Film student Ángela is writing her thesis on violence in audiovisual media. At the university, she discovers the body of her thesis director, Prof. Figueroa, who died while watching a video that turns out to be a snuff film. The plot of this psychological thriller unfolds through Ángela’s research on the disappearance of a former classmate, tortured and murdered on tape. Unsure about whom to trust, Ángela is targeted as the next victim as she draws closer to exposing an underground ring of snuff films produced by a fellow student and professor. Set in the 1990s, the film engages a critique of violence in television and film, market forces producing audiovisual media, and voyeuristic desires of audiences, as well as the burgeoning practices of security camera vigilance in public spaces.
Amenábar’s feature-length debut, a psychological thriller of the intrigue genre about ‘snuff’ film, is in many ways an exploration into the darkest underside of the demand for spectacle in which visual media are produced, whether for television or film. As the film student Ángela pursues research for her thesis on audiovisual violence (‘a daily occurrence in film and television’), her desire to view footage all too graphic to appear in the media is eclipsed by the dangers of exposing an underground ring of snuff films produced in the university. It is this turn from Ángela’s interest in viewing graphic violence to the threat that she herself could become the next victim of a snuff film which structures the narrative for viewers, similarly to the genre of a detective thriller whodunit, in which all relationships outside the family are suspect. The ensuing intrigue confronts viewers with complex questions about spectatorship itself in which the morbid interest in seeing tortured and mutilated bodies censored from the public eye is satisfied by an underground market that must ‘give the audience what it wants to see’, as Professor Castro (one author of the snuff ring) lectures to his film students. In this sense, the notion of desire constructed in the film is understood as a complex, intersecting terrain of psychological, market-driven, and sociocultural factors which generate, at once, the spectator’s libidinal desire to consume censored images, an underground market of snuff film produced in response to the demand for violence, and the gendered roles of the characters as either objects or perpetrators of this violence, among others. The demand for morbid images, in other words, exists within a market economy inseparable from the characters’ fascination with and horror for ‘real’ explicit visual material that is censored or in the case of Ángela’s research subject, conspicuous in the media.
Notably, it is only once Ángela perceives that she is being pursued as the next victim of the snuff ring, as the very object of filmed violence which both terrifies and intrigues her, that her desire to view graphic images begins to wane, leading her to abandon her research altogether by the end of the film. Nevertheless, Ángela’s ambiguous transformation from a subject who desires to see recorded violence to become herself a target of ‘real’ violence is not entirely clear given that Amenábar constructs desire for his audience in less simplistic terms.1 Viewers are shown images of Ángela peeking through her fingers to catch a glimpse of the filmed horror that so fascinates her, an ambivalence which is evidently more complex in her character’s psychological portrait. For, Ángela also fantasises about a sexual encounter with the suspect Bosco in a disturbing dream sequence which oscillates between Ángela’s terrified resistance to her aggressor, who subdues her in bed with a suggestive phallic switchblade, and her erotic attempt held at knifepoint to seduce Bosco, which could be read as a survival tactic were it not for the director’s choice to portray this scene disturbingly with evident lust. To her horror, a dreaming Ángela realises that she is being filmed during the sex act, as an object of desire targeted for annihilation, which draws a clear parallel for the film’s viewers between woman as object in pornography and the brutal victimisation of the innocent in snuff. This parallel is furthermore reinforced by an earlier shot of the university film catalogue in which hardcore ‘pornography and other films’ (snuff) are categorised and archived together. The dream sequence, along with the late revelation that Ángela has been filmed secretly at home by her co-researcher Chema – a recording in which she caresses and kisses the image of Bosco displayed on the television screen – emphasises the perverse trappings of a desire through which Ángela’s character, unknown to the film’s audience, had demonstrated a conscious, invested sexual interest in the suspect Bosco, caught on tape. The voyeuristic recording likewise exposes her projected desire for simulacrum in the form of images (in film, television), a scene with greater social implications than Ángela’s character portrait alone. Sexual desire is played out similarly in displaced ways among other characters, in Bosco’s attempt to seduce Ángela’s unsuspecting younger sister, in Ángela’s ‘feigned’ kiss with Bosco in order to distance her sister from the suspected assassin, in the alleged jealousy of Bosco’s girlfriend towards Ángela, in Chema’s voyeuristic recording of Ángela, and even between men in Bosco and Chema’s former friendship which remained a secret to Ángela, a suspicious matter when this bond was revealed to her by Bosco’s girlfriend.
