While the erotic thriller genre that ruled half of the 1990’s was primarily an American success story, the proliferation of not just sexually-charged but often high-profile erotic-based films throughout much of the 90’s was a worldwide phenomenon. Not that the 80’s had seen any downturn in erotic films. On the contrary, with the seeds for the American erotic thriller planted early in the 80’s with films such as De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and Adrian Lyne really opening the floodgates for the erotic thriller with Fatal Attraction (1987), having previously ushered in a dramatic erotic style with 9 ½ Weeks (1986) that other erotic filmmakers domestic and international would appropriate. It was the 90’s, however, that really saw a pretty wide range of erotic films make a comeback to the attention of the mainstream along with some fairly ubiquitous aesthetics. The US of course again had the erotic thriller market cornered, however Europe, long considered the pioneering continent when it came to erotic films and subgenres such as erotic horror and sex comedy, was still plenty fertile ground for risque dramatic material as the 90’s emerged. Spain in particular provided some of the most fertile soil with three of the countries most renowned directors welcoming the 90’s with a serious of scandalous films. Pedro Almodóvar being the most exported name, Almodóvar’s signature style of often erotically charged melodrama became more controversial as the 90’s began with Almodóvar’s comedic handlings of provocative material like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Atame!, 1990) and Kika (1993). Bigas Luna also met the 90’s with The Ages of Lulu (Las edades de Lulú, 1990), one of the most essential erotic titles of the decade, sexuality being a dominant theme in many of Luna’s films, particularly his 90’s work.
Holding directorial seniority over both Luna and Almodóvar, having begun his career in the 60’s, Vicente Aranda also reigned supreme in the realm of the Spanish erotic drama throughout the 90’s. Where Almodóvar was associated with the La Movida Madrileña movement that flourished following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 in Madrid, Aranda was a leading name in the Barcelona School of Film. Spain’s answer to the various cinematic new waves and movements happening around the globe at the time, the filmmakers from the Barcelona School of Film were less concerned with realism than with colorful style, best exemplified by Aranda’s second feature film, the surrealist classic Fata Morgana (1965). Surrealism would further influence Aranda, the title of Aranda’s follow-up to Fata Morgana, The Exquisite Cavader (Las crueles, 1969), stemming from the random game of word assemblage “Exquisite Corpse” enjoyed by surrealists. Another essential example of the Barcelona School of Film style, The Exquisite Cadaver also showcased Aranda’s adeptness at eroticism and horror which would grow more explicit and visceral in Aranda’s most celebrated title among Euro horror fans, The Blood Splattered Bride (La novia ensangrentada, 1972). Universally considered to be one of the best of the highly popular chain of 70’s European lesbian themed vampire films, Aranda’s adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was also a daring film for the time and not simply in terms of the levels of sexuality and violence Aranda was able to get away with. Remarkably subversive, The Blood Splattered Bride was less a critique and more an outright assault on the antiquated mores of Franco’s Spain, the commentary on gendered power dynamics throughout The Blood Splattered Bride becoming a fixture in Aranda’s subsequent films.
Following the death of Franco in 1975, Spain experienced another artistic moment known as “El destape” or “the undressing”, which saw a barrage of new sexually permissive Spanish films, books and art. Here too, Aranda found himself at the forefront with Cambio de sexo (Change of Sex, 1976) which centered on transgenderism. Cambio de sexo also marked an important first for Aranda as it was the first of his films to star Victoria Abril who would become his closest collaborator over the course of twelve films from 1976 to 2006. Aranda and Abril followed up Cambio de sexo with La muchacha de las bragas de oro (The Girl With the Golden Panties, 1980), another sexually brash film that melded sexuality with the various social and political changes Spain experienced post-Franco. Aranda and Abril’s collaborations produced a wide variety of films in the 80’s, however their finest work together would manifest in the early 90’s. At the time Abril had also become a key member in Almodóvar’s troupe, having starred in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels (Tacones lejanos, 1991) and stealing the show in Kika as “Andrea Scarface”. Like Almodóvar, Aranda had a flair for melodramatics. However where Almodóvar tended to use sex and genre elements to create his brand comedic effect in some of his aforementioned titles, the series of salacious films Aranda helmed in the 90’s beginning with Amantes (Lovers) in 1991, while more dramatic in tone, are also adjacent to the erotic thriller at times.
Subtitled “A True Story”, Amantes was rooted in a real life crime involving a widow with a veteran criminal background and an unlucky young married couple resulting in what was dubbed “El Crimen de La Canal”, literally “The Crime at La Canal”(1). La Canal being a provincial village near the city of Burgos. Aranda updated the story to the mid-50’s and despite the period setting, Amantes is very much a product of the 90’s erotic zeitgeist. Amantes also rests under the giant umbrella term the erotic thriller is often associated with, “neo-noir”, but like so many American erotic thrillers of the 90’s, Amantes re-purposes several familiar noir and thriller characteristics into something singular, chiefly the love triangle, the idea of the femme fatale and fall guy. Paco, the later, also bares traits of the classic erotic thriller male dupe in some ways, fresh out of military service and eager to marry his fiancee Trini (a young Maribel Verdú). Looking for work and a place to live before the wedding, Paco arrives at the apartment of Luisa (Abril), a widow with a room for rent. Aggravated by Trini’s lack of interest in sex, Paco is easily seduced by Luisa who soon ropes him into her illegal business dealings, though Louisa becomes increasingly jealous as Trini soon becomes a sexual rival in her own attempts to keep Paco. Needing money fast after running afoul of one of her business partners, Luisa concocts a plan with Paco to steal the savings Trini had been saving for after the wedding before running away together, though Paco’s mounting guilt and Luisa’s jealousy disrupt the scheme.
While nowhere near as sickly in tone, Amantes is somewhat comparable to The Exquisite Cadavar with Aranda using genre to tell a story of a group driven to extremes by obsessive love with only one true innocent. Had Amantes been a mainstream American film there’s little doubt it would have taken the more Fatal Attraction-esque, erotic thriller route with the love triangle and jealousy angle. Certainly the film threatens to go down those roads with Abril’s many brilliant verbal fits of jealous passion, Luisa going so far as threatening to Paco to “sew up” Trini’s vagina. However even with all the thriller trappings, Amantes ultimately plays out like a melodramatic tragedy, becoming more melancholic as the film seems to be turning into a more conventional thriller, Aranda more focused on extreme emotion opposed to suspense. Obsession and jealousy were foudational to many erotic thrillers from around the same time. Setting Amantes apart however is Aranda’s previously mentioned re-purposing of the classic noir/erotic thriller tropes of the femme fatale and fall guy. Paco again could be seen as the quintessential noir dupe in his willingness to go along with Luisa’s plan, his motivations seemingly motivated by lust first and foremost. On the other hand, Aranda flips the script with Luisa in many ways. In spite of the obvious femme fatale red flags, be it the mysterious past, shady present, violent envy towards Trini and especially the monetary gain in the scheme against Trini, the extreme emotions of melodrama add some fascinating dimensions to Luisa. The text displayed before the closing credits perhaps makes the film seem more conventional than the fairly bold dramatic decision Aranda concludes the film on, though said text accurately represents the events the film was based on.
Amantes proved to be a smash for Aranda. Premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival where Abril was awarded best actress, Amantes was later awarded best film at the 1992 Goya Awards where Aranda also took home the award for best director. Following the success of Amantes, Aranda made another bold decision, aliening audiences and critics with the wonderfully mad El amante bilingüe (The Bilingual Lover, 1993) starring Ornella Muti. Although fitting snugly in this period of Aranda’s work centering on an obsessive love, El amante bilingüe sets itself apart with a surreal tragicomic approach, even harkening back to an early Aranda film like Fata Morgana with allusions to The Invisible Man and The Phantom of Opera. Almost immediately after El amante bilingüe Aranda and Abril reunited once again, the resulting Intruso (Intruder) being a sibling of sorts to Amantes with Abril even playing yet another Luisa. Rather than a scheming widow, Abril’s Luisa in Intruso is happily married to dentist Ramiro with two young children. Sitting in traffic, Luisa catches a glimpse of her former husband Ángel appearing sick, homeless and desperate. During their childhood, Louisa and Ángel, along Ramiro were known collectively as “The Inseparables”, with Louisa and Ángel eventually marrying years later. The marriage was short lived however, Louisa and Ramiro marrying not long after the divorce. Overcome with remorse, Luisa takes Ángel in to live with her family. Ramiro isn’t exactly thrilled with the Inseparables reunion as it soon becomes apparent that Ángel has been harboring years of resentment, the reunion threatening to come to a fatal end with the discovery of a terminal illness eating away at Ángel and Luisa’s love for both Ramiro and Ángel.
