03 August, 2008


[Here is a review of Simon Birrell's 2005 short film by our Spanish based correspondent, Nzoog. Note that HIS LAST REQUEST features Spanish actress IRIS DIAZ. Yes, that's our alluring mystery actress pictured in two previous blogs! That's why I asked if some could "ID" her... I think you get it. In any case, all the best to her:RM]

HIS LAST REQUEST (2005), written and directed by Simon Birrell

The back cover text of the DVD of His Last Request informs us that the film combines the form of 1920s silent cinema with the subject matter of 1970s European exploitation. As regards the former, Simon Birrell, who wrote and directed this 30-minute half-feature, did indeed shoot his film in monochrome and dispense with a regular soundtrack, while at the same time eschewing any attempt to closely ape the look of the twenties, opting instead to refract its cinema through the intervening years, what with a contemporary setting and a style of acting more akin to that of our time than that of the decade represented by the sex photographs the protagonist keeps. As regards the performance aspect, however, the absence of both voices and (except for one moment of footsteps being sonically imitated) sound effects forces Birrell to impose on his players a slight element of compensatory gestural ism. In this respect, when Jack Taylor’s father character hurls away a document in disgust, this might have been done in a sound film but far less necessarily, and much the same goes for some of the directions given to actress Carmen Vadillo, pointing away with her finger as she orders someone to leave, or kneeling before her seated father when imploring him to take a drastic decision. A similarly compromised attitude informs Mike Sobieski’s music, clearly modern in taste, but paradoxically probably more similar in a way to what original 20s film audiences were exposed to than the music provided by the likes of Carl Davis for silent film revivals: conceived for a small group of instruments (which includes, significantly, an organ), the results sound closer in size to what could have been afforded by most theatre owners before the appearance of sound relieved them from such a need. More could be said, in fact, about the function of the music in the film itself, that of providing sound where absolute silence would have been distracting, but (the final “slash” effect notwithstanding) not seeking to closely imitate the action onscreen as much as provide a discreet generalised mood – capture the essence, as it were, of the film as a whole. The overall effect is that of a film that might have been ordinarily made nowadays if the talky had never been invented – and Birrell actually retains the old convention of introducing characters in inter titles along with the corresponding player’s name.

Now, an anachronistic adoption of technical limitations belonging to the past might be discouraging for some people who could well fear an exercise in precious mannerism, but the merit of Birrell’s film lies in the feeling created that His Last Request would be poorer, or difficult to imagine, in another form, particularly since the device is both functional and integral to its themes.

The functionality lies in the degree of economy the silent format brings to the film, keeping it just under half an hour long. Silences, omissions and simplifications can call undue attention to themselves in a sound film, but seem perfectly natural in the different expressive world of a silent. A case in point lies in the document that is basic to the film’s story, its contents never made explicit but still easy to imagine. More importantly, however, the use of the archaic notion of silent cinema occurs in a film that is largely about the past (“I have not done all that I wished to do” to quote the opening epigraph) and equally largely about images (“I have not seen all that I wish to see”) and about looking (“I will die with my eyes open”); accordingly, the film abounds with images-within-images: the pictures, the monitor, even the intercom view of the Nurse as she arrives). This is appropriate for the make-up of the main character, a man living from his memories and surrounded by representations thereof. Jack Taylor’s protagonist (nameless, like everyone else throughout) is an old man who is soon to leave behind him a huge legacy of a lifetime’s philandering – which practice has now been placed far beyond his reach by current illness and confinement to a wheelchair – in addition to a legacy (in the more traditional sense) of material belongings.

Now, Jack Taylor’s dominance in the cast brings us to the subject of 1970s European exploitation mentioned above. While it is perfectly possible to enjoy and understand His Last Request without any background knowledge of this type of cinema, the choice of Taylor, far from being merely sentimental, may tip off those in the know. No amount of time elapsed in the interim has significantly changed the distinctive general appearance of this U.S. expatriate, with his long face and heavy-lidded pale eyes, even if the slightly coarse character he is given here is a far cry from the self-possessed screen persona one tends to associate with the actor. In the context of “Eurocult” cinema, he certainly provides a link with the genre but, most importantly, he makes one all the more aware of the running theme of images: not only an actor (and an accomplished one at that), he is also an icon, an image, as much as the statuette/lamp stand that is casually shown falling to the ground at one point towards the end of the film (a film, by the way, whose sets are more noted for pictures and figures than for books). And just as Taylor is an image many people associate with the twenties, the film’s image, given the use of black-and-white, also refers to the past, in the manner of the silent soundtrack whose other purpose, of course, is that we concentrate on the image.

Taylor’s character – merely identified as the Father – lives in a practically self-contained space, contemptuous or fearful of the external world, and surrounded by various images: his old-fashioned erotica pictures; photographs of the many women he has seduced, then ditched; and the video monitor with which he can control every room in the house, seemingly in a desperate attempt to hold on to as much of his power as he was once effortlessly able to yield. Here we are reminded of the film’s treatment of space, entirely circumscribed to the old man’s apartment, except for a brief pre-credits shot of a woman (as yet unseen) removing a job advertisement from a cork board, obviously located in some other, public venue. This self-enclosed world is further underlined by a situation revolving around closing a window and the presence of only one supporting character –the Father’s executor (Ramón Rados), seen briefly at the beginning – in what is otherwise a three-character piece (is that why there are only four instruments in the music score?). If the executor is a person from the outside, as far as his life as a character is concerned, he is both born and dead within the confines of the apartment, whereas the interloping character of the Nurse (Iris Díaz)– the person who will upset the order in the place – is at least afforded two brief, fragmentary glimpses outside the dwelling (cork board, intercom monitor), marking her out as more of an outsider.

The story begins with the Father who, on realising that his days are numbered, takes the decision to ignore his past female company (now existing as mere pictures and memories for him) and bequeath the entirety of his estate to his Daughter (intense Carmen Vadillo), who, presently living with him, constitutes the sole person to speak of who means anything to him in these, his declining years. The same opening scene also introduces us to the Nurse, who has just arrived in response to a job advertisement, and will take up residence to take care of the father. This female stranger’s face strikes a mysterious chord in the father’s mind, awakening him to his past to the extent that now he wants, inasmuch as this is feasible, to bring it back to the present. When he is alone with the Nurse in his bedroom, he asks her to wear the period lingerie he keeps in a trunk under his bed and makes the last request of the title to her. This being a silent, we do not hear it: we may initially assume he wants to have sex with her, even if he hardly seems up to it. She refuses, somewhat ambiguously, and what follows is a power play between the three characters, the Nurse imposing herself more and more as the mistress of the house, much to the Daughter’s dismay. When the Nurse, sensibly enough, gives the Father an injection on his backside, this is perceived by the man as a humiliating loss of control on his part, but he is later proven right as the newcomer starts to impose her authority in the household, symbolically undermining the man’s power as she contemptuously destroys the money bills with which he tries to wheedle her into carrying out his desires.

Following some complications, the “last request” is fulfilled, if with a fatal quid pro quo: the Nurse successfully seduces the initially reluctant Daughter for the benefit of the Father, who is watching the scene through his video monitor. This is as close as he can get now to bringing his past to the present and, more specifically, to fulfil his “last desire”. The Nurse was thus not so much the object of his own desires as somebody he somehow (for a reason as yet undisclosed) associated with his former, healthier self and whom he wanted to act as his surrogate – as the next best thing to himself, as it were – but a side effect of the “last request” being fulfilled is that the Nurse has come to assume a power akin to what was once available to him. The fact that this role should have to be played by a woman is a reminder of the dominance of lesbian couplings in erotic films aimed at men (and heterosexual ones), such scenes allowing viewers to watch women engaged in sexual activity…but without the disturbing hindrance of having to see another man.

The erotic scene that constitutes the film’s climax (at least before the final twist) brings in at least two reversals of expectations for, respectively, the audience and the Taylor character acting as the diegetic “audience” and, at the same time, diegetic “director”. As regards the real-life audience, their attention is initially drawn towards the Nurse – with her carefully applied make-up, generous physique and the lingerie she is made to wear – as the main erotic element in the film but when the sex scene arrives – and a strong, carefully constructed one it is, too – far more mileage is obtained in this respect from the slender, conservatively dressed, demure-looking Daughter – of whose body, for one thing, more is shown. But this very same scene also takes an unexpected turn for its onscreen “director” – or that is how I read it, anyway.