In this sense, Ángela’s confession earlier in the film ‘I don’t like to be recorded’ echoes Amenábar’s recurrent questioning of camera vigilance and its blurred distinction between the public eye and private intimacy, whether subjects are deliberately filmed, as in these scenes, or passively recorded by the university’s security cameras which provide evidence to incriminate Ángela in the discovery of Professor Figueroa’s dead body in the auditorium. Viewers might draw an immediate comparison between the growing presence of security cameras in public space at the time of the film’s release and Amenábar’s critique of camera vigilance, both public and private. Moving beyond this initial assessment, the film also suggests that even when institutional vigilance is justified under the guise of security (i.e., mandated by the university or state), and thereby presumably void of subjective interest, a voyeuristic desire indeed underpins authority and serves to both conserve and usurp it; as viewers will remember, the closed circuit cameras incriminate Ángela, but also film Professor Castro’s suspicious lurking presence in the university film archive before Figueroa’s death.
In its increasingly muddied distinction between the public and private, intimacy and vigilance, the film also problematises the strict separation between access to mediated (recorded or simulated) violence in the form of images and ‘real violence’ experienced in the first person.2 Viewers are reminded throughout the film that any absolute distinction between the ‘mediated’ and the ‘real’ – whether desire, violent images, or otherwise – is ultimately ungrounded. Ángela asks Chema if he has ever seen a real dead body, which gives way to two interpretations: Chema asserts that he has, in the explicit video recordings he watches with Ángela, and yet to the contrary, for Ángela audiovisual violence is not ‘real’ per se (she argues, ‘not on television, but a real dead body’). From the film’s opening sequence in a train station, in which Ángela approaches the train tracks desiring to view a ‘body split in two’ that is never actually seen (through the camera that occupies her first-person gaze), Amenábar structures the film’s imagery, and at times Ángela’s sight, through similar camerawork that seldom shows significant footage of gore, if at all.3 Instead, the characters’ horror is transmitted to the audience through shots of their expressions when viewing the snuff film and, most importantly, through the viewer’s psychological response when imagining violent images through the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, particularly in the victim’s chilling screams for help as she is being tortured. In fact, Amenábar’s choice not to show viewers significant violence or gore, but rather to play on the viewer’s horror by imagining this violence through sound, is perhaps most noteworthy for film students interested in Amenábar’s use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound in conjunction with the full omission of visual information (i.e. established as a motif in the opening sequence with a recorded voice-off which fades to the first frame).4 Chema and Ángela’s tense adventure into the cellar of the university archives, equipped with only a box of matches that must be lit consecutively, also plays with the audience’s ability to see only the duration of each lighted match, interspersed with shots of complete darkness which play upon the viewer’s expectations of surprise in the thriller genre. Such is the nature of Ángela’s psychological, imaginative horror when she chooses not to view the snuff film, at first, but darkens her television screen through the contrast function so that only the audio recording can be heard, which proves disturbing for her character in later scenes, as she listens obsessively to the film’s audio recording on her portable tape recorder.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that when violent images are shown to the film’s viewers, Amenábar often chooses to demonstrate the characters’ ability to analyse them critically. For, the rapid advances in digital camera technology at the time are what lead Chema and Ángela to deduce the brand of camera used to record the snuff film, through a close analysis of the recording’s image quality, as well as the camera’s date of release and purchase, which would serve as vital information to track down Professor Castro and Bosco as leaders of the snuff ring. Chema and Ángela furthermore provide a ‘close visual reading’ of the quick jump cuts in post-production editing, which aim to delete the victim’s mention of her torturer’s name, allowing them to conclude that the victim knows her murderer. It could be argued that these two fundamental pieces of information, used to crack the case, are derived from the protagonists’ critical analysis of graphic images, providing a similar key to Amenábar’s proposal for his viewers to deconstruct their own relationship to violence with critical reflection.
One should note that the word morbo used to describe Ángela’s ‘morbid’ desire to view extreme, violent images, is defined in Spanish as both ‘an unhealthy interest in persons or things’ and ‘an attraction to unpleasant events’. In this sense, the film’s dark reflection on spectatorship and the morbid fascination with explicit images in the media may be traced to the film’s release, contemporary to the upsurge in violence in Spanish cinema at the time, noted by Jordan and MorganTamosunas, Klodt, Moreiras-Menor and Tierney, among others, as well as the flourishing of the first private television networks in Spain in the 1990s. Summarised in the market-driven maxim of Professor Castro on the film industry, to provide viewers literally with what they most desire to see, programming in commercial television is largely dependent upon the number of viewers in a given audience share, supported by advertising spots (see Maxwell 1995). It is no surprise that Amenábar closes the film, then, with a sequence of images from a fictitious sensationalist news show, Justice and Law, whose anchor summarises the ‘unbelievable’ and ‘macabre’ story of gruesome murders of disappeared girls found on tape. Framing for her audience that it is ‘not easy for us to show these images,’ the anchor both conditions the viewer’s expectations before seeing the footage (‘and now, the images you’ve been waiting for’) and justifies the broadcast as ‘a document by itself’, unmediated and lacking critical analysis. In this final sequence, the camera shows Chema and Ángela walking through the hallway of a hospital, interspersed with images of patients fixated on the same television broadcast, a suggestive critique of a greater social desire to view violence in televised media, which is not altogether unique to Spain.5 Keeping in mind the film’s potential to question intimacy, vigilance, and the increasingly blurry distinction between the public and private – a more subtle gesture than the explicit nature of extreme violence in the film’s exploration of snuff – one could conclude in this final scene that Amenábar proposes a greater social critique of the production of and desire to consume images in a market-driven economy that jettisons ethical considerations in favour of audience share or box office revenue. In other words, the viewing audience most desires to consume, with morbid fascination, not only violence but voyeurism in which private matters are made public – the form of television programming that defines sensationalist news media and the gossip varieties of popular talk shows that turn the intimate details of private lives into spectacle-driven commodities for mass consumption. After all, perhaps summarised most disturbingly for the film’s viewers, when Ángela kisses the television screen, her secret desire for the assassin is only made public, terrifyingly and intriguingly so for the viewing audience, when caught on tape.
1. As Cristina Moreiras-Menor argues, ‘Lejos … de ser una película que trabaja exclusivamente en torno a la mirada fascinada del sujeto contemporáneo hacia la violencia, Tesis va más allá al exponer tanto su razón, la espectacularización masiva e indiferencia de la realidad, como su origen, la formación del sujeto y la manipulación de su mirada a la realidad a partir de procesos simbólicos de educación asentados fundamentalmente en estructuras de poder (institucionalizadas) que privilegian la espectacularización consumista del lado más sórdido de la naturaleza humana y social’ [Far … from being a film that works exclusively around the fascinated gaze of the contemporary subject towards violence, Tesis goes beyond this to expose both its raison d’être, mass spectacularization and indifference towards reality, and its origin, the formation of the subject and manipulation of the subject’s view of reality from symbolic processes of education seated fundamentally in (institutionalized) structures of power that privilege consumerist spectacularization of human and social nature’s most sordid side.] (Moreiras-Menor 2002: 260).
2. See Dolores Tierney, ‘The Appeal of the Real in Snuff: Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis (“Thesis”)’, Spectator – The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 2002, pp. 45–55.
3. As Amenábar notes, ‘opté por el camino opuesto, mirando hacia el otro lado, a la cara de los actores, jugando con la proyección psicológica del espectador, con lo que no está viendo, con lo que se está imaginando’ [I chose the opposite route, looking the other way, at the actors’ faces, playing with the psychological projection of the viewer, with what one is not seeing, with what one is imagining.] (Marchante 2002: 59).
4. See Dominique Russell, ‘Sounds like Horror: Alejandro Amenábar’s Thesis on AudioVisual Violence’, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 81–95.
5. See Jason E. Klodt, ‘En el fondo te gusta: Titillation, Desire, and the Spectator’s Gaze in Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2007, pp. 3–17.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Spain. Production Company: Las Producciones del Escorpión and SOGEPAQ. Director: Alejandro Amenábar. Executive producers: José Luis Cuerda and Emiliano Otegui. Screenwriters: Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil. Cinematographer: Hans Burmann. Music: Alejandro Amenábar and Mariano Marín. Editor: María Elena Sáinz de Rozas. Cast: Ana Torrent (Ángela), Fele Martínez (Chema), Eduardo Noriega (Bosco Herranz), Xabier Elorriaga (Castro), Miguel Picazo (Figueroa), Nieves Herranz (Sena), Rosa Campillo (Yolanda).]
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Steven Marsh and Parvati Nair (eds), Gender and Spanish Cinema, Oxford and New York, Berg, 2004.
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Richard Maxwell, The Spectacle of Democracy: Spanish Television, Nationalism, and Political Transition, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minneapolis Press, 1995.
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The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.