Two college students, Miguel (John Moulder-Brown) and Julia (Inma de Santis), take advantage of a school holiday to run off together for parts unknown. Their plan is to shack up somewhere where their parents can’t find them but their impromptu road trip takes an unexpected detour. The young lovers soon find themselves prisoners at a sequestered mansion and estate under the control of Don Luis (Javier Escrivá), an aristocrat with a passionate love of fine arts and the music of Richard Wagner. He also happens to be one of their professors at college and the one who picked up the hitchhikers while he was blasting “Ride of the Valkyries” from his car stereo. This is the set-up for Eloy de la Iglesia’s Forbidden Love Game (Spanish title: Juego de amor prohibido, 1975) but if you think you know what’s coming, you’re probably mistaken.
While the film flirts with the sinister master-servant relationship of Joseph Losey’s The Servant and the sadomasochistic sexual dynamics of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Forbidden Love Game lacks the psychological depths of the former while avoiding the controversial and in-your-face offensiveness (for some) of the latter. But I don’t mean to dismiss it because the film is an odd but intriguing psychodrama that blurs the lines between exploitation and art film. And the fact that it was released two months before the death of Francisco Franco is surprising in view of the strict censorship the Spanish dictator imposed on his country’s film industry. It’s not that the film is sexually explicit but a perverse and decadent atmosphere is pervasive throughout as well as scenes of aberrant human behavior that wouldn’t be out of place in the movies of Luis Buñuel, the surrealistic filmmaker who was forced to flee Spain to make his movies in Mexico and France.
The opening of the movie is a study in contrasts. We see Miguel and Julia separately packing for a trip, both typical, carefree college kids. We are then introduced to Don Luis and his servant/companion Jaime (Simón Andreu) who is giving himself a haircut in the kitchen. Don Luis asks why Jaime doesn’t go to a barber but the servant’s silent, enigmatic stare suggests that a response is either unnecessary or unwarranted. Don Luis then announces that is almost Jaime’s second anniversary with him and he promises to reward him with a comb for his hair. The uncomfortable tension between them is palpable and sets the stage for a collision between this odd duo and the two runaway students.
Once Miguel and Julia become guests at Don Luis’s cloistered mansion and estate, the plot unfolds in a manner not unlike a slightly more cerebral version of The Most Dangerous Game with the host a worthy stand-in for Count Zaroff. At their first dinner together in the formal dining room, the young couple are clearly uncomfortable as Don Luis casually inquires about their relationship and vacation plans and then provides them with a brief overview of his privileged background and inheritance. All the while Jaime dines with them silently, staring intently at the couple…especially Julia. An after-dinner tour of the mansion reveals Don Luis’s love of paintings, books, antiques and theater (Hamlet is cited) as well as an interest in guns (he has an impressive collection of firearms). The game has begun.
After Miguel and Julia retire to bed, we get our first glimpse of the twisted dynamic that exists between Don Luis and Jaime. In his dressing gown, Don Luis conducts an imaginary orchestra to a record player recording of Wagner music while Jaime watches attentively. After Don Luis finishes his “performance,” he focuses his attention on Jaime, accusing him of wanting to watch Miguel and Julia have sex. When he gets no response, he slaps his companion. “Sorry, I’m a bit excited,” he says before demanding, “Slap me back, slap me back, man!” Jaime turns to walk away, stating, “Not tonight. I don’t feel like playing games,” and then wheels around suddenly and punches Don Luis in the stomach with full force. Don Luis doubles over in pain and then laughs delightedly at which point he presents Jaime with his gift of an expensive comb. This is immediately followed by a quick cut to the shirtless servant being groomed by Don Luis while the latter makes references to Jaime’s past. We learn that he was a former student who ran away under mysterious circumstances and has been in hiding at Don Luis’s estate ever since with no contact with the outside world.
Providing minimal backstories on any of the four protagonists is one of the strengths of Iglesia’s film and allows the viewer to imagine their prior lives based on their behavior, interaction and occasionally revealing comments. As Forbidden Love Game moves into increasingly dark territory, it seems quite possible that Jaime may have been on the lam for a murder or something equally heinous. And we already know Don Luis is capable of anything based on his double life as a respected college professor and a formidable sadist in his own domain. Even Miguel and Julia are not the naïve, inexperienced young couple we first glimpsed and become more antagonistic as the claustrophobic environment encourages more violent and subversive behavior.
The first half of Forbidden Love Game is a tense, well orchestrated thriller where you begin to fear the worst for the young lovers. [Spoiler alert] But the movie’s second half transitions into a moody psychodrama where the master-slave relationships are reversed. By the end Don Luis has become an impotent, pathetic figure while Julia reveals herself to be the all-controlling mistress of the manor. It must be said that the personality changes in the four principals escalate so quickly in the film’s second half that it works better as allegory than as believable human behavior, even in this hothouse environment. For example, Miguel first rebels against his fate but soon collapses in tearful resignation before becoming more opportunistic (Like a pimp, he offers Julia up for sex to Jaime in exchange for freedom). He eventually enters into a ménage a trois with Julia and Jaime and there is no ambiguity about the sexual interplay between them. After a violent brawl between Miguel and Jaime, the two make up and get drunk together followed by an overhead bedroom shot of the two men in post-coital repose. Still, if the resolution of the movie seems too schematic and metaphorical in its critique of a sexual power struggle, Forbidden Love Game is nonetheless an often compelling diversion that stands apart from other Spanish commercial films of its era.
The threat of sexual violence in some scenes (Miguel is made to strip for a beating while Julia is forced to watch with a gun to her head) and blatant homoerotic overtones somehow managed to avoid the Spanish censors’ scissors and makes you wonder if any scenes were actually removed prior to release. Yet Iglesia’s film shows no obvious evidence of tampering or any noticeable lapses in continuity and unfolds in a tightly paced 85 minutes.