A more interior film than Amantes, Intruso is also far darker, Aranda setting the tragic love triangle in a happy domestic environment with two children as spectators. It’s actually the two child characters and the moments with their new “Uncle Ángel” that provide some respite in what is otherwise an extremely downbeat affair. Closer to a thriller than Amantes, Aranda does a jealously gender flip with Intruso, the war of sexual envy being between two men, both Ramiro and Ángel resorting to villainous behavior in their battle for Luisa. Ángel’s disease is even used by both to their own advantage. Like Amantes though, Intruso becomes more melodramatic as the story escalates, Aranda fixating once again on the psychology behind the extreme behavior of not just obsession and passion but with an even bigger focus on guilt. Where Paco’s guilt over betraying Trini in Amantes only became relevant later in the film, Luisa, and more specifically her feeling responsible for Ángel’s situation, is at the heart of Intruso from the beginning. As Ángel’s illness progresses, Luisa’s mentality becomes more fractured in her desperate attempt at recreating the past in emotionally and physically loving both Ángel and Ramiro. Passionate as Abril’s verbal outbursts in Amantes were, her physical histrionics throughout Intruso outdue her previous work for Aranda. Come the film’s third act, Lusia reaches an almost Zulawski-esque state, frantically making love to the terminally ill Ángel, lugging his near lifeless body across the household in revival attempts screaming and pleading, even animalistically licking Ángel’s mouth clean following a seizure. The later again on full display in front of her children, all three adults dropping all pretense as the film reaches its inevitable yet still surprising and stinging climax.
Intruso was Abril and Aranda’s ninth film together, a collaboration that was set to continue in what would be Aranda’s follow-up, La pasión turca (The Turkish Passion, 1994) an adaptation of Spanish writer Antonio Gala’s 1993 novel of the same name. Abril however had gone to America for a stint, Aranda turning instead to actress and singer Ana Belén. No stranger to controversial roles, having previously starred in La criatura (The Creature, 1977) from Eloy de la Iglesia, one of Spain’s most transgressive filmmakers, Belén’s Desideria in La pasión turca is essentially another variation on the characters played by Abril in Amantes and Intruso. Married but unfulfilled, Desideria or “Desi” begins an intense affair with her tour guide Yaman while vacationing in Istanbul with her husband and friends. Upon returning to Spain, Desi discovers she’s pregnant with Yaman’s child and goes through with the pregnancy, though her happiness is short-lived as the child dies not long after birth. Utterly lost, Desi packs and leaves Spain returning to Turkey to find Yaman. The two rekindle their romance, Desi fininally felling fulfilled until she discovers Yaman’s children from a previous relationship and true playboy, even criminal ways. At first furious and feeling betrayed, Desi’s passion for Yaman is too strong, Desi resigning herself to meeting his every demand until her jealously of Yaman’s other lovers finally boils over.
Filmed on location in Turkey, Aranda admitting to purposefully falling back on various foreign stereotypes of the “exotic” Turkey (2), La pasión turca not only sets the passion play of outside of Spain but the narrative fixations of Amantes and Intruso are taken into some new areas as well. Eschewing the love triangle of the previous films in favor of the obsessive passions of one individual, La pasión turca also places an even bigger emphasis on the jealousy aspect of obsession. While Desi’s desire for Yaman again certainly recalls both Luisa’s of Amantes and Intruso, Aranda also does another gender reversal similar to his switching of the competing female lovers of Amantes to two men in Intruso, having Desi’s mad love getting her involved with Yamn’s criminal dealings just as Paco with Luisa in Amantes. While not at quite as downbeat in atmosphere as Amantes and certainly not as grim as Intruso, La pasión turca operates very much in the same melodramatic way, the soap operatics perhaps even heavier than in the other films. It’s the development later in the film however of Desi’s involvement in Yaman’s underworld dealings that push La pasión turca closer to a thriller than both Amantes and Intruso with some added mystery as well, Yaman essentially remaining the stranger Desi met on the tour bus throughout the entire film in spite of the various sordid reveals. In fact the film works as a hybrid, more traditional erotic thriller as well as a psychological thriller; Desi put in potential danger with a physical encounter with a client of Yaman’s as well as the worry generated by her increased psychological debasement brought on by her consuming devotion to Yaman.
