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Goya in Bordeaux – From One Artist to Another

Velasquez’s Las Meninas – one of the most talked about paintings in the history of European Art is a mere reference towards the end of Carlos Saura’s film Goya en Bordeos. The young artist examines the painting-as it inhabits a dark go down-with growing realisation with each passing moment. It is a while before he can understand the enormity and the complexity of that painting, where Velasquez has painted representation itself. Subject, painter, canvas and mirrors occupy the painting, bringing to mind Saura’s self-confessed ideal form of representation-one which is yet incomplete. “What fascinates me is the process, the preparation for a performance where every step that goes into the making of the final performance, every effort is visible.” he said in an interview in New Delhi recently.[1]

Saura plays with light and colour in every frame of his films, seemingly prioritising aesthetics over any other principle of filmmaking, yet Goya en Bordeos is arguably Saura’s most direct engagement with art. Not unlike some of his other films, Saura invests a bit of himself in his protagonist. Only this time it is surprising because he manages to find the link between himself – a 20th century filmmaker and Goya – a 19th century painter, that goes beyond the Spanish connection. The link is that of camaraderie of art and artists. Through Goya en Bordeos and a number of other films, Saura deliberates on questions of the relationship between an artist and history, both personal and political, on the meaning of art as expression and art as profession.

There is a central image that binds this film – that of the spiral as Goya etches it on the window early in the film. The fact of a centre from which all else is born and by extension that to which everything is connected becomes a symbol not only for art and also for life itself. And it connects the two artistes-Goya and Saura, both of whom were occupied with ideas of representation (a telling example is Goya’s two paintings – one clothed and one naked – in the same posture of one woman who was widely rumoured to be The Duchess of Alba), of social commentary through art, prevalence to aesthetics and of course the question of censorship.

The symbol haunts the entire film. At times literally, at times by the power of suggestion. The film opens on a violent note with the image of a dead animal, hung from the ceiling, and the tools of his demise occupying the foreground in the mis-en-scene. The entire surface is drenched in a red light that looks like blood – in fact we can’t tell the red of the light from the red of the blood that is probably on the rope and pail that we see before we finally see the entire body of the animal being pulled up, and hung, not unlike the crucifixion. Biblical undertones return towards the end of the film in a long sequence, beginning once again with deep shades of red, this time with actual crosses, another crucifixion-like image and violence directed at people. Buried bodies, lost, dead children, and people in chains – this sequence is at once biblical and contemporaneous for Goya and Saura both of whom saw violence and destruction in their time. In an attention to detail, we see a number of dogs inhabiting the space of the exodus with the people, signifying the barbaric instinct though somewhat ironically because they are the least threatening presence in the scenario. What it does bring to mind is the presence of dogs in a number of portraits (Goya was known for portraiture) to suggest masculinity and loyalty.  However, true to the cycle of life function of the symbol, soon after the carnage in this scene and the death of Goya, the film closes with the image of birth. Just as the dying Goya finishes drawing the symbol in the air for the last time and calls out to his progeny, there is a stunning manifestation of the spiral symbol in the staircase from which his daughter Rosarita comes running down. (see above)

Notions of death occur in different ways through the film, particularly in dreams and paintings. The balance is created perhaps with the closed, womb-like set-up of Goya’s room, where a majority of the film is played out. (At the very end of the film, as Goya dies, the same room is transformed and a child is born there). A translucent red wall, made, it seems, of cloth, which at once walls in in a confining sort of way, while allowing a view of the outside. Except for one scene in the park, most of the film is set in closed spaces – perhaps because Saura thinks the outside distracts the audience and is superfluous. Yet, the one scene in the open leads to our realisation of a feeling of being closed-up all this while and for time to come. And since most scenes are played out in the interiors of his house, we see the paintings as Goya meant for them to be seen – in the dark, where the painter has control over the light and the consequent effect on the viewing of a painting.

It is curious that a film which occupies closed spaces opens itself out to a history that is constructed by a heady mix of dreams and reality. Saura plays with the narrative, flirting with post-modern ideas of layered time, fragmented reality and memory – but ultimately comes back to the original idea of the bio-pic. And therefore, the spiral returns to assert its focus, which is the artist and the art. He doesn’t abandon his focus but it is clear through this film (and others) and his interview that he is a staunch advocate of a wild imagination. “Reality is not just what we see, but also what we dream.” he said. And it is this fluid reality that he presents in Goya en Bordeos. The film uses passageways lit in contrasting colors, from a bare white in the beginning to black as a background for his paintings making a connection between an artist’s unconscious and his work. Further emphasising the contentious nature of truth, Saura literalises a few probables of Goya’s life, in particular his relationships. For instance, most biographies of the painter throw open a vague suggestion of a relationship with The Duchess of Alba, but Saura makes her the centre of the spiral of Goya’s life – his muse, his subject, his only memory – she was ‘Only Goya’s’ as her portrait says.

Fluidity pervades Saura’s style as well – for in spite of being under the influence of Dali, Lorca and his mentor Bunuel, he has never based his work on any one of these celebrated styles. He found his own way to defy linearity even while working in the most straightforward of genres like the bio-pic. I can’t think of a literary enough term to classify Saura’s work for he uses light and colour like a painter would, creating something so unique that to call it anything more general than ‘Sauraesque’ would be doing it great injustice. And it’s just as well, because as he said, he doesn’t believe in schools.

[1] Carlos Saura came to New Delhi, India and was in conversation with Aruna Vasudev on the 10th of March, 2008.


1 Neha Bhatt { 03.18.08 at 11:06 am }

This review is just another example of how much one doesn’t see while watching a film like Saura’s at one go…even though he is careful to avoid what he calls superflous elements….as is evident from this review and of course, his films, every sparse set/space is surreally loaded…

2 Adalberto Capello { 03.27.08 at 7:18 pm }

A very good review of a great film!

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