Carlos Saura made Cria Cuervos in 1976 with the wonderful Ana Torrent (who turned in two of the best child performances ever, in two of the best films ever: Cria Cuervos and Spirit of the Beehive (1976)). Nine years earlier he made this film, Peppermint Frappe, with a different, albeit older muse, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter.
Peppermint Frappe is sort of like Pygmalion + Vertigo + That Obscure Object of Desire (yes, I realize this film was made in 1977) and with a splash of Lolita. Saura dedicated the film to his mentor – and my favorite director – Luis Bunuel, and it really shows.
Jose Luis Lopez Vazquez plays Julian, a mild-mannered, conservative doctor who becomes infatuated with Elena (Chaplin), the fiance of his best friend Pablo (Alfredo Mayo). His advances rebuffed, Julian turns to his much plainer nurse Ana (also played by Chaplin).
Where Bunuel (to him this film is dedicated) used two different actresses to play one character in That Obscure Object, Saura presupposes that idea and reverses it, using one actress to play two different characters. Elena is the ideal object of desire (Laura Mulvey would have a field day with this film): she’s blonde, dresses in virginal white, dances to pop music, wears makeup, and is carefree and sexual. Ana is her opposite. She’s a brunette who is shy, dresses plainly, never wears makeup, and seems almost terrified of Julian’s advances. Not only are the two roles a testament to Chaplin’s ability (the subtle differences between Elena and Ana are fantastic!) they also really spell out the absurd male-fantasy contradiction: even though Elena and Ana are literally the same person, the passive, plain female is significantly less desirable. Perhaps this is Saura’s indictment of the tantalizing effect of Western culture or, as others have pointed out, the influence of a repressive Franco regime on the male psyche.
In Cria Cuervos Saura used a song by Jeanette to great effect:
It’s such a haunting moment, helped hugely by Torrent’s incredible performance and wide eyes. He did the same earlier in Peppermint Frappe in a scene where Elena dances and Julian watches, this time accompanied by Los Canarios:
If you watch the whole scene you may be able to glean the type of narrative it is. It gets a little…eerie. Here, in Peppermint, Saura really sexualizes Elena. We’re literally in Julian’s POV for much of it, and that pop soundtrack is really an excuse for Julian (and us) to watch this beautiful woman dance. It’s different in Cria Cuervos. Not only is the song more muted and haunting, but then – in the 1976 film – music is more personal; it’s an escape, a reason to be alone and not watched.
Saura begins Peppermint – the name, by the way, is derived from a drink that Julian and Pablo enjoy frequently – with a montage of tone-setting ability. Julian cuts out several magazine images of women, creating a sort of scrap book:
It’s not so much creepy as it is calculated. The ruler, the precision…it feels like Julian has done this before. It’s at once innocent and sexual – a grown man playing with fetishized objects. This is nice foreshadow for Julian’s recreation of Ana to his own specifications. He uses glue on Ana’s fake eyelashes in the same way that he applies it to his magazine cutouts here.
The scene where Julian “remakes” Ana into Elena is shot largely in closeup. One simple move is really great. Saura stars in an ECU on Ana’s right eye after Julian has applied the fake eyelash:
He then pans to her left eye, still without the eyelash:
One camera move, two different people. He really emphasizes the difference, but more accurately, he emphasizes the similarity. It’s a damn eyelash! But that makes all the difference to Julian.
If the narrative itself weren’t enough to recall Vertigo perhaps the closing shot is. Julian and Ana embrace as the camera circles wildly and romantically around them, ala the same circling camera move around Scottie and Madeline in Hitchcock’s film:
There are a few “Bunuel moments” in Peppermint, including a great one involving a rowing machine, but this is the most obviously so. His obsession nearing its heights, Julian asks Elena to sit on a kneeler in his old house so that he can act out a childhood memory/fantasy and spy on her through the key hole. Because Elena is sexually playful, and because Bunuel was Saura’s mentor, she of course obliges and we’re treated to the most chaste and perverse moment of the entire film: