The Quiet Genius of Victor Erice

By Geoff Andrew

spirit-of-the-beehive-victor-erice-1.jpgThe Spirit of the Beehive, 1973

“The music that I like best is the sound produced by the editing of all the images. The rhythm of the images has a music of its own and that’s much more difficult than just placing music on top of a film.”

Victor Erice makes (or has been able to make) films so rarely, he is in danger of becoming one of contemporary cinema’s forgotten masters – shamefully, he wasn’t even given an entry in the most recent edition of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. But with the recent Lifeline, his at once typically modest but magisterial contribution to the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older – The Trumpet, Erice gently but very effectively reminded the world that while his output may be far from prolific – two shorts and three features in 35 years – he remains one of the very finest film-makers around today. He’s proof that you needn’t shout to be heard; there is something magnificently human not only about the concerns of his work but also about its tone and scale. Like Kiarostami, Malick, Angelopoulos, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jarmusch and our own Terence Davies, he is one of the contemporary cinema’s most eloquent poets; his films are simple in terms of story but enormously rich and subtle in meaning and resonance. Ravishing in their painterly precision, illuminating in their exact evocation of time and place, philosophically contemplative yet profoundly compassionate, they are cinematic gems to treasure: multi-faceted, exquisitely beautiful reflections of the world as seen by a truly distinctive artist.

quince-tree-sun-victor-erice-1.jpgThe Quince Tree Sun, 1992

What follows is an edited version of an on-stage interview that took place at the National Film Theatre on 2 September, 2003.

Geoff Andrew: You don’t make many films. Why did you make your latest, Lifeline?

Victor Erice: The producers of Ten Minutes Older approached me, their only stipulations being that the film must not last longer than ten minutes, and that its main theme should be ‘time and the expression of time’. That’s what inspired me to make the film.

GA: Can you talk about this theme? It’s something dealt with in all your films to date.

VE: Films are inherently full of time, especially if you compare their language to that of other art forms. The concept of time and its duration: film is obviously best equipped to express that. Naturally all art forms have expressed time in one way or another, but none has managed to contain it – as a bowl can contain water – as film has managed to do.

GA: Another theme clearly relates closely to your own life: the film’s set in the part of Northern Spain you were born in, and in June 1940 when you were born. How autobiographical is the film?

VE: I try not to indulge too much in autobiographical aspects. I shouldn’t like my work to be looked at only from that point of view; if it were, I’d consider it a failure. I aim for more universal points of reference than just my own story, because I consider myself an ordinary person. Nevertheless, there are inevitably some autobiographical aspects because the theme of time – at least as it was proposed to me by the producers of this compilation – is a very abstract, philosophical thing. We don’t know – I especially think that I don’t know – what time really is. So I have tried to make it concrete, to fill it out with something more solid, by trying to give the images a sort of documentary feel. For instance, there are no professional actors in it: each one of those people I cast was from the village where we made the film. Also, of course, it was nourished by the memories that came down to me, via my parents, of my own birth.

GA: Why did you make it in black and white? All your other films have been in colour.

VE: Good question. I actually shot it in colour. The colour was very beautiful. But I realised that the image of blood in modern cinema, with all its special effects… that image is somehow so strong, or totalitarian, in contemporary cinema, that in colour the blood became completely banal and just lost whatever quality of expression I was trying to achieve. The cameraman kept saying the film looked very beautiful, but I was never trying to achieve a beauty of the image: I was aiming for the beauty of truth. I always take as my motto what Robert Bresson said: you don’t have to make images that are beautiful, you have to make images that are necessary. And Bresson is a filmmaker who was, first of all, a painter.

quince-tree-sun-victor-erice-2.jpgThe Quince Tree Sun, 1992 

GA: Actually, you were a film critic yourself and have always been a cinephile. What attracted you to cinema in the first place? When did you become interested in films?

VE: It’s difficult to say. I don’t feel that I chose films; they chose me. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. During my childhood, films had a fundamental importance. In a country which, in the 1940s especially, was still very isolated from the rest of the world and marked by the Civil War, films offered me an extraordinary possibility to be a citizen of the world.

GA: And did you always want to make films? You became a critic quite young…

VE: It was an evolution; I became conscious of that desire when I was about 19. You don’t choose to be a film director when you’re little; you’d be a little monster! Also, do remember that nobody chooses the object of their love.

