in the cinema of Franco's Spain, girls on film shower in dresses in the domestic clothed versions). Fourneau is incredibly unnerved by Catalina's free sexuality-- the same sexuality that Fourneau represses in both herself and her charges-- but after this moment does not possess the courage to punish it. (Catalina fades to the peripheries for the rest of film. Considering the fates of the other girls, I suppose she wins out).

But La Residencia doesn't simply make the point that institutions that foster sexual repression are unstable. Rather, the film makes it fairly apparent that repression drives otherwise healthy young people into becoming sadistic maniacs. Two cases in particular are highlighted, the first being Irene, who is herself a Fourneau in miniature. The chief responsibility of the raven-haired Irene and her cohort, besides the monitoring and regulation of all activities, is doling out punishment. When the diehard rebel Catalina refuses to complete her lessons, Fourneau has her thrown into the dank Gothic equivalent of solitary confinement for a few days and has Irene savagely whip her while the other girls hold her down and Fourneau herself watches stoically from the other side of the room. Irene enjoys the whipping, to say the least. She has developed an interest in members of the same sex that can express itself only through equal moments of tenderness and sadistic punishment. She takes a liking to the new girl, Teresea, our ostensible protagonist. While in one scene Irene creepily rubs Teresea's hands while she's washing them, in another she forces Teresea-- who is openly wailing through tears-- to sing her a tune and "Smile!" while dressed in her prostitute mother's clothing. It's as if, like Fourneau, Irene can only express her sexual desires through the guise of discipline and punishment, but the latent sexual pleasure she derives from such acts transforms them into unabashed sadism.

Irene's actions are certainly not the sign of a good "healthy mind," but we at least receive the sense that she's a human being (in a peculiar realignment, she even momentarily becomes the protagonist in the third act). The same cannot be said of Fourneau's son Luis (John Moulder-Brown, of Deep End (1970) and Vampire Circus (1972)), the wispy haired pretty boy who hides about the boarding house spying on the girls and making fitful plans to run away with some of them when not sneaking them pastries. When we catch him serenely squishing an ant in the pages of a book, we know something is up. Forneau's repression of Luis is rife with Oedipal potential: she keeps him cooped up indoors and away from the other girls, telling him things like, "Those girls are poison. You need a girl like me," punctuated by nearly incestuous kisses. Fourneau is unwilling to give up her son to the "poisoned" world so keeps him cloistered and burdened with her affection, which even in its incestuous perversity is still repressed by both son and mother. But, his environment being so isolated, its clear that no single girl he ever encounters will suffice under his mother's strict standards, so Luis gets creative and cobbles together his own girlfriend with a blade and the best parts of a whole slew of those tainted schoolgirls. By attempting to conserve the sanctity of her son, her most prized possession and her legacy, her authoritarianism corrupts him beyond reprieve. We leave the film with her locked in a room with her son's putrid composite lover, having to face the realities of what she has wrought. With any hope, she'll think long and hard about her methods.

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