Friday, October 29, 2021

José Luis Torres Leiva | Vendrá la Muerte y Tendrá Tus Ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes) / 2019

another story of love and dying

by Douglas Messerli

José Luis Torres Leiva (screenwriter and director) Vendrá la Muerte y Tendrá Tus Ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes) / 2019

Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva has created a work in his Vendrá la Muerte y Tendrá Tus Ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes)—the title based on a poem by Italian writer Cesare Pavese—that might easily have slipped into good-willed sentimentalism given that its characters, Ana (Amparo Noguero) and María (Julieta Figueroa) are two late 40ish lesbians, one of whom (María) is suffering from terminal cancer and the film is basically a tracing of her progression into death. Even a few years ago, a Hollywood production who have drained any sexuality from their lesbian relationship in order to show how queers suffer just like heterosexual women, allowing them only a few sweet kisses while carting in and out their numerous straight male and female friends to wish María a well-deserved goodbye, perhaps with even a bit of sanguine pleasure in the fact that all LGBTQ figures just have to go before the camera shutter closes, and hinting, accordingly, that perhaps Ana may find a way back into the “wider” community (i.e. hook up with a sensitive straight guy who she’s always admired since “before” her sexual exploration).

     But Torres Leiva nearly bans all “well-wishers,” except for Ana’s quiet and profound-thinking sister, and dismisses any male admirers. This is a woman’s world where the two lovers can remain precisely that, two women expressing their love and regrets so openly and with such mixed feelings of hope and fear that at moments it is hard to believe this film isn’t a documentary. 

     Ana, who works as a nurse, is perhaps the perfect companion, moreover, for her lover who has determined to cease all further treatments and the two, choosing to spend the last few weeks or months of María’s life in an intense and quiet solitude where they can focus simply on one another, move to a hut in a forest still close enough that Ana can commute back and forth to work.

      In this special retreat, they face their own fierce love for one another, sometimes let loose of their tears, and at other moments, particularly in María’s case momentarily release her anger and frustration for having to be treated by her companion almost as a child. They listen to the sounds about them: the wind, the birdsong, the sea, and their own breathing, adding to it only their gentle comments during sometimes painful dressing and eating sessions and stories, two of which become central in reinforcing Torres Leiva’s LGBTQ-centric approach, pointing up distinctions that his film makes from so many hundreds of earlier films made by homophobic bigots or well-intentioned liberals, both of whom found ways around truly facing their characters’ and others’ queer sexualities.

     If there is any flaw in this beautiful work in which the director allows his camera to focus for long periods of time simply on the faces and bodies of his central characters, it may be these signifying stories, both of which have no central role in the lives of the lesbian characters upon whom the film focuses.

      Writing in The Guardian critic Cath Clarke argues: 

“Two sizable digressions in the middle spoil the film a little. One dramatises a strange fairytale María tells about a naked feral girl living alone in the forest; the other is a family story about her uncle. Both felt a bit generically arthouse, slightly awkward experiments.”

       But I would argue that these two unrelated episodes, not only help to reconnect these otherwise temporarily isolate figures with the larger community around them, but sets up paradigms for LGBTQ story-telling that might be useful to future directors whose works include queer figures of any kind.

      Late in the film, moreover, when Ana’s sister joins them for one of their last night’s in retreat, she suggests that the eerie light, the sound of María’s heavy breathing, and the wind around them reminds her of the many nights their spent as children in the days of military dictator August Pinochet under curfew, during which outside they would hear occasional gunshots and screams, each telling one another stories to help them get through the frightening nights. It is often just to storytelling that we often turn when we are have no answers of how to face the horrifying present and the unknowable future. And both of the stories told in this film seem somewhat like mythical tales that present an extraordinary occurrence that helps to heal and salve our fears.

       Both also take place is a wild outland such as that to where Ana and María have retreated. In the first tale María tells an old woman one days spots a wild child who has apparently been surviving like an animal in the jungle around her. Gently awakening the sleeping girl, the woman lures the animal-like child into her house through gentle strokes and words, offering her food, gently trimming her hair, and showering and cleaning her, but otherwise most specifically allowing the strange wild-child to remain just as she is, without demanding that she alter her ways to meet the expectations of the “developed” world who live outside and near the jungle in which the child has survived.

       One terribly rainy night, the old woman worries for the well-being of her new “friend,” placing a lamp in the window and also peering out to see if she might find her trying to make her way back to the protection of her house. What she does observe is the girl joyfully engaged with the heavy pelt of the raindrops, completely covered with mud but laughing and crying with pleasure for the natural downpour. It is an ecstasy that a so-called “civilized” person might never even have imagined, but so beautiful to observe that one might almost describe it as pleasure akin to sexual orgasm, so overwhelming enjoyable for the individual that one almost wants to pull one’s gaze away in shame for observing something so singularly meaningful. 

      One only has to recall François Truffaut’s film of 1970 about another wild-child, Victor of Aveyron who, taken in by the equally well-intentioned Dr. Jean Itard, instead of being left as he is, is gradually transformed into a version of the paternalistic, normalized version of a boy of French society who cannot help but feel tortured and fragmented from the being he was before his discovery, the same structures and concepts played out again in Werner Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser (1974) which, in this case, perhaps succeed in destroying the gifted child of that film.

     In the second story told by the two women of Torres Leiva’s film concerns María’s uncle (Ignacio Agüero), somewhat of an adventurer who always brought her gifts upon his many returns. A married man with three girls, the story tells of his awaiting his families’ arrival in a woodland vacation home, as he takes exploratory forays in the deep woods only to uncover a younger man (Edgardo Castro) swimming naked. Suddenly overcome with lust for the stranger, the two walk together in the woods for a while before engaging in a passionate sexual encounter, which the uncle later admits to his niece—the only one which he seems comfortable confessing his long held secret—was a completely transformative sexual experience he ever before or again encountered. The two men corresponded in secret for a long while before losing linguistic contact and the memory of their intense touches.

      Why, one wonders, in a work almost entirely focused upon the love of two women and in which there are no other significant male figures would the director have chosen to introduce a gay love scene, particularly one representing such passionate lovemaking.     

     In an interview with Cédric Succivalli for the ICS (International Cinephile Society) asks:     

“There is a gay sex scene right in the middle of the film that comes a little bit out of nowhere, which I really liked, but I would like you to expand on it. How did it build up? Why did you want to incorporate that gay encounter?

JLTL: For me this subplot is important because it talks about desire and the discovery of love and desire.”

     Still, one might ask, why chose a gay scene to show the love and desire that the ailing lesbian couple can no longer demonstrate having obviously occurred perhaps 20 years earlier in their life which has become the basis of their relationship?

     But then, the true wonder of Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes is that it is not simply yet another lesbian film made by a male, but that it’s central figures seem so true to life because they are not defined by their sexual desires—just as María’s uncle was not—but upon the love between two bodies, one healthy and one ill, who come together to help and save each other. As the director himself summarized it elsewhere:

It’s a film which stresses bodies (healthy and ill) and faces like landscapes of human nature,” Leiva Torres commented. “It’s a film about love, death, family, the need to create close bonds which go beyond any condition or gender.”

     What is perhaps most interesting is not simply that Levia Torres was able to capture a beautiful lesbian relationship in action, but chose to represent his ideas about loved, death, family, and bonding firmly outside of the heteronormative majority which has always felt that it defined this territory, posting it firmly instead in queer territory.

     Still, one might ask, why chose a gay scene to show the love and desire that the ailing lesbian couple can no longer demonstrate having obviously occurred perhaps 20 years earlier in their life which has become the basis of their relationship?

                     For everyone death has a look.

                     Death will come with your eyes.

                     It will be like terminating a vice,

                     as seen in the mirror

                     a dead face re-emerging,

                     like listening to closed lips.                 

                     We'll go down the abyss in silence.

Los Angeles, October 28, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).



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