At one point, the Father adopts a bewildered expression at what he sees on the monitor and rushes in his wheelchair to the room where the two women are still together. This could be interpreted two ways: it could be his desire to cross the fourth wall, to be closer to what is happening, to bring himself a few removes closer to the real experience rather than its image. In other words, he may want to bring what he has wished to see just a but closer to what he wished to do.

Also, either alternatively or complementarily, one might view this reaction as one of surprise at an unexpected occurrence. The Daughter, far from a submissive gamine, starts to take the initiative in her sex play with the Nurse, but that was probably not in the Father’s script: this is not the movie he wanted to make before dying!
The gory ending (augmented by shadowy lighting and reflections of windows on the wall, reminiscent of German silent fantasy films of the twenties) might pronounce His Last Request a horror film, and if we use this as a starting point, the aged Don Juan could be viewed as a vampire of sorts, “existing” (or having existed) at the expense of others, safeguarded in the confines of his “castle”, wanting to protract his life (giving another connotation to “die with my eyes open”) and having the bad luck of encountering another “vampire” who has become one as a result of his past deeds. Essentially, though, I regard it as erotic or horror-erotic (in the Franco/Larraz sense), at least in that sexuality seems to actuate a great many of the proceedings. If we place His Last Request in the context of the genre of erotica pure and simple, without explicit horror elements, we still find many of its recurring themes: power games, wheelchair confinement, onscreen voyeurism and indirect self-references (viewers, director, etc). The voyeurism and the self-reference (for which the wheelchair, in this and other films, may act as a useful plot device/metaphor) need not strictly appear in erotic cinema, but it is logical that such themes should eventually find their ways into such films in a manner that would make far less sense in their literary equivalent. And in this particular case, one is reminded of the sex film’s potential for acting as a substitute for the real thing – as is, ineluctably, the plight of Taylor’s character.

In any case, the director’s background (in addition to his status as a video and computer technician and the manager of his own Silicon Artists outfit, which among other things produced this film) is more than casually steeped in the tradition of “Eurocult”: friendship with Carlos Aguilar (who is given acknowledgement in the credits of His Last Request and may have helped Birrell to contact Taylor), occasional translating work for Jess Franco, and an interview with José Ramón Larraz (published in Javier G. Romero’s irregularly published Quatermass magazine). In fact, Larraz, like Aguilar, is given acknowledgement in the final credits of Birrell’s film – actually listed last and given pride of place, with the whole screen to his name. What Larraz may have contributed to the film I don’t know, and I must confess to some limitations on my part for my knowledge and understanding of the man’s work is – for the time being, that is - superficial and desultory. In any case, Larraz, in addition to lesbianism and vampires, has made looking (with or without a periscope) the central theme of at least two of the films he made for Cunillés and Mulá in the late seventies, in one of which he actually included an image-within-an-image (an Iquino film being screened within the story of Malizia erotica). Having mentioned the producing team of Cunillés and Mulá, I couldn’t help thinking of a film of theirs that Birrell may not have seen, I vizi della signora, directed by Ricard Reguant (who by coincidence once co-participated with Carmen Vadillo in a short-lived Spanish TV programme) and starring José Castillo Escalona in a role not unlike Jack Taylor’s here, in terms of both disability and narrative/thematic function. But the Castillo Escalona character in that film was a sympathetic and (to a limited extent, anyway) successful “onscreen director”; and, to mention another Jack Taylor film, much the same applies, in another sense, to Dr. Roberts in Jess Franco’s Les avaleuses (played by Franco himself, in one of his few self-dignifying roles). In contrast, Taylor’s Father/Director in His Last Request (not representing Birrell himself but the more generalised role of “director”) emerges as a pathetic and unattractive figure – and as it later turns out, a failure in his desire to assume control.

This failure (carried out, in fact, by a “creation” of the Father) might, in fact, reveal the film’s ultimate condition as a metaphor for what is necessarily any loss of control on the artist’s part once their work has been released to the public and thus acquired an independent existence of its own – simply by virtue of being perceived by others, interpreted by others, imitated by others, acquiring an identity the artist had never considered. This has recently happened, in fact to His Last Request, which was (“oddly enough” as he says in his blog) selected for showing at a Gay and Lesbian film festival in Asturias.



Anonymous said...

There's a trailer here:



David Zuzelo said...

Thanks for presenting such a good write up. I watched this as well, but it had a rather different effect on me. This gives what is certainly a singular work it's due.