Almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, the Argentine-Spanish co-production, La Puta y la Ballena (2004) is one of the most hauntingly beautiful, intelligent, and imaginative films of the last decade. From the trailer one might anticipate a cross between Land and Freedom (present day protagonist investigates old letters and uncovers a personal connection to events during the Spanish Civil War), and The English Patient (elegantly evoked period romance, stark yet beautiful landscapes, an aeroplane featuring prominently). Yet despite a title which translates unpromisingly as The Whore and the Whale, La Puta y la Ballena is far more rewarding than either, plunging the audience into an enigmatic, reality teasing drama more akin to Sex and Lucia or Swimming Pool, a film steeped in the sensibilities of two of Argentina’s most notable 20th century writers, the Buenos Aires’ born fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges and the post-modernist, Manuel Puig.
Director Luis Puenzo is best known to English-speaking audiences for La Historia Oficial, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for his single Hollywood studio picture, the adventure Old Gringo, starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck. Puenzo co-wrote La Puta y la Ballena with Ángeles González Sinde and his daughter, Lucía Puenzo (a very accomplished filmmaker in her own right – see my review of her 2013 film Wakolda), and here writing is the key. The protagonist is a writer, and the film pays homage to internationally regarded writers.
La Puta y la Ballena concerns a Spanish journalist, Vera, brilliantly played by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, who goes from Madrid to Buenos Aires to Patagonia on the trail of a seventy-year-old story involving a love letter, old photographs, a whale, a bordello and the music of the tango. In Buenos Aires Vera learns that she has hereditary breast cancer, and soon after she crosses a line – by conventional film standards a key scene is missing – and suddenly she is in hospital, has already been operated upon, and determines that from now on she will do exactly as she likes. She has entered a world governed by her psychological needs, and suddenly ‘coincidence’ flowers around her. From here on what looks like a conventional art-house drama plays like a feature-length elaboration of one of Borges’ paradoxical meditations on time and identity.
The lady in the next hospital bed turns out to be Matilde, one of the women from the 1930’s photographs Vera is tracing. Events become stranger. In Patagonia the whale which was central to events in a small coastal town in 1934 reappears, stranded on the same beach in exactly the same place… and the line between conventional cinematic inter-cutting of past and present dissolves as Vera writes the story the audience sees unfold: an exploration of a bygone affair, a liaison predicated on the passions of an arrogant young photographer, Emilio (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the narcissism of his bi-sexual lover – the beguiling young prostitute Delores (Mercè Llorens) – and the machinations of arch-manipulator Amlcar Suárez (Miguel Ángel Solá), a blind tango musician and bordello owner.
Important to the film is an imaginative recreation of life in Suárez’s bordello, the taut eroticism and tensions of various liaisons in the remote, harshly beautiful world of coastal Patagonia. Yet haunting every frame are the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges, the philosophical enigmas, logical paradoxes, doubles, echoing patterns, the repetition of history, the crossing of the line between objective reality and another world ruled by psychological, often subconscious dictates; Borges wrote about many things, whores, bordellos, literature, and a Historia del tango.
And then there is Manuel Puig. In La Puta y la Ballena one character’s real name turns out to be Delores Puig. Like Borges, the real life Manuel Puig was an celebrated Argentinian author. His most famous novel, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, was filmed with William Hurt and Raul Julia. More relevant to La Puta y la Bellena, Puig’s Boquitas pintadas, translated into English as Heartbreak Tango’ is a tale of romantic entanglement set in a small, fictional town in remote Argentina in the 1930s and ‘40’s. A place where reality and illusion intersect in a narrative constructed around old letters, newspapers and journals… Puig’s later Maldición eterna a quien lea estas páginas (Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages) unfolds through stories within stories within…
So, La Puta y la Bellena is a puzzle, a metafictional homage to two of Argentina’s greatest writers. Not making these connections does not affect the ability to enjoy the film as a sweeping romantic drama ranging from past to present, modern Madrid to Buenos Aires to wild Patagonia. Though even taken at surface level La Puta y la Bellena shows its South American heart by being shot through with an element of Magical Realism – there is one irreconcilably fantastical ingredient to the story, a self-powering light bulb, which can not be explained in realist terms. The closest Hollywood has come is the light bulbs in the snow in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
How much of what happens in 1934, and how much is the writer Vera’s imaginative recreation, the film leaves to our judgement. Taken to the extreme the entire past world of the drama could be Vera’s fantasy, perhaps even, as in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, a dying dream, thoughts passing thorough Vera’s mind in that moment of crisis the audience is never shown, but which results in her emergency admission to hospital.
Yet the true key to unlocking the mystery of the film is to remember that Buenos Aires was Jorge Luis Borges birth place and first home. Lauded for enigmatic stories in collections such as Labyrinths, Borges grew-up around the world of bordellos and the music of the tango. He travelled from Buenos Aires to Madrid, where he wrote two books which he destroyed, unpublished, aged 22. The fictional Vera wrote a novel when she was 20, then attempted to destroy it. Vera travels from Madrid to Beunos Aires. A writer for magazines, Borges inherited a condition from his anarchist father which resulted in his eventual blindness – in the film Suárez is blind. La Puta y la Ballena is both a homage to Borges (and Puig) and a first rate Borgesian tale in its own right. It is not a huge coincidence that Luis Puenzo comes from Buenos Aires.
Visually the film is remarkably accomplished, shot by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine in Panavision and designed to be seen on a big, wide screen, it is filled with gorgeous images from darkly-lit bordellos to the vast beauty of the Patagonian coast. There is a painterly beauty, a depth to the cinematography usually lacking in modern films. Equally the score by Andrés Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab is lush, rich, melodic and filled with melancholy beauty. The result is a luxuriant picture with a classical sensibility and an elegance rarely seen today. All this would count for nothing without a worthwhile story to tell, and it is the sophisticated labyrinth crafted by Puenzo and his co-writers that makes La Puta y la Ballena such an exhilarating, fantastical experience.
While La Puta y la Bellena is available on DVD in the US, Argentina and Spain, there is as yet no Blu-ray release anywhere in the world. A Blu-ray is needed to really do this beautiful film justice. The stills illustrating this post come from the original Argentine Region 4 DVD.
This post is based on an essay originally written for the accompanying booklet of the UK CD release of the film score by Andrés Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab on Mellowdrama Records.