If the Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider characters from 1972’s Last Tango in Paris had both lived and carried on with their sexual shenanigans into old age, the result might have been something like Devil Between the Legs. Running a great risk of slipping off the high wire into the ludicrous, the offensive or simply something you just don’t really want to be watching, veteran Mexican director Arturo Ripstein has instead pulled off something rather extraordinary: a startling, confident, complex and entirely bold dive into the compulsions behind senescent eroticism that’s nearly as explicit as the Bertolucci pic and perhaps more psychologically penetrating.
It’s impossible to imagine who the intended audience for this stunningly shot black-and-white film might be — there’s no known demographic for it — but specialists sensitive to bold handling of tricky material, voluptuously fluid mise-en-scene and experiencing something you’ve never seen on film before might want to track this down, even if it’s hard to imagine where it might ever turn up.
For that matter, it’s been difficult for Americans to follow Ripstein’s career much at all. The 76-year-old helmer has made 29 films, beginning with Tiempo de Morir in 1966, and his best-known films are probably Deep Crimson and No One Writes to the Colonel. His one English-language outing with big names, Foxtrot, with Peter O’Toole and Charlotte Rampling in 1976, did nothing for any of the participants’ reputations.
But like Luis Bunuel, who made his final film in Mexico just as Ripstein was making his first, the latter here reveals a daring streak of controlled perversity that he applies with extreme precision to this story of an aged, physically sagging couple compelled to carry on with their erotic roundelay no matter how restricted their physical abilities may be. That the director manages to sustain not only interest but tension over nearly two-and-a-half hours is an impressive feat of endurance all its own.
Working as usual with his scenarist wife Paz Alicia Garciadiego and with lead actors with whom he’s collaborated before, Sylvia Pasquel and Alejandro Suarez, Ripstein here dares to go where few have trod before, that being the very specific erotic impulses — and activities — of a couple in their 70s. And these are not Hollywood-style glamor-pusses: Both Beatriz (Sylvia Pasquel) and her husband, simply referred to as the Old Man (Alejandro Suarez), are dumpy, unkempt, decidedly unalluring figures past the point where anyone else is likely to check them out.
But while they might not resemble anyone you’d ever particularly want to watch getting it on, and sizeable “Visible Man”-type models of the male and female anatomies flank the bed, there is nonetheless a certain fascination to their physical interactions, and we don’t have to wait long to witness them. Given their age and condition, conventional coupling is not the order of the day, but there is plenty of feeling and groping and, after a fashion, pleasuring going on that stops just short of being explicit. They don’t do anything you’re likely to try at home anytime soon, in any event.
The atmosphere of the house is markedly in sync with the deteriorating physical condition of the couple. They shamble from room to room (Beatriz has her own quarters for sleeping purposes), the Old Man sneaks into Beatriz’s room to photograph her derriere and fondle her bra when she’s sleeping, but then insults her by calling her a “wilting flower” when she wakes up.
A third party joins them in the morning, a diminutive young maid named Dinorah (Greta Cervantes), who’s been with them long enough to know all their dirty secrets. For his part, the Old Man maintains a slightly younger mistress, while Beatriz goes out for tango lessons where she’s paired with a similarly less aged teacher/partner (Daniel Gimenez Cacho).
But the ramifications of these liaisons take their own sweet time to percolate. The weird dynamics of the couple unfold and complicate at their own gradual speed: We learn their preferences and psychological quirks, grow to understand why they stick together rather than having separated long ago and see that the ways they can grate on and repel one another go hand-in-hand with the ways they mutually, and perversely, gratify.
You’d think that, after a while, the entrenched and sometimes filthy habits of the couple would becomes tiresome at best and disgusting at worst. But so deeply have Ripstein and Garciadiego conceived and rendered these difficult but credibly complex creatures that you’re willing to go wherever they take you, which in this case is into the often inscrutable realms where attraction and repulsion, love and hate and, most of all, complete capitulation to the idea that you’re entirely known by someone else, makes any pretense to the contrary impossible. That is, until it isn’t.
What elevates Devil Between the Legs from the psycho-sexually provocative into something artistically quite a bit more than that is the way it’s shot. Alejandro Cantu, whose career as a cinematographer in Mexico goes back to 1992, has implemented a visual approach for Ripstein that is seamlessly voyeuristic without ever seeming to be so; the camera quietly and entirely unostentatiously just keeps moving, going exactly where you want and need it to go; it’s prying and voyeuristic without ever so much as announcing its presence for virtuoso effect. His achievement here is a pinnacle of mobile, always-on-the-move cinematography that never calls attention to itself because it’s always exactly, and discreetly, in the right place.
Similarly beyond criticism are the all-in performances by Pasquel and Suarez. Displaying their bodies in all their decrepitude demands an audacious lack of preciousness to begin with, and there is a considerable amount of intimate business involving bodily functions and base-line vanity that demands respect from the viewer for having been conquered.
Beyond that, however, are the emotional gradations and age-related openness that can go over the line toward outright meanness, factors that play a significant part in the surprising denouement. Emotionally, psychologically and sexually, what’s onscreen, for all its oddness, is entirely credible.
Another key contribution comes from the estimable American composer David Mansfield, who has worked on several previous Ripstein films and here makes tremendously effective use of a very simple version of Friedrich Hollaender’s 1930 classic “Falling in Love Again” from The Blue Angel.
Production companies: Alebrije Cine Y Video, Carnaval Films, Oberon
Cast: Sylvia Pasquel, Alejandro Suarez, Greta Cervantes, Daniel Gimenez Cacho
Director: Arturo Ripstein
Screenwriter: Paz Alicia Garciadiego
Producers: Monica Lozano, Miguel Neocoechea
Director of photography: Alejandro Cantu
Production designer: Alejandro Garcia
Editor: Mariana Rodriguez
Music: David Mansfield
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Masters)