September 19, 2011

El Deseo en Otoño (1972)

While better known for his remarkable output in the horror genre (particularly 1968's "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" and 1969's "El Libro de Piedra"), Mexican filmmaker Carlos Enrique Taboada tackled a wide variety of themes and genres in his several contributions to Mexican cinema, both as a writer and as a director. Nevertheless, these ventures outside of the horror genre were rarely as successful as his famous "Gothic horror cycle", and would make a pretty good argument to state that the quality of Taboada's filmmaking depended on how interested was the director in the movie's theme. Two good examples of this are a couple of films Taboada made for veteran producer Alfonso Rosas Priego in 1972, "El Arte de Engañar" and "El Deseo en Otoño", two dramas with thriller elements that showcase the best and the worst of Taboada's style. Of the two, "El Deseo en Otoño" is the most successful, as even when it wasn't written by Taboada, it contains several common elements in Taboada's filmography: revenge, suspense and a not-so subtle lesbian subtext.

In "El Deseo en Otoño" (literally "The Desire in Autumn"), Maricruz Olivier plays Elena, a high school teacher who has spent the majority of her adult life taking care of her ill mother (Pilar Sen). A victim of her mother's manipulation, Elena has never pursued any romantic relationship, influenced by her mother's distrust towards every male. Her only friend is Clara (Sonia Furió), a fellow teacher who has secret passionate feelings towards Elena. One day Elena's mother dies, leaving Elena the enormous amount of money that she had secretly amassed. Now a millionaire, Elena invites Clara to live with her, hoping to avoid the feeling of loneliness that her mother's dead has brought. Clara delightfully agrees, and promptly moves with her beloved Elena, who remains oblivious to the feelings Clara has for her. The school's principal, Don Esteban (Enrique Pontón), suggest Elena to take a vacation, and she decides to visit Acapulco on her own. To Clara's surprise, Elena returns from Acapulco married to a mysterious man, Víctor (Guillermo Murray), an event that prompts in Clara great feelings of jealousy, worsened by her suspicions about Víctor's true intentions.

"El Deseo en Otoño" is atypical amongst Taboada's films because it wasn't written by him, but instead it was adapted to the screen by writer Toni Sbert from a story by popular soap opera writer Fernanda Villeli. The story does have many elements in common with soap operas, particularly a plot filled with several unexpected twists and a narrative structure that feels a tad episodic. In a quite interesting fashion, the story shifts tone and atmosphere, moving progressively from what initially seems to be a melodramatic character-study to a tragic tale of jealousy, which later ends up transformed into a darker suspense thriller in the vein of Hitchcock's "Suspicion" (an obvious major inspiration for the last third of the film). Writer Toni Sbert unfolds the story slowly, probably too slowly for its own good; though he succeeds in keeping things interesting until the end.

Director Carlos Enrique Taboada helms "El Deseo en Otoño" with his usual fluid narrative style and efficient craftsmanship. As written above, the story enters progressively into darker territories, and certainly the film could be divided in two well-defined segments: first Elena's emancipation and eventual discovery of love, and later Clara's schemes and Elena's growing suspicions about Víctor's past. While during the first half Taboada develops his film in a pretty standard fashion (to the point that it even gets dull at times), it's on the second half where Taboada seems right at home as suspicion, mystery and double crossing become the focal point of the film. If Taboada's take on romance is dull and passionless, his take on suspense is undoubtedly powerful and chilling. It's clear where Taboada's interests are, he handles the mystery about Víctor's intentions with great care and tact. Despite the poor job cinematographer Raúl Domínguez does in the film, Taboada manages to create a pretty good oppressive atmosphere inside Elena's house, reflecting the oppressive life that Elena seems to choose for herself. First under her mother's influence, and later under Clara's and Víctor's.

The cast is for the most part good, and at least the actors in the lead roles make great jobs in their performances. Actress Maricruz Olivier, who had previously worked with Taboada in "Hasta el viento tienemiedo", creates an interesting and vivid character in Elena. Certainly, the role is thinly-developed as an archetypal victim, but Olivier adds a good mix of sweetness and strength that benefits her character a lot, particularly in the last half. As the suave and mysterious Víctor, Guillermo Murray is pretty effective, and manages to keep a good balance between genuinely charming and disturbingly annoying, which make perfectly believable the suspicions that Clara and Elena have about his role. Finally, Sonia Furió is remarkable as Clara, