Mexico’s Arturo Ripstein, who began his career as an A.D. on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 “The Exterminating Angel,” is back, bringing his latest collaboration with screenwriter Paz Alicia Garciadiego, a black and white film that picks up on most all of the director’s hallmarks.
A weighty drama, “Devil Between the Legs” dives from the get-go into unsettling territory as it follows the strained relationship of a married couple in their old age that struggles between desire, jealousy, violence and love. Beatriz (skillfully portrayed by Sylvia Pasquel) endures the wrath of her husband (Alejandro Suárez) while playing along to fulfill his fantasies. This dark love relationship unspools in the confines of a shabby house under the gaze of a maid. The film, that plays with a 19th century Spanish and high high-contrast cinematography, eludes naturalism to deliver a reminder of the complexities of human relationships in a modern world where most people conceive less and less nuance between right and wrong.
Variety talked to Ripstein and Garciadiego about their Toronto premiere, sold by Latido Films.
In your film, you handle themes like violence against women, physical or verbal, refusing to treat them via a black and white moral compass. What was you starting point when creating the toxic, yet loving, relation between Beatriz and her husband?
Arturo Ripstein: The starting point was giving thought to the idea that jealousy doesn’t end at a certain age. Attraction and repulsion don’t end at a certain age. Relationships of crazy love are also ones of crazy hate. Sexuality is usually presented via young people and beautiful bodies. We thought, at our age, that it was fundamental to talk about passionate madness which goes beyond physical strength.
Paz Alicia Garciadiego: Having a sexuality at your age is apparently a big crime. And with sexuality, if there’s passion there’s love but necessarily but that includes violence and aggression.
In the same way the third character in this trio, Dinorah, functions according to a very different scale of grey where she plays both roles, the repressed and repressor. Where did this character start from?
Ripstein: The characters come, fundamentally, from perverse innocence. She believes that if her employer has a jealous husband it’s because he loves her. There’s this crazy thing going on, where she feels very close to Beatriz, maybe wants to be her but thinks that the jealousy of her husband can only come from his adoration of her. Hence she’s a perverse fairy godmother, who protects this situation, the woman that takes care, reacts, attacks, and takes a stand.
From the beginning of the film, you use “Ich Bin von Kopf bis Fuße von Liebe Eingestellt” which immediately hints at a reference to Von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel.” What were the thematic implications of its use as a leitmotiv of the film?
The original, composed by Hollaender, which was very well known in the thirties was later translated as “Falling in Love Again,” whose lyrics wise has nothing to do with the original. In the original lyrics, the ones in German in the film, you hear: “Men surround me like moths around a light’.” And she later mentions it’s her nature. It’s something you cannot escape from, something stronger than you.
In your body of work, there’s a clear signature use of black and white and sequence shots. Your sequence shots are especially settled, sustained and observant when they’ve often become a showpiece of technical virtousity. What attracts you to this style?
Almost all my films, except two-or-three, were conceived in color, the rest were all thought-up in black and white. The production system does not make it easy to shoot in black and white: the terrifying censorship of our days is economic. That’s to say, they tell you it is simply not viable because you don’t have a series of commercial elements and color has become a commercial element. But color adds an element and subtracts another. It adds an element of closeness to reality, a naturalism that is virtually inevitable. On the other hand, black and white stimulates a larger use of the imagination because you have to bring a sense of color. As Picasso, who knew what he was talking about, once said, color weakens. You just have to think of Picasso’s work to know the enormous strength of his black and white. Color ends up being a concession.
As for the sequence shots, since I was little I liked to see. To see and to have a look. Suddenly this was lost with time, haste, [cinema’s becoming a] pastime. And cinema is like getting on the wheel of fortune where there seems to be a danger but it’s absolutely harmless. Cinema has become the absence of gaze. Above all, a quiet sequence shot as you said is what allows you to look and it is what fills my heart with cinema.
You use a very specific Spanish that feels at once both very traditional and yet highly complex. What’s your approach when working with the Spanish language?
Paz Alicia Garciadiego: The language in general is due to my grandmother, that was the way they spoke before. She had a very 19th-century Spanish, very rich, very resonant. I realized that when writing I found a very good instrument one day watching Ripstein film and I saw his love, his crazy crush on the camera and I thought I can do the same with language. Spanish doesn’t lend itself to dialogues of what are called in English one liners, Spanish is in itself baroque. Trying to give wings and beauty to Spanish, the beauty I try to give it with rhythm, with how the words sound, not only that they say but how they sound and how they come together. I’ve become accustomed to using this speech that is falsely traditional and that uses many refrains from Mexican and as well others from the Spanish-speaking world that are almost forgotten in Mexico. I find it useful because it sounds highly colloquial without being so, and because in general they have a lot of rhythm in general. And that gives me a weapon. I’m not afraid that weapon’s lengthy, not concise.