At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Álex de la Iglesia’s circus of horrors.
There’s something inherently odd about the whole clown thing. I can’t easily think of another social phenomenon which engenders such a divided response, or that is given to more opposing representations. On the one hand, clowns are regarded as a perfectly acceptable form of humorous children’s entertainment, while on the other they are understandably viewed with suspicion; creepy, masked individuals of dubious motivation and livelihood. Spanish surrealist horror-thriller The Last Circus, from writer-director Álex de la Iglesia (Day of the Beast, Ferpect Crime), trades on both these extremities as it presents its tale of a sad clown who couldn’t seem to escape his fate.
The film’s prologue places us in 1930s Spain where, in light of the impending World War, Franco is attempting to crush all rebellion against his regime. Caught up in the midst of this struggle is the little circus where our story begins. A young boy, Javier, is separated from his father, the troupe’s happy face clown, who is imprisoned as a rebel. On a prison visit, when asked by his papa what he intends to be when he grows up, Javier replies (predictably) that like his father, and his father’s father before him, he desires to be a happy face clown. In a particularly cold scene, the father quashes that hope, informing his bewildered son that he will only ever be able to be a sad face clown—the undervalued sidekick who cops the short end of the stick—due to all the suffering he has experienced, and informs him that, strangely, revenge may be his only escape from this fate. Jump forward 17 years or so, and Javier (Carlos Areces) is all grown up and about to start his first role as a sad face clown in a small local troupe. (Replete with sad little trumpet, which is an on-going motif. In fact, the Spanish title of the film literally translates as Sad Trumpet Ballad.) Before long, things turn ugly as a love triangle (of sorts) develops, setting Javier at odds with his happy face clown boss Sergio, who, offstage, is a violent sadistic maniac. Unfortunately, Sergio also happens to be the circus’s biggest draw card: because, you know, the kids can’t go past a happy clown heaping amusing misfortune upon his sad-faced friend. The following hour then careens off the sane path into the depraved mind of a writer-director for who self-mutilation, crazed animals, and giant statues seem to abound.
I have to state it plainly: The Last Circus is my kind of messed up! I find Iglesia’s handling of the horror elements, though not geared toward out and out scares (i.e. in the vein of The Innkeepers), to be inventive and original. The filmmaker tries his hand at a multitude of ideas and manages to make most of them work. Only a few come off as clunky or lame. He even gave me one of the most spontaneous laugh-out-loud moments of this festival, for which I am extremely grateful.
The lead trio give appropriately odd, and occasionally over the top turns, as they sachet their way around the bizarre dialogue and dog legged narrative. The lighting, sound design, and soundtrack are all standout; carefully engineered, together they contribute significantly to the demented tone of the film and hence to it’s success. I am not the only person to note a Gilliamesque quality to Iglesia’s work in this film. Aside from the more generically recognisable costuming and makeup styles—think less CGI, more surrealist theatricality à la Munchausen and Gilliam’s failed Quixote attempt—Javier repeatedly experiences dream-like visions of his paramour, evoking the ‘angelic’ visions which visit Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry character throughout Brazil. In both cases these idealised, somewhat removed personages act as catalysts, calling our protagonists forward when their spirits flag, or their given task seems all but hopeless. And whereas Gilliam tends to meditate on the socio-political issues, Iglesia, though not completely ignoring the more serious themes, focuses more on using such narrative features as pure genre tools. And he does so to great effect, driving his characters forward through a series of bizarre narrative turns, and onwards to a dark but smartly satisfying conclusion. The Last Circus is genre cinema (horror/pulp) that reaches beyond its recognised bounds and presents something both true to form and refreshingly original. If you can handle the gore, this is one not to miss.