Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Carlos Hugo Christensen | A Intrusa (The Intruder)
by Douglas Messerli
Carlos Hugo Christensen, Ubirajara Raffo Constant, and Orígenes Lessa (screenply, based on the story “La intrusa” by Jorge Luis Borges), Carlos Hugo Christensen (director) A Intrusa (The Intruder) / 1979
Quite by accident I came across an English language-subtitled version of Carlo Hugo Christensen’s 1979 film, A Intrusa, based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La intrusa.”
The story, written earlier but published finally in 1966, concerns two gaucho brothers living in the 1890s upon the Argentine pampas (filmed in Uruguaiana, Rio Grande do Su, Brazil on the Eastern side of Uruguay bordering Argentina). In the Borges story, the two blond Nilsen brothers, Christian (José de Abreu) and Eduardo (Arlindo Barreto), who mostly trade horses, cure hides, and raise sheep and cocks—a couple of the latter which during the course of the film they enter into a local cockfight, the first of which wins in the scene that introduces this film.
The brothers also regularly take advantage of the local brothel, as well as occasionally working for others as cattle rustlers. Both the brothers are known throughout the community for their bad tempers, and keep others away from their own small spread.
In short, these brothers outwardly project the behavior and mores of those surrounding them, but at home show another side of themselves consisting of great affection and tenderness for one another. As critics have noted, the film and story present these figures in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde relationship, representing to the outside world a dangerous force which is utterly ameliorated within their home.
Evidently in the Borges story and certainly in Christensen’s cinematic version, there is also something a bit “queer” about their fraternal relationship within the confines of their own ranch. We sense this almost from the first moments of the film when returning home after the cockfight they strip naked and mock-fight, much like the cocks they’ve just witnessed, before they crawl into bed with one another.
But we know that in this macho world we must also be somewhat careful in how we evaluate that relationship. As the critic Herbert J. Brant notes, in Hispanic culture the choice of a female sexual partner does not necessarily mean “that the male character is, by definition, exclusively and permanently heterosexual.” Women, in the highly patriarchal society of the day, were even less than objects. They were useful as housekeepers and a source of release for the male sexual drive, but, as with the woman in this story, Juliana (María Zilda Bethlem), they could also be bought and sold.
The purchase of Juliana by Eduardo evidently serves a double purpose as obtaining a cook and housecleaner as will as providing him with heterosexual release. But her arrival also represents the “intruder” of both Borges’ and Christensen’s work. To make certain the viewer immediately recognizes the significance of her entrance, the director has waited to announce the major credits of the film, including its title, cast, and other film crew the 18 long minutes of film-time it has taken to get to this point.
It is immediately apparent that the Eduardo’s new woman serves as a terrible break in the intimate world of the two brothers upon which both have so long depended. And the handsome Christian, observing the newcomer’s arrival is clearly caught off guard and frustrated. He takes off early the next morning on his way to the brothel, but finds along the way a beautiful young girl whom he offers a ride on his horse into town, where this time he loses the cockfight with the rooster he has carried with him.
He does not have sex with the girl, perceiving that quite clearly she is a virgin, which, later on, when goaded by another local, João Iberra (Fernando de Almeida) a few days later that he has now deflowered the virgin, results in Christian calling for a duel between Iberra and himself.
Christian gruesomely severs his opponents’ hand, but also receives some wounds which are salved by the brothel owner before he is sent back to his brother.
Realizing the source of Christian’s recent problems, Eduardo now offers to share Juliana with his brother, and the two alternate, using her, we quickly discern, less as a source of satisfaction than as a kind of sexual conduit between themselves. Although there is nothing outwardly homosexual in their behavior, we cannot help but perceive that their rather brutal efforts of love-making have less to do with their gratification of male-female sex than with each of the brothers finding a communal source upon which to express their fraternal desires. I have chosen that preposition carefully since we later discover that Juliana basically does not serve the brothers as a connection of the male penis to the female vagina but rather as what one might describe as vessel in which to deposit the sperm as an kind of offering for the fraternal other. In a sense, to the brother’s way of thinking Juliana remains as a kind of virgin to which they offer up their sperm as a kind of shared blessing, which explains Christian’s “acquisition” of a young virgin and his battle with the man who steals her virginity.
It is not take the brothers long to comprehend that in sharing the passive Juliana they are further creating a kind friction between the deep bonds they feel toward one another, and before long they determine to sell her to the brothel owner, who buys the woman for far less they she is offered.
If that might seem to release the sexual frustrations that the brothers face, it creates even more serious problems when both make excuses for trips into the local outpost, intending once there an opportunity to visit the brothel to have fuck the girl. When they both accidentally encounter each other there they realize that in lying to one another they have broken their bond even further, and, accordingly, determine to buy her back at the higher price they had originally asked.
Thus far, Christensen had kept fairly close to Borges’ tale, although capturing its subtleties in visual terms instead of literary words certainly has helped make the master’s subtle sexual implications far more obvious. But by taking the logic of their relationship a bit further, and playing out a sexual reunion with Juliana in their house wherein both brothers, laying on opposites sides of her quite obviously grope and lust after each other’s body, using the female’s skin simply as a receptacle to deposit their sperm, Christensen brought Borges’ subtleties into a new light. Borges was so infuriated that he threatened to demand that the film be censored at a time when censorship was increasingly used to silence artists of all kinds. Christensen, himself, had had to leave his homeland of Argentina for his early sexually-transgressive films.
As Brant observes: “Borges, naturally, is very clever about how he insinuates the growing mutual love between the brothers. Unlike Christensen, Borges never portrays any sexual situation involving the brothers or Juliana and he certainly never directly indicates what the relationship between the brothers might suggest. But on the other hand, Borges does insinuate that the love between the Nilsens is the kind of love between men that surpasses the love between a man and a woman. A Biblical citation, indicated only by the chapter and verse designation “2 Reyes, I, 26” is the curious epigraph to the story.”*
That reference to 2 Reyes appears in my Bible in the 2nd book of Samuel in which King David laments the death of his dear friend Jonathan**:
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
O Jonathan, thou was slain in thine high places.
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very
pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was
wonderful, passing the love of women.
Certainly, as applied to the Borges story, that epigraph seems to confirm the sexual implications of the brotherly love between the Nilsens. Yet, as Brant and other scholars have suggested, Borges, upon of hearing Christensen’s scene (being blind at that time, he could not have seen it) he had what might be described as a kind of “homosexual panic,” a dread fear that he and his story might suggest that he, himself, was homosexual.***
Although Borges had not gone as far in his story (written in 1941), Christensen logically expands through a more contemporary presentation of what might have happened to the Nilsens upon Juliana’s return.
Even the brothers realize in that sexual encounter with one another over the body of Juliana, that the walls, so to speak, must now fall, and they grasp hands in the recognition of what has occurred between them.
While Christian is out, Eduardo kills the woman, wrapping her in a carpet—in what might be seen as misogynistic reversal of Cleopatra’s introduction of herself to Cesar—which he loads into the back of one of their carts. Asking Christian to join him in a delivery to one of the clients Eduardo steers the cart in what the younger brother finally realizes, in the wrong direction, at which point the elder admits what he has done, now suggest that they leave her in their cart so that the vultures might finish off the remains of her body.
As the brothers climb down from the cart to take their horses back to their ranch, they briefly come together with open pampas revealing a beautiful sunset behind them as they intensely hug one another, surely now ready to express their love in a far more direct manner.
Like this director’s stunning 1967 film, The Boy and the Wind, A Intrusa helps to solidify Christensen’s reputation for creating profoundly complex sexual texts which require his viewers to question their own preconceived views of what sexual couplings might signify. I can only hope that Criterion, Kino, or some other film group restores these two films offering new subtitles as well as releasing others cinematic works of this great Argentinian/Brasilian director’s oeuvre.
*Herbert J. Brant, “Borges’ Homosexual Panic: Christensen’s Film Version of ‘La intrusa’,” presented as a paper at the Northeast Modern Language Association Convention in April, 1996).
**Readers of My Queer Cinema might also like to consider this passage in conjunction with my discussion above of Saul Femm’s discussion of the relationship between David and Jonathan in James Whale’s The Old Dark House.
***At least one scholar has speculated that Borges might have been raped as a child or a young man.
Los Angeles, September 7, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2020).