GA: You wrote with great sensitivity and love about the work of Nicholas Ray, von Sternberg, Dreyer and others. With the possible exception of Dreyer, your own films don’t seem to exist in quite the same universe as those of some of the people you admired. But do you yourself feel there’s a continuity between the films you advocated and the films you make?

VE: Whenever I hear somebody talk in these terms, I can’t recognise myself; I find it hard to place myself in the history of cinema. In fact, I probably consider myself a better spectator than director. But I realise my view of what a spectator is differs from that held by most producers. For me, every spectator’s a potential filmmaker; also, of course, without the spectator, the films have no meaning, no reason to exist. So I continue to go to see films wherever I can. I suppose I could say that cinema has helped me to live.

GA: Let’s move on to The Spirit of the Beehive, in which you actually include shots from a Hollywood film, James Whale’s Frankenstein [1931], but do so for metaphorical purposes. You seem to like using metaphor in your work.

VE: As a child, I watched a lot of Hollywood movies; that was what we could see. So I was able to enjoy an extraordinary period for American films. I now realise that as a child I watched films which I considered masterpieces then and which I still consider masterpieces today. So even before I knew Frankenstein was the product of the imagination of Mary Shelley, even before I read the book, I saw the film: for me, Boris Karloff is Frankenstein. In other words, the myths we absorb in childhood remain with us forever.

But inevitably we grow up, and one day as an adolescent I went into a cinema and saw a film made about five years earlier but only projected in Spain belatedly: de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves [1948]. I was deeply moved by it and, at 12 or 13, realised there was a whole side to cinema I’d had no idea about. For the first time I saw realism in cinema: faces like those I saw in the street, situations I could recognise. So that’s probably the point where I left innocence behind for a more conscious approach to cinema. I became a desperate cinephile, went to all the cine clubs. And I came to understand that films were not just for fun, they could also be an act of resistance. Then when I went to university in Madrid, I had another important experience with another Italian film. Someone had managed to get hold of a film from the airport for just a few hours; it was one of the films banned in the Franco era – Rossellini’s Rome, Open City [1945]. It was screened secretly in a projection booth for 20 people. And it was a radical experience for me, not only because of the quality of the film itself, but because of what we were living through under Franco. It confirmed my feeling that a film could be an act of resistance, and I ‘m deeply indebted to that experience. In my own way I try to continue to resist and use film in that way.

south-victor-erice-1.jpgThe South, 1983

GA: Why did you show the pain of a family scarred by the Civil War through the eyes of a small child?

VE: How do you arrive at a story? Chance intervenes. I believe a great deal in chance. I’d received a proposal to make a film about Frankenstein, but actually in that genre. It was to be a completely commercial project. I was desperate to make my first film and I’m very obedient, so I started writing a conventional Frankenstein movie. But then chance intervened in my favour because that kind of film needs a lot of sets, and well-known actors, and the producer had to admit he didn’t have enough funds. So I then proposed a Spanish version of Frankenstein – not so extravagant, without big sets, only four weeks filming. He liked that idea. But now I found myself with a major problem. I wasn’t sure what to do. On my work desk I had a picture I saw every day, which I’d cut out, from Whale’s Frankenstein: the moment when the monster and the child are together. Then I realised that everything I needed was there in that image. So I called upon my own personal experiences. But I felt that the identification with the child – and with the film – would be far greater if the child was a girl. And so gradually the story began to unfold.

GA: Another thing immediately obvious about this film is the visual style, meticulously beautiful and very like the paintings of Vermeer or Velazquez. How do you approach imagery? Do you storyboard or plan a lot in advance?

VE: I believe very much in the experience of the present. I don’t consider myself an intellectual. What I’ve done has always come from experience. I believe in the less conscious – in other words, the subconscious or unconscious – experiences and feelings that gradually build up in our minds without our being too aware of them. The problem in art isn’t just about having ideas, but about how to express them, give them body and life. Obviously, in Spirit… my love of painting comes out. I went to Madrid to study and take advantage of things only available in that city: in 1957 there were more than 200 cinemas there, and the Prado Museum. I probably spent more time in cinemas and the Prado than in my classes.

GA: I’d like to move on to The South, which is quite wonderful, and seems totally coherent, yet was actually never finished. You weren’t allowed to shoot everything you wanted to, and part of the story isn’t there. Was that a very painful experience for you?