Eloy de la Iglesia – no relation to cult director Alex de la Iglesia (Acción Mutante, The Day of the Beast, Dance With the Devil, 800 Bullets) – is barely known in the U.S., except among film buffs. Even in Spain, he never received the critical attention he deserved but part of his marginalized reputation could be due to the kind of material that attracted him and was viewed as sordid, defaming and anti-mainstream in terms of commercial filmmaking in his native country. Juvenile delinquency, poverty, drug abuse, homosexuality, political corruption and class system prejudices toward minorities like the Basque are often predominant themes in his work. His most productive period was between 1969 and 1987 but then he dropped out of sight for more then fifteen years due to a serious drug addiction. He re-emerged in 2003 with Bulgarian Lovers, the tale of a closeted gay businessman in Madrid who becomes infatuated with a Bulgarian hustler.It was well received critically by most critics with New York Times critic Stephen Holden writing, “This cynical, dry-eyed sex comedy…is a European echo of American cult movies like “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,” in which sex is inextricably bound up with greed and social ambition…Without becoming preachy or lapsing into fatuous psychological jargon, “Bulgarian Lovers” observes the interplay of sex, power and money with a cool, amused attitude and a fine sense of social detail.” Unfortunately, it was Iglesia’s final film. He died of kidney cancer at age 62 in March 2006. My first Iglesia film was La semana del asesion (1973), which was first released in the U.S. as Apartment on the 13th Floor and later achieved wider distribution on DVD as The Cannibal Man. Despite the gory cover art on the DVD, the film is an intelligent and richly detailed character study of Marcos (Vicente Parra), a slaughterhouse worker who accidentally kills a cab driver during a heated argument and then slowly spirals into madness. While the film does have some explicit scenes of violence and gore, there is no cannibalism on display (that was a marketing hook) and the main emphasis is on Marcos’ full blown paranoia, isolation and sense of worthlessness which fuels his homicidal behavior. Unfortunately, Ignesia’s film has often been unfairly dismissed as just another low-grade slasher/serial killer picture for the exploitation crowd.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the main character’s eventual realization of his own suppressed homosexuality which emerges during his friendship with a wealthy gay neighbor (Eusebio Poncela) who spies on surrounding residents through his binoculars. This section of Cannibal Man is treated with an almost tender lyricism compared with the grim reality of Marcos’ crimes but the resolution of the film divides many critics with some accusing Iglesia of equating homosexuality with criminal behavior. The only other film from Iglesia’s earlier period that has been readily available on VHS and DVD in the U.S. is Una gota de sangre para morir amando (1973), which has shown up under such various titles as To Love, Perhaps to Die, Murder in a Blue World and Clockwork Terror. The latter title is a direct reference to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Iglesia’s film does bare some similarities to it in regards to its non-specific futuristic setting, rampant societal violence and experimental government testing of criminals. I saw the version known as Murder in a Blue World (which some accounts claim deletes an important scene featuring the star, Robert Mitchum’s son, Christopher) and it has a distinctly quirky personality of its own, weaving in a subplot about a serial killer of young boys while depicting a complacent society that is sedated by wall-size television screens and a popular beverage identified simply as “Blue Drink.” In some ways, Iglesia’s film could be read as a wicked satire of Franco’s fascist government. There is also something perversely amusing about seeing Sue Lyon as a nurse with a secret life who, at one point, is shown reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Forbidden Love Crime is much more obscure and difficult to see but worth seeking out if you count yourself a fan of the above mentioned films. The cast is uniformly excellent with the possible exception of John Moulder-Brown who seems out of his depth here in the challenging role of Miguel. He is more convincing as an immature, self-absorbed young man and less credible in the film’s second half when his true colors emerge. But he still scores points in my book for his adventurous choice of roles in the early seventies with such diverse credits as Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s cult thriller, The House That Screamed (1969), Maximilian Schell’s theatrical film debut First Love (1970), which was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Deep End (1970), Jerzy Skolimowski’s brilliant mixture of quirky coming-of-age comedy with teenage sexual angst, Vampire Circus (1972), one of Hammer Horror’s most unusual concoctions, and Luchino Visconti’s historical epic Ludwig (1972) with Moulder-Brown as Prince Otto.
As for the other players, Javier Escrivá makes a riveting Don Luis, easily moving back and forth between menace and vulnerability, while Simón Andreu makes a brooding, revenge-driven turncoat as Jaime. And Inma de Santis generates an effortless sensuality with an element of unpredictability as the seemingly innocent Julia.
Of the four actors, Andreu would collaborate with Iglesia on several other films including La otra alcoba (1976), Los placers ocultos (1977) and the title role in El sacerdote (1978, aka The Priest). Andreu also has several notable genre efforts to his credit such as the spaghetti Western I Do Not Forgive…I Kill! (1968), the Italian giallo Death Walks on High Heels (1971), Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972), Amando de Ossorio’s The Night of the Sorcerers (1974) and even international and American productions like Jaguar Lives! (1979) and Triumphs of a Man Called Horse (1983). Perhaps Iglesia’s work will be rediscovered at some point but I have yet to see a full scale retrospective of his films in America. MoMA, The Museum of the Moving Image, Facets Cinematheque in Chicago, UCLA’s Film Archive or some other repertory venue seems like the most likely place for an Iglesia revival or maybe a tribute at Telluride or some other film festival but one can always hope. In the meantime, Forbidden Love Game is available on DVD from European Trash Cinema in a decent, better-than-expected, English dubbed version.
Other Websites of Interest: