One of Spain’s best known and critically acclaimed filmmakers in his own country, Carlos Saura is less well known in the U.S. where his mentor Luis Bunuel and his predecessor Pedro Almodovar are more famous. Yet, Saura was one of the guiding lights of the Spanish New Wave movement in the early sixties, beginning with his neorealistic social drama The Delinquents (1960). Saura would hit his stride with his two subsequent features, La Caza (1966, aka The Hunt) and Peppermint Frappe (1967), both of which explored the political, social and sexual repression of the Franco regime through the guise of allegory and psychological melodrama, respectively.
Despite a title that seems to suggest a light, frothy romantic comedy, Peppermint Frappe is a dark, brooding character study that is heavily influenced by Luis Bunuel’s El (1953, aka This Strange Passion) and bears some striking similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The 1967 feature also marks Saura’s first collaboration with actress Geraldine Chaplin, who would become his off screen companion for many years and go on to star in eight more films for the director.
The opening credits for Peppermint Frappe sets the voyeuristic tone of the film as images from fashion magazines are cropped and assembled in a scrapbook by the protagonist, Julian (Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez), a physician who operates a radiology clinic in the traditional Castilian town of Cuenca.
Julian finds his lonely bachelor existence disrupted by the arrival of his childhood friend Pablo (Alfredo Mayo) and his beautiful young wife Elena (Geraldine Chaplin) who have returned to live in the area. Julian is immediately smitten with the enigmatic Elena and soon becomes completely obsessed with her, convinced he saw her years earlier, beating a drum at a Holy Week ceremony in Calanda. The latter image, both erotic and innocent, haunts him and reveals his idealized view of women. Elena, however, proves to be a provocative tease, enjoying but also repelling Julian’s advances, making it quite clear she is unobtainable. In frustration, Julian turns his attention to his shy office assistant Ana (also played by Chaplin) and begins to slowly mold her in the image of Elena until she completely resembles Pablo’s wife down to the blonde hair and fake eyelashes. But Julian’s obsession with Elena does not run its course naturally and the movie builds to a chilling climax that would not be out of place in a Hitchcock or Chabrol thriller.
After Saura had completed La Caza, he cast about for a film project that would serve as a homage to his spiritual master Luis Bunuel. Saura later recalled, “It was in Calanda with Bunuel that I got the idea for the film. You know the story of the drums of Calanda. The year I saw it a beautiful young woman, she was one of Bunuel’s relatives, was beating the drum with all her might. I kept that extraordinary image as a persistent memory. This young woman belonged to another world; while all around her thousands of people were playing, she also beat the drum. It was all the more impressive since it is usually the men who do so.”
While the contrasting female characters of Elena and Ana propel the film’s increasingly perverse storyline, it is Julian who is the primary focus of Peppermint Frappe and Saura’s embodiment of the traditional Spanish male raised under the repressive regime of Franco. In an interview, Saura stated that, “I realized that the Spanish bourgeoisie – and by extension that of the world, including the middle class – has a series of fixed images: a medieval notion, concerning feelings, primarily held by men towards women. It is that notion of woman as object, which fashion magazines show in a very clear way…In Peppermint Frappe it’s somewhat clearer because it contains the myth of the woman-object held by the traditional man with his religious notions and his particular education. He [Julian] can be a terrific doctor, but it doesn’t let him get away from his concept of the woman-object…We all know Julian. He is a subjectified character who is traumatized by a horrible religious and sexual upbringing. We are all familiar with this problem in Spain.”
Initially Saura was asked by his producer Elias Querejeta to make Peppermint Frappe in English so that its commercial prospects would be better. The director recalled that Querejeta said, ‘Look, this film has to be made in English because it is very expensive and that is the only way we can sell it.’ We all turned white. He told me he would have an advisor on hand to translate, and they translated the script into English. I remember that we shot the first scene in the studio. It was a scene between Lopez Vasquez and Alfredo Mayo. We were all very serious in spite of the joking that had gone on behind the scenes. As soon as I gave the order to start, Alfredo Mayo said, “Pretty roses,” and we all let out a big laugh. There was so much joking around that Elias said to stop shooting in English. We continued shooting in Spanish.”
Saura had previously experienced run-ins with government sanctioned film censors on his earlier films, all of which resulted in edited versions of his final cuts, but Peppermint Frappe was passed without any scene deletions or censored footage. The movie was not only a popular success in Spain but also won Saura the Best Director award at the 1968 Berlin International Film Festival; it also won three honors (Best Picture, Best Actor [Vazquez] and Best Screenplay at Spain’s Cinema Writers Circle Awards ceremony the same year.
Even though Saura was trying to emulate Bunuel in Peppermint Frappe, many critics found the film to be much more directly influenced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, despite the fact that Saura had always preferred Psycho (1960) to the former film. The comparisons are undeniable however in certain scenes such as the swirling camera movement around Ana as Julian circles her, coaching her through her exercises on a rowing machine, or the delirious final shot, in which Ana appears to be complicit in Julian’s crimes. The Bunuel influence is equally obvious though and never more so than the scene where Julian asks Elena to kneel on the floor of his childhood bedroom and then spies on her through a keyhole in the door. Peppermint Frappe will prove to be revelation for those who are only familiar with Saura’s more widely-distributed work from the 80s, in particular his famous flamenco trilogy, Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983), and El Amor Brujo (1986), which enjoyed critical acclaim and popularity on the U.S. art house circuit during their release. * This is a revised version of an article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website. The film also aired on TCM and may be shown again in the future but currently it is unavailable in the U.S. on DVD or Blu-Ray.
The Films of Carlos Saura: The Practice of Seeing by Marvin D’Lugo (Princeton University Press)
Carlos Saura: Interviews edited by Linda M. William (University Press of Kentucky)
http://www.filmref.com/directors/dirpages/saura.html (Strictly Film School web site)
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