“They are also cunning, humble and light, like flies. Liars, shy but strategic, sinuous, and very capable of weaving clever plots behind men’s backs.”–TV commentator describing red squirrels in a dream in The Red Squirrel
DIRECTED BY: Julio Medem
FEATURING: Nancho Novo, Emma Suárez, Carmelo Gómez
PLOT: A despondent musician is working up the courage to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge when suddenly a motorcycle crashes through the railing next to him. Going down to the beach to investigate he finds the victim is a beautiful woman who has survived the fall with no lasting damage, but is suffering from amnesia. He convinces her that they are lovers and takes her to a campground to continue the charade; but does she have a secret past that may come back to haunt them both?
- The Red Squirrel played out-of-competition in Cannes, but won the “Award of the Youth” (an award given by jurors who are 18-23 years old).
- Stanley Kubrick was an admirer of the film and, according to rumor, recommended Medem to Stephen Spielberg to direct The Mask of Zorro; Medem rejected the opportunity.
- The Red Squirrel did not find a theatrical distributor in North America, and might have remained nearly unknown if the arthouse successes of Lovers of the Arctic Circle and Sex and Lucia hadn’t sparked interest in Medem’s earlier movies. The film was released on VHS in the US, but although it was released in Europe it did not appear on Region 1 DVD until 2012.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We won’t reveal the precise moment we’ve selected as The Red Squirrel‘s indelible image, because we think it will hit you harder if it comes as a surprise. We will say that it takes place in a dream confrontation on a barren windswept plain, and point out that we love it because it’s representative of the way that Medem builds up an almost unbearable tension, then breaks it with the unexpected interjection of absurd comedy.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With its tragically creepy protagonist seeking to recreate a woman who may not be what she seems into his idealized love, The Red Squirrel plays like a postmodern Spanish version of Vertigo, only with obscure portents of squirrelly doom and comically absurd dream sequences.
Brief clip from The Red Squirrel
COMMENTS: Obsession is always a promising starting place for a movie plot; so is mystery. If you can mix the two together in an original way, then you’re on your way to a memorable film—the hidden depths of the characters’ psychologies will be reflected in the narrative uncertainty. Now, cover this concoction with a light sprinkling of weirdness to keep the viewer continually off-balance; if you can pull this off, you’ll be on your way to a masterpiece.
Julio Medem’s The Red Squirrel stops just short of being a masterpiece, but it is a completely original movie with a very strange and offbeat tone that will worm its way into your thoughts and linger in your memory. The Red Squirrel‘s basic obsession—a ruined man, clinging to life only through the hope of recreating the image of his perfect beloved, along the way betraying the reality of the woman he is idealizing—reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Nancho Novo enters the film with a backstory of failure and depression, in desperate need of a woman to resurrect his dashed spirit; Emma Suárez’ sultry and mysterious Lisa is a hot-blooded Mediterranean incarnation of one of Hitchcock’s glacial blondes. Fortunately, Medem chooses to dodge unfavorable comparisons to that classic by taking his movie in a different direction. He brings the subtle undercurrent of strangeness in Hitch’s film to the surface of Squirrel, in a story that casually brushes aside the thin curtain that separates movies from dreams. Rather than making the thriller into a joke and alienating the audience with its artificiality, this method highlights the psychological and emotional truth of the characters. It also provides us with some grim laughs along the way.
Amnesia as a plot hook is common coin in the realm of melodrama. By introducing this device so early, in the context of a crazy coincidence (the woman soon to be christened “Lisa” crashes her motorcycle just in time to abort melancholy Jay’s suicide attempt), Medem conditions us to understand that what follows is going to be a highly exaggerated version of reality. As the story begins, however, we have no idea just how hyperbolic the tale will turn. Jay’s motives for lying to the girl about her being his girlfriend are obscure; we can presume that he’s immediately smitten by her beauty or that, as a man who was about to throw away his life, he feels free to indulge any absurd whim that crosses his mind—he has nothing to lose from the deception. His meeting with the doctor who admits Lisa into the hospital—the second major event in the new life he’s capriciously embarked upon—is certainly odd, though. Doc barely has time for him, as he is on the phone dedicating a Nat King Cole song to a secret crush on a late night lonely hearts radio program. When Jay leaves the admission interview after creating a fake name and elaborate backstory for the strange girl, a disturbing sight greets him: a woman whose arm has been lopped off at the elbow by a speeding car, howling in pain as she’s wheeled down the hospital corridor. Are the radio show, the phone call, Jay’s lies and the hit-and-run victim all just random jumbled events, or are they all connected by an invisible thread?
