Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Frenchman's Garden (1978): or, Iberian Psycho

In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolfman, Paul Naschy devotes an entire chapter to two films from what he calls his most "personal phase," neither of which have been widely seen this side of the Atlantic. One is the tour de force El Caminante (1979, previously reviewed here), a sprawlingly ambitious mixture of folklore, horror, and humor that is, in this humble Vicar's opinion, one of the artist's finest hours. The other is the even less well-known period-piece thriller, El huerto del Francés (1978), also known as The Frenchman's Garden. Naschy himself counts this as "one of my most emblematic and highest quality films," and says he is proud to be able to include the movie in his lengthy filmography. With hype like that, of course, it had to be seen by me. What wonders awaited? What could I expect from something so lauded and favored by the Mighty Molina himself?

Well, parishioners, The Frenchman's Garden is a film that counters expectations, I think consciously. Legend and imdb trivia has it that Naschy purposefully removed his name as an actor from the promotional material for the flick, despite essaying the lead role and sharing writing duties. He was credited only as director, and only under his real name, Jacinto Molina, in order to prevent audiences from assuming this was his usual monster-filled romp. And indeed, although it depicts acts of murder, cruelty, and remorseless evil, this is not your usual Naschy flick.

You can't have a Naschy flick without one scene like this.

Set around the turn of the 20th century in Peñaflor, Spain, the film tells the (mostly) true story of of Juan Andrés Aldije (Naschy), an innkeeper and businessman known as "El Francés,"or "The Frenchman," because of his rumored Gallic blood. Though married to the daughter of one of the richest men in the village, Juan prefers to earn his own money, which he does by renting rooms, serving drinks, and occasionally pimping out his waitresses while running an illegal gambling den. It's a cottage industry, and very lucrative, although not lucrative enough for Juan and his partner, José Muñoz Lopera (José Calvo)--they have a get-rich-quicker scheme detailed in the emotive and expository opening theme song by Rosa León:
He's Juan Aldije, 'The Frenchman,'
and he doesn't like his fate at all,
along with Muñoz Lopera,
he's bound to make a strong business.

The Frenchman's got a house,
which they turn it into a gambling den.
Where women serve you with
some sly and spurious love.

In that accursed place
where the poor couldn't come in
happily the rich,
spent their money plenty.

As gambling is forbidden,
their business is illegal.
But they don't care at all,
'cause they make lots of money.

If anyone tries to resist,
and doesn't let himself be fooled,
they take him into the orchard,
and brutally kill him.
If I had a nickel...

And that's exactly what happens. In between saying all the right things to his lovely and pious wife Elvira (Julia Saly of Night of the Werewolf [1980] and many other Naschy flicks) and slipping a length of Molina meat to his mistress and head hooker Charo (Ágata Lys), Juan lures rich businessmen to his inn on the pretense of entertaining them with women and games of chance. Because gambling is illegal, the gamblers tell no one of their errand, which ends with Juan giving them a shovel to the head, stealing all their gambling money, and planting them in the "garden" out back like so many tulip bulbs awaiting the Springtime of JUSTICE.

In the opening scenes we see Juan's character developed through his interactions with others. Naschy plays The Frenchman as the epitome of cool, calm, and collected villainy. Juan is absolutely unflappable, never getting excited or losing his temper, always quick with just the right response to any question, be it from his suspicious wife, his jealous lover, or the town doctor. (He is also, of course, absolutely irresistible to women.) The only time he shows any strong emotion is when Elvira suggests they take money from her father, or when someone threatens one of his whores. (For instance, at one point a group of drunken ruffians decide to humiliate one of his girls for fun, whipping her naked back and riding her around the room like a horse. Juan still stays calm, but a vicious flame in his eyes causes the greater-in-number gang to back down in fear.) As the coffers fill and the tomatoes he grows in the backyard win more and more tasting contests, Juan looks forward to the day when he can throw his hard-earned wealth in his disapproving father-in-law's face.

Scheduling is really the toughest part.

Alas, the path of remorseless slaughter never did run smooth, and Juan's case is no exception. The speedbumps on the road to riches arrive on the upper body of Andrea (María José Cantudo), a young girl from a neighboring town who is in love with Juan, and as a natural result is also carrying his child. (Given the level of Naschismo that rolls off The Frenchman in waves, it's surprising he hasn't impregnated the entire countryside by this point!) Again, Juan takes the matter in stride, calming the weeping girl and reassuring her that she did the right thing in coming to him.

From the moment she arrives, Andrea is nothing but a bosom-revealing load of troubles. Juan puts her up at the Orchard, where on her first night she very nearly spies Juan and Jose disposing of a rich cattle baron. Moreover, Charo's jealousy soon leads to catfights and attempted breast-brandings with a hot clothes iron. (Hey, you'd do the same thing if someone was trying to take Naschy from you!) Alarmed by all the time he's spending at the Orchard (consoling Andrea), Elvira gets more and more insistent about taking Daddy's cash. Still cool but feeling things starting to spin out of control, Juan hatches a plan to neutralize the ticking time bomb that is Andrea's uterus and also get out of the innkeeping/gambling/pimping/throatcutting business once and for all.

"Now please, just try to relax."

The first problem is solved when Juan hires a midwife to perform an abortion for Andrea, wooing the lovestruck girl with promises of his undying love and a better life together. The abortion scene is an unsettling but powerfully staged sequence, as Charo and one of the other prostitutes hold the distraught mother-not-to-be down on a table while the crone goes about her bloody business. It resembles nothing so much as a ritual sacrifice, Andrea the lamb laid out for the slaughter, with periodic close-ups on her beatifically resigned face interspersed with shots of a very nasty looking knitting needle. There's also a bit of graphic genital nudity that is shocking now, and must have been even more so in 1970s Spain. Andrea writhes and screams like a tortured soul in Hell, but she survives the operation.

The second problem is a bit more thorny, but Juan has one final big score planned, their richest victim yet: a homosexual treasurer with the local salt mines whose transport of the monthly payroll promises to finally put the killers over the top and into long-term financial security. But Juan makes an atypcial miscalculation when he prematurely tries to pimp Andrea out before she's fully healed, and upon her refusal reveals that he never intended to leave Elvira for her. Hell hath no fury like a woman you've tricked into an abortion and then tried to prostitute, and Andrea gets her revenge by scuttling the plans and ratting out Juan to the local police, who of course take a strong interest in his unorthodox gardening and fertilization methods...

Is that what the kids are calling it these days?
The Frenchman's Garden has a lot of horror-type elements, but they are much more subtly done here than one might expect given Naschy's reputation for gore. The murders are mostly seen from a distance, and over quickly with minimal blood; the only exception is the final axe murder of the treasurer, which is all the more effective for the previous restraint. (A later scene with the constables digging up rotted human remains from the garden while Juan looks coolly on also packs a wallop.) There is plenty of the Naschy-style sexuality on display, though, as Juan's trysts with Charo are captured in great detail, and Lys shows off her excellent body almost throughout.
But that's it for typical Naschy boobs and blood. Instead, the film's focus is mainly on the character of the Frenchman and the women in his life--a character-driven tragedy/drama rather than a thriller or horror flick. And it works--performances are great all around, particularly from Lys and Cantudo. And Calvo, mostly a deadpan sidekick throughout, summons some excellent dramatic chops in his final scene, a deliberately paced and historically accurate execution by garrote that is as unnerving as any imagined horror.

Transvestite dwarf doing the Cha-Cha? It must be Tuesday at the Duke's place!

But the movie is Naschy's of course, and he carries it on his big, beefy shoulders with assurance and grace. His portrayal of Juan is a far cry from the sneering villainy of Alaric de Marngac or Amenhotep the Mummy--The Frenchman is all calm, wearing his confidence like a mask, completely closed off and unconcerned with the damage he causes to those around him so long as he gets what he wants. In that he reminded me just a little of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, though without the same manic interludes that were that character's signature. (Paul does pull out the Crazy Face in that final axe murder, however, and again to great effect thanks to the previous restraint.) His final scene, walking to his death and trading pleasantries with the executioner, refusing the blindfold ("No way. Let them see me. Let them remember the face of man when he's being strangled. Let them remember it for life!") calls to mind James Cagney in his cocky gangster roles, all swagger and defiance. It's a powerful performance, and a unique one in Naschy's filmography.

I can only guess at why Naschy considered this such a personal film, but I suspect it's because, for me, this is one of the most inherently Spanish films in his body of work. Set in Spain and detailing an actual historical event, the movie is scored with traditional Spanish guitar music and utilizes actual locations and costuming. Perhaps this along with the clearly dramatic rather than horror-focused nature of the role made Paul feel it was more his--his story, his history--or maybe he felt he was showing at last what he could do without the werewolf makeup or gallons of grue. In his autobiography, he proudly remembers a compliment from director José María Forqué on the film: "You've made a magnificent picture. The dark side of deepest Spain at the turn of the century has seldom been so well recreated as in El huerto del Francés."

Sure, it's gross, but you should taste Juan's paella.
Though fans looking for a blood-soaked thriller or mile-a-minute monster mash might be confounded by it, The Frenchman's Garden is clearly a labor of love by its director and star, and a powerful dramatic film in its own right. Here's hoping that, like so many other of Naschy's films, this one gets the rediscovery and consideration it deserves. 3 Thumbs.

Au revoir, mon ami.


Temple of Schlock said...

Harry Novak was the U.S. distributor of this movie, but he never gave it much of a release. There must be an English dubbed print of it somewhere in his archives.

William S. Wilson said...

Great write up! I had this one on my plate next but will forgo a review. Still, I'm definitely going to watch it.

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