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Goya in Bordeaux

Director: Carlos Saura
Cast: Francisco Rabal, José Coronado, Daphne Fernández, Maribel Verdú

(Sony Pictures Classics; 2000)

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Carlos Saura’s Goya in Bordeaux begins inside a nineteenth century slaughterhouse. As the camera pans over the red dirt of the abattoir’s floor, the first discernable image that greets the audience is a severed cow’s head. The skinned and gutted body to which this head presumably once belonged appears next, dragged by an unseen force slowly over the dirt until it is suspended in mid-air by a series of pulleys. As the camera focuses on the hanging carcass, closing in on the viscera that still lines the dead cow’s body cavity, you could swear, in the folds of bloody tissue, there appears the hint of a human face. This suspicion is confirmed by the film’s quick dissolve to the aged, wrinkled visage of the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya (Francisco Rabal).


That we first find the protagonist in the entrails of a dead cow is a fitting introduction to Goya in Bordeaux. Though an accomplished engraver, cartoonist, and portrait artist, Goya is better known for the more disturbing pieces he created toward the end of his career. One of Goya’s most famous paintings, entitled “Saturn Devouring one of his Children,” graphically represents the mythic deity’s cannibalism with a wide-eyed, ragged, and naked figure shoving a small, bloody body into his cavernous maw. After being stricken suddenly and irrevocably deaf by a sudden illness in 1793, Goya produced a series of charcoal sketches (known as his “caprichos,” or “whims”) that were populated with grotesque figures of witches, demons, and other nonhuman forms. That Goya’s works, frequently considered dark and disconcerting to many, continue to challenge the sensibilities of modern audiences is a testament to his radical imagination.


While the life of this provocative artist — one of the first painters in Catholic Spain to produce a nude — spanned more that eighty years of tumultuous Spanish history (1746-1828), the film is not concerned with representing the historic and biographical details of Goya’s life; rather Goya in Bordeaux favors emulating his bizarre, unsettling visions through its own emphasis on distorted and unusual visual imagery — piecing together bizarre and elaborately staged scenes — rather than rendering a more intelligible portrait of this innovative figure.


A perfect example of the film’s preference for form over content lies in its narrative technique, or lack thereof. Goya in Bordeaux is structured according to the random flights of memory suffered by the 82-year-old artist while in exile in France. The film begins with the disoriented Goya awoken from sleep, not knowing where he is or why. As he wanders around his bedroom in a confused trance, the walls change from a floral pattern to bright white to somber blue to a garish red. This trick is performed using long screens in place of walls, upon which various patterns are projected to convey the changing moods of the aged protagonist. While these innovative set changes do a good job of communicating the scattered mind of the artist, they quickly become distracting and leave the viewer unable to piece together any meaningful details of Goya’s life.


The elements of Goya’s biography included in the film are piecemeal and fragmented. Goya was known to be an outspoken critic of war, evidenced by many of his paintings, most famously “The Third of May,” which details the horrific execution of Spanish citizens at the hands of French soldiers during the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain from 1808-1814. Despite the obvious anti-war, anti-French sentiment of the work, Goya served as a commissioned painter in the court of the French-backed ruler of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte.


This seeming contradiction is not fleshed out in Goya in Bordeaux and, like so many details of his life, becomes disregarded in favor of a more esoteric expression of the artist’s vision. Similarly, his doomed affair with the Duchess of Alba (Maribel Verdú), and her subsequent poisoning through court intrigue, is retold in brief, interrupted segments, both through flashbacks of a younger Goya (José Coronado) and paintings of the Duchess that come clumsily to life. Neither technique offers much in the way of a substantial glance at Goya’s forbidden romance, depicting the Duchess as a dark, alluring object of Goya’s extra-marital fascination but never quite explaining the extent of the couple’s relationship or why it ended so disastrously.


While Goya in Bordeaux should be applauded for breaking from the stale conventions of narrative and image in cinematic biography, it does so in a manner that garbles meaning and smacks of “art for art’s sake.” The film plods along under the weight of its own artistic apparatus until the viewer is less consumed with the biography and more annoyed at the tedium suffered in the retelling. Goya’s life, so full of intrigue and contradiction, is rendered in such a disaffected, self-indulgent fashion that it becomes utterly disaffecting. Thus it came as no surprise when I overheard the most pointed commentary on the film about halfway through the screening: the sound of snoring.

Tobias Peterson served as PopMatters' Sport Editors and columnist (From the Cheap Seats). He holds an MA in English Literature (with a concentration in Cultural Studies) from George Mason University, where he studied representations of race in professional basketball.


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