The next afternoon, while napping, Jay has a dream while a nature documentary on the red squirrel plays in the background. It’s the first appearance of the wild rodent, a foreboding symbol who continually pops up throughout the film but whose significance never becomes entirely clear. The documentary tells us that “there is a place where the squirrels rule… the leafy and mysterious wood” and describes, among other behaviors, the antics of males during mating season as they stalk and chase off intruders intent on horning in on their females. Jay dreams of two women, one from the past and one who introduces herself as “Lisa, your amnesiac friend”; we see the action from a squirrel’s-eye view as the documentary narrator continues droning on in the background, now warning that the cute mammal is “very capable of weaving clever plots behind men’s backs.” As the sleeper awakes, again the narrator reaffirms that the red squirrel is “the only ruler in the mysterious wood.” When Jay “liberates” Lisa from the hospital he takes her to a campground named, naturally, “la Ardilla Roja” (“the Red Squirrel”). There, the squirrels spy on him from their treetop vantage point as he seduces his amnesiac friend, who seems to trust him implicitly and believe his every story, into becoming his perfect lover. Zoology textbooks show up in the background of scenes, open to the page describing Sciurus vulgaris. A carnivorous squirrel steals a prawn, and possibly bombs the protagonist’s head with pine cones. What does the symbology mean? It’s not at all clear, but what is certain is that the cute, bushy tailed critter is a figure of menace lurking about the periphery of the story.
Besides the outright dream sequences and squirrel cams, there are other moments of unnerving oddness that remind us we are moving through a landscape of obscure symbols and ominous portents. Jay has superhuman speed and reflexes: he’s capable of tossing a motorcycle helmet into the air, grabbing another one that’s thrown at him and placing it on his head before catching the first one as it falls. Characters in photographs move. A taxicab growls at Suarez as she undresses in silhouette. And special note should be made of the musical score, which is always used to disorienting effect. There’s the recurring music video for “Elisa,” the hit by Jay’s old band the Flies, an experimental indie rock tune with surreal lyrics (“Elisa/dream/bird of blue iron and of salt/mystery…”) which showcases the band dressed in pagan costumes playing primitive instruments in a misty field. Nat King Cole’s “Let There Be Love” also features prominently; we first hear it in the doctor’s office during Lisa’s admission interview, when it echoes through the sceneas if the radio is hidden in a nearby well. And Alberto Iglesias’ ominous incidental music pops up in the unlikeliest places, always off the expected beat, appearing during otherwise ordinary moments and keeping us on edge. During a calm and otherwise pleasant shrimp dinner in the woods, the orchestra suddenly strikes up, sawing away like they’re being conducted by the ghost of Bernard Hermann, and he’s drunk and angry…
Medem has said the film is, at least in part, a criticism of machismo, of the male need to create and dominate women. And while that’s undoubtedly a thematic element, the script is far too deep and mysterious to stop there; to limit such a strange and tormented movie to a single interpretation would be a crime. The Red Squirrel‘s weaknesses and strengths come from the same source. The film threatens to fly apart at times with too many ideas, too many sudden swerves from realism to surrealism, from darkness to comedy; but Medem does manage to merge nearly all of the plot incidents, however unlikely each might seem standing alone, together into a continuum (exception: those darn squirrels scurrying about like a silent Greek chorus!) Despite an unfortunate, unbelievable and out of place coda at the very end, the narrative reaches a satisfying and tidy conclusion. At the same time, on another level, much of the movie’s imagery and symbolism remains mysterious and opaque after the credits have run. This leaves us much to mull over in a second viewing, even after we’ve already stripped away the plot’s secrets. That’s another way in The Red Squirrel resembles Vertigo; and if Jay’s journey isn’t as harrowing and haunting as Scottie’s, well, then, no neurotic protagonist’s is.
But at least Scottie didn’t have to deal with those damn squirrels spying on him from the forest canopy.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The film’s oneiric atmosphere, aided immeasurably by Medem’s assured direction and Alberto Iglesias’s sensuous musical score, lends the film a deliciously off-beam edge of surrealism which, coupled with the intelligence of the performances and the skill of the plotting, make it too good an experience to miss.”–Alex Hewison, The Digital Fix (Region 2 DVD)
“There is a sense in which The Red Squirrel is at least potentially too busy a film, bursting as it is with narrative ideas, tonal switches and visual tricks. However… the animating theme of selfhood and the extent to which identity and interiority are fixed or amorphous, defined by oneself or determined by exterior precepts, gives some weight to Médem’s asides and flights of fancy.”–Adam Bingham, Directory of World Cinema
IMDB LINK: The Red Squirrel (1993)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Red Squirrel @ mubi.com – There isn’t much discussion about the film on its mubi.com page, but it does contain a Medem bio and a rare English-subtitled trailer
DVD INFO: The Red Squirrel (buy) arrives belatedly on DVD courtesy of the boutique label Tanelorn, which specializes in Spanish cinema. Extras on the quality release include the original trailer (in Spanish without subtitles), a very short interview with Medem at Cannes, production stills, and a music clip from the film.