Abril would return to the Aranda fold alongside Belén in Libertarias (1996), a historical drama set during the Spanish Civil War. Aranda returned to the familiar world of sexual obsession soon after with La mirada del otro (The Naked Eye, 1998), his most psychological take on female sexuality in a straight dramatic context before closing out the 90’s by fusing ideas formed in Amantes and explored throughout Intruso and La pasión turca, taking themto their most melodramatic and extreme. More specifically the idea of jealousy itself, Aranda even titling his 1999 film “Jealousy” or “Celos”. Aranda also returns to the love triangle of Amantes and Intruso with Celos but in a curious twist Aranda makes the third party a specter of the past. Aranda also does yet another gender swap from La pasión turca, the titular jealousy of Celos coming from a man, trucker Antonio. Soon to wed his fiancee Carmen (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Antonio spies an old picture with Carmen with a former flame, instantly triggering an intense jealousy. Although Carmen brushes off the photo as nothing more than of old times, Antonio’s mind is impossible to be put at ease. After asking around, Antonio finally uncovers the name of the man in the photo, José. Even after the marriage, Antonio’s constant interrogations about José intensify, his obsession becoming all consuming forcing Carmen to confront a dangerous past she’d hoped was long buried.
Compared to Amantes, Intruso and La pasión turca who’s thriller elements slowly crept their way into the plot, Celos not only feels but also operates more like a thriller from early on. The story is again perhaps Aranda’s most extreme variation on the theme being rooted in male jealousy, Antonio’s behavior being irrational before even hearing the name “José” and very quickly becoming downright psychotic in his obsession over José and Carmen’s past. Like La pasión turca, later developments take Celos further down the crime/thriller road, the sordid reveals also making Celos the most melodramatic of this series of Aranda’s films, the rain-soaked Takashi Ishii-esque climax almost operatic. Here too Celos does a gendered variation on the mystery angle of La pasión turca, Antonio’s extensive digging on José revealing bits about Carmen’s hidden past and just what the nature of her and José’s relationship was, while Carmen herself remains somewhat enigmatic throughout. Carmen is the most psychologically fascinating of Aranda’s 90’s central females. Unfortunately some didn’t see it that way, one particularly wrongheaded Time Out review accusing Aranda of “faux-liberationist misogyny”(3) and the film presented women as “sex-obsessed primitivists”(4). Quite the short-selling of the layered work done by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón performing Carmen’s mental balancing act. The “sex-obsessed primitivists” take is especially ironic as Aranda also ironically, especially so given the two main male characters, subverts the overheated Spanish lover stereotype from the male perspective in both Celos and La pasión turca. In a scene that almost directly recalls a moment in La pasión turca whereYaman remarks to Desi making love shouldn’t feel like a exaggerated tragedy, Antonio rejects Carmen who puts herself in a similar role as part of her constant psychological tightrope walk, remaking on the performative facade.
Aranda would continue to take his own thematic obsessions of jealousy and possessive, obsessive love into the new millennium with historical twists. Firstly with the aptly titled Mad Love (Juana la Loca, 2001), an Arandafied take on the story of Joanna of Castile, a 15th century Spanish queen. Carmen (2003) would soon follow which in turn was followed up with Tirante el blanco (The Maidens’ Conspiracy, 2006), Aranda’s most ambitious film, a lavish adaptation of a 15th century Catalan novel and the last of Aranda’s films to feature Abril. With Canciones de amor en Lolita’s Club (Lolita’s Club, 2007) Aranda returned to the erotic melodramatics of his 90’s work, going the farthest down the crime route with bordellos, ex-cops and the mob. With Luna caliente (Hot Moon, 2009), what would ultimately become Aranda’s final film before his passing in 2015, Aranda essentially summed up his a good chunk of his entire career. Set against the backdrop of the Burgos Trial, a show trial during which members of a anti-Franco separatist group were sentenced to death which sparked massive outrage, Luna caliente combined the fierce politcs of Aranda’s earlier films with the uninhibited sexuality and Hitchcockian obsessiveness of his successful 90’s films. His most commercially successful period, Aranda’s work throughout the 90’s also stands as some of his most artistically satisfying as well, films like Amantes, Intruso, La pasión turca and Celos certainly exemplifying the instantly 90’s look and feel. Yet also like The Exquisite Cadaver and The Blood Splattered Bride being wholly unique examples of the Barcelona School of Film and the lesbian vampire craze of the 70’s, Amantes, Intruso, La pasión turca and Celos exist within Aranda’s wholly unique niche corner of 90’s erotic films.
1. “Mayo de 1948 – Un cadáver en ‘La Canal’”. https://www.diariodeburgos.es/noticia/Z75673ACA-B062-4285-209F2BEA7E7FB74C/201908/mayo-de-1948—un-cadaver-en-la-canal. August 31, 2019.
2. https://www.vicentearanda.es. 2006.
3-4. Time Out. https://www.timeout.com/movies/jealousy. 1999.