José Luis is an executive at his parents’ underwear factory where his girlfriend Silvia works on the shop floor. When Silvia falls pregnant, José Luis promises her that he will marry her, most likely against the wishes of his parents. His mother is determined to break her son’s engagement to a girl from a lower-class family, and hires Raúl, a would-be bullfighter to seduce Sylvia.
Early on in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1995 film The Flower of My Secret, a melodramatic novel by the film’s main character is thrown away in disgust. Surprisingly for the author, it turns up later in the film: as the screenplay for a much later work by José Juan Bigas Luna, director of Jamón, Jamón. Is this a knowing joke by a filmmaker well known for his tendency to recycle old movies and stories, including his own?1 Or is it a bitchy suggestion that Bigas Luna’s films steal their best ideas, making them little more than trash: the lowest of the low?
A less debatable point regarding Almodóvar’s reference is that our familiarity with the late Bigas Luna’s films, for audiences outside Spain at least, is a by-product of his fellow director’s renown. Peter William Evans suggests that the international success of Almodóvar’s late 1980s output, especially the international success of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), changed the direction of Spanish cinema and facilitated its wider distribution (2004: 22); and it is notable that Bigas Luna had made seven films already prior to his international breakthrough with Jamón, Jamón. However, while the distinctive Almodóvar blend of low- and high-cultural reference is very much present in Bigas Luna’s film, the tendency to cluster it within largely unspecific conceptions of national or ‘Almodóvarian’ cinema does not quite do justice to Jamón, Jamón’s peculiar vision. Derivative it may be: trash it definitely isn’t.
Subject as audiences are to the fads and reductive generalisations of world cinema distribution, reading beyond Anglophone clichés that buzz around Jamón, Jamón – ‘A wild Spanish paella’ that is ‘Hot, sexy and outrageous’, according to the Tartan Video DVD – is necessary but tricky. This is because the film is largely about such clichés, the problem of acting according to them, and the possibility or otherwise of escaping them. This is emphasised by the way Bigas Luna, along with co-writer Cuca Canals, bind their interrelated characters after the fashion of classical tragedy – or maybe, given the film’s incredible convolutions, tragicomedy – where conflicting desires lead inevitably toward disaster.
The film, consequently, is a web of irreconcilable, incestuous passions: Conchita, the wife of a successful underwear magnate, Miguel, loves her spoiled son José Luis, who plans to marry his pregnant seamstress girlfriend, Silvia, but who in reality is devoted to Silvia’s mother, Carmen: a sometime prostitute (and sometime lover of Miguel) who runs the local brothel. Conchita hires ham delivery-driver and underwear model Raúl to seduce Silvia, to eventual good effect; in the process, though, Conchita falls in love with Raúl (and, metonymically, the garlic cloves he chews for enhanced sexual performance), while the latter falls for both Silvia and Conchita. The denouement of this tragic knot has José Luis, already enraged by Raúl’s seduction of Silvia, discovering Raúl and Conchita together in a ham storage warehouse. This primal scene prompts José Luis to attack Raúl with a leg of ham, only for Raúl to kill his rival in like fashion. Too late, José Luis’s death brings about a rapprochement amongst the cast of characters, frozen in a classical tableau of grief as a flock of sheep – previously heard in the film’s opening – sweep across the scene, returning its doomed players to the dust.
Yet Jamón, Jamón exceeds the hyperbole of its plotting, and its possible reduction to farce, firstly in the way its network of impossible desires is used to explore gender performance and sexual politics. Bigas Luna’s notorious fixation with breasts, less as objects of erotic fixation than as objects of consumption – both José Luis and Raúl are obsessed with the way Silvia’s breasts taste of ham and tortilla – emphasises the way the female body signifies dually within normative heterosexuality: at once the possession of the female by the male, but also a possession of the male by the (maternal) female. Notably, the soft-core explicitness of the film, and its possible objectification of the female body (especially that of the then teenage Penélope Cruz) are offset by an emphasis on the male’s supine dependency on the breast (especially in the case of the spoiled José Luis), effectively infantilising them and, by implication, the titillated heterosexual male viewer. As the first part in what Bigas Luna called his ‘Iberian Trilogy’ (trilogía ibérica), continuing with Golden Balls (1993) and The Tit and the Moon (1994), the Catalan-born director is here looking to deconstruct Castilian archetypes and myths: here, that of the mother as giver of milk and object of devotion, but also the sublimated figure of sexual desire. This explains Bigas Luna’s decision, in the final credits, to list Conchita and Carmen respectively as la madre puta (literally, the mother whore) and la puta madre (the whore mother). As John Hooper has pointed out (1995: 166), de puta madre – a slang phrase which loosely translates as ‘great’ – sums up the paradoxes and perversity of this dual image within the Spanish imaginary.
As this outline suggests, though, Jamón, Jamón treads a fine line between exploitation and criticism. The opening sequence, with its shot of Bardem’s Raúl practising bullfighting, an erection visible through his tight shorts, establishes the film’s uneasy tone. Yet this ambiguous approach makes sense in terms of the melodramatic schema Bigas Luna devises for his protagonists, none of whom escape their own subjection to the deep-rooted, gendered national archetypes that deny the possibility of an ‘authentic subjectivity’ (Evans 2004: 31). The fact that Raúl, for instance, constantly needs an audience for this bullfighting prowess – which in the film, pointedly, is another man, with whom he later practices in the nude – suggests that this macho ideal traps him in a narcissistic (and also homoerotic) self-reflection.
Jamón, Jamón in this sense shares aesthetic sensibilities with the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk (themselves a sizeable influence on Almodóvar’s films), in the way an excessive figuration of mise en scène, colour, music and action makes visible to the viewer that which the protagonists themselves fail to see. The film consequently takes place in a kind of mythical desert (Los Monegros, a barren region in northwest Spain), whose enveloping red hue pre-determines the film’s violent conclusion. This movement toward bloodshed, fuelled by machismo, is marked bythe sign ofTaurus: not herethe constellation, but the huge two-dimensional bull (formerly advertising placards for Osborne brandy, and still familiar roadside figures throughout Spain) from beneath which the opening camera shot pans down, and under which many of the film’s fateful couplings take place. The melodramatic effect – the sense of social actors blind to their own fates, which we can nevertheless foresee – is produced in this gap between protagonist and viewer perception: in the process this becomes the interpretive space for ideological critique.
The key distinction here between tragedy and tragicomedy, or even between early and later (postmodern) melodrama, is the way that the melodramatic gesture – in classical melodrama, a sign of the character’s entrapment or oppression by society (see Brooks 1995) – becomes an object of derision, or even kitsch, such is the character’s enslavement to now overfamiliar cultural archetypes. Discovering he has been cuckolded by Raúl, José Luis bashes the already-cracked giant testicle of the Osborne bull, until it breaks off and drops; a figure for the emasculation he must endure without resolution until his inevitable death. Similarly, after killing José Luis, and in a clear graphic allusion to the earlier scene, Raúl reaches for the upright circular badge on the front of Miguel’s Mercedes (the make of car promised him by Conchita for seducing Silvia and remaining her lover): the badge snaps off in his hand before he falls to the ground, still clutching the symbol of his desire. This last image brings into focus the film’s concern with consumerism, representative of Spain’s delayed modernisation (see below), which is here wrapped up with other forms of Iberian consumption, sexual and culinary. This connection between all symbolic aspects in Jamón, Jamón turns its apparent clichés into coherent narrative images; as in the moment, for example, when Raúl and Silvia noisily consummate their courtship against a cafeteria slot machine, which promptly starts to ejaculate pesetas.
These aspects of Jamón, Jamón seem like surrealist pastiche, especially as the film makes obvious allusion to the kind of imagery familiar from the films of Luis Buñuel: a dream sequence of a bull’s horn being sawn off; a fly noisily crawling over a lover’s face; or the incongruous flock of sheep, a direct quote from the end of Buñuel’s El Ángel Exterminador (1962). It should be clear that such a view underestimates Jamón, Jamón’s more critical dimensions; but we should also stress that the film’s aesthetic heritage is not so much surrealism, but the less travelled and less translatable quality of esperpento. Synonymous with the theatrical work of Ramón de Valle-Inclán, and with its roots in the grotesque realism of Francisco Goya and Miguel de Cervantes, esperpento is best defined (in Valle-Inclán’s play Luces de Bohemia (1920)) as a ‘systematically deformed aesthetic’: an inverted world whose heroes are represented as if through a concave mirror. In Spanish cinema, this aesthetic finds its most coherent expression in a form of social realist black comedy, in films such as El Cochecito (Marco Ferreri, 1960), El Verdugo (Luis García Berlanga, 1963) and Almodóvar’s What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984).
In these films, made during the period of modernisation within Franco’s Spain, the desire for often paltry material goods is juxtaposed with the horrific acts of violence undertaken to procure them: hence in El Cochecito, an old man kills his family in order to buy a motorised wheelchair; while in El Verdugo, a young father becomes a state executioner in order to secure a new apartment for his family (see Hopewell 1986: 59–63; Kinder 1993: 111–16). As in Jamón, Jamón, this is not just a grotesque parody of consumerism, but a parody of Spain itself as (to again quote Valle-Inclán) a ‘grotesque deformation of European civilisation’. The national specificity of this aesthetic comes from the violent clash between imagination and brute fact; what John Hopewell calls ‘the anomalous abyss between Spain’s sublime tradition and … dismal reality’ (1986: 59). In the later Jamón, Jamón, then, the discrepancy is between archetypal identification with premodern Iberian traditions, and Spain’s entry into the soon-to-be European Union, with its transnational flows of imports and exports (notably, the film’s elliptical cutaway shots are dominated by the movement of container-lorries hurtling towards the border, while all the film’s cars are German makes).
Seen in this light, the film’s moments of incongruity take on a critical but also poignant aspect. The graphic juxtaposition in the film’s opening, between the toreador’s sword and cape wielded by Raúl, and the chain mail glove, sewing-machine needle and fabric wielded by Silvia, brilliantly evokes this transition from the imaginary to the real; just as the debris of consumption – José Luis proposes to Silvia using the ring-pull from a coke can – drag the film’s mythic setting into a disposable consumerist world. The fatal duel with hambones, meanwhile, is not cut-price surrealism, but a parodic visual allusion to Goya’s Duel With Cudgels (Kinder 1993: 157): a final underscoring of the way this film’s characters are bound by iconography and archetypes which impede their psychological progression.2 But it is also a pointed comment on the way such violent imagery – part of what Marsha Kinder calls Spain’s ‘black legend’ – circulates around Spanish culture, and a reminder of its disturbing appeal.
1. The plot of Leo’s novel in fact forms the basis for Almodóvar’s 2006 film Volver.
2. Kinder describes the earlier, much less ironic reference to Goya’s painting in Carlos Saura’s Llanto por un bandido (1963).
Cast and Crew:
Country: Spain. Production Company: Lola Films, Ovídeo TV S.A., Sogepaq. Director: Bigas Luna. Screenwriters: Bigas Luna and Cuca Canals. Cinematographer: José Luis Alcaine. Music: Nicola Piovani. Editor: Teresa Font. Cast: Penélope Cruz (Silvia), Stefania Sandrelli (Conchita), Anna Galiena (Carmen), Javier Bardem (Raúl), Jordi Mollà (José Luis), Juan Diego (Miguel).]
Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1995.
Peter William Evans, Jamón, Jamón, Barcelona, Paidós, 2004.
John Hooper, The New Spaniards, revised edition, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1995.
John Hopewell, Out of the Past: Spanish Cinema after Franco, London, BFI, 1986.
Marsha Kinder, Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain, Berkeley, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1993.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.