VE: Yes, it was very painful for the film itself, but of course for filmmakers this is quite common. Shooting was interrupted for financial reasons. That apart, the production went well, and even in the state it’s in, the film had a lot of commercial and critical success, especially in Spain. It should have been one hour longer, though many critics applauded the fact that the south – of Spain – was never actually seen. My taste’s a little more commonplace: I wanted to show it, especially as I was born in the north but have lived for many years further south. This was a wonderful opportunity to have north and south coming together in the film: it was a metaphor for the divisions that became apparent in the Civil War and also for the divisions in an individual who can’t reconcile two aspects of his own being.

The father in The South is divided between two loves: his romantic passion and his mundane life with his wife. He wants to go to the south but never manages to go. He never manages to get on the train, he returns home, and he dies. But in a sense he leaves a mandate because, when he’s about to die, he leaves under his daughter’s pillow a symbol of communion. So it’s as if his last impulse is to provoke the daughter to make the trip he was never able to make – and so she does what he could never do.

In the part that was never filmed, the girl does reach Andalusia, where her father was born and spent his childhood, so it completed the story of her father’s death. In this way she was able to reconcile herself with the image of her father. This was the original dynamic of the film. As it is now, the girl is still under the weight of the pain, whereas the visit to the south was to bring redemption and she would become an adult. I can’t say it would have been a happy film, but there would have been energy and vitality.

GA: In this film they watch an amusing melodrama, Flor en la Sombre. Unlike Frankenstein you made it yourself: was an attempt to make a little von Sternberg film?

VE: It’s a fragment, but I had a lot of fun doing it. There are influences of von Sternberg in the lighting. I was a great admirer, especially in my twenties; he is the master of cinematic flamboyance.

south-victor-erice-2.jpgThe South, 1983

GA: You also had fun making The Quince Tree Sun [1991], which has some very funny moments but is very different. It’s sort of a documentary about the artist Antonio López, who spends so long painting a quince tree in his garden – he’s a perfectionist – that he’s unable to finish it, because time has its way with the tree, and it changes. It’s a fine portrait of López – but also, perhaps, a self-portrait of a meticulous person?

VE: I have this reputation, but I’m far less of a perfectionist than Antonio. Perhaps there’s an autobiographical aspect in that we experience life in a similar way and have similar obsessions. But in any case, these are the great themes of Spanish Baroque art: the passing of time, dreams, decadence, childhood.

GA: It’s a special film because it is a documentary, but he is very aware of the fact that you are there all the time. It’s not like a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Did you sometimes say to him, ‘What are we going to do today? Where would you like me to put the camera?’

VE: We didn’t actually talk very much at all. Remember that the task of a painter is a solitary process, totally in contrast to a filmmaker. Time, too, is different for a painter; he has his own time and so can use it with impunity. But for the filmmaker, it’s closer to an industrial process. He’s surrounded by people and doesn’t have the privilege of individual time. It’s collective time and counted out in pennies. I was aware that our presence – the cameras, sound people and so forth – was modifying both the way Antonio could work and his private experience with the tree he was painting. Though I tried to respect as much as possible this relationship between painter and tree – obviously very mysterious, and something which I tried to express at the end of the film – I felt that the crew, while we were only six, could not but interfere in some way. This is why I showed a film camera at the end, to show my work-tool, as it were. I even insinuate that it is our artificial lighting rotting the fruit on the tree.

I feel that the language of painting belongs to the dawn of our time and civilisation, and, in a similar way, cinema belongs to its sunset. On the whole, cinema has a youthful image, but in fact I think it’s exactly the opposite. Once I was speaking with Antonio. ‘Have you seen,’ I said to him, ‘how quickly the cinema has become old? Like a child that has become prematurely old, in only one hundred years it has covered a huge amount of ground, which it’s taken other arts centuries and centuries to achieve.’ Then Antonio replied, and it’s something I’ll never forget: ‘Ah, but you see, cinema was born when man was already very old.’

An Open Window: The Cinema of Victor Erice [Scarecrow Press, ed. Linda C. Ehrlich, 2000] is an excellent book of essays and interviews on Erice’s work.

Geoff Andrew is Senior Film Editor at Time Out London and programmes the National Film Theatre. He has published a number of books on cinema, including a study of the films of Nicholas Ray, to be republished by the BFI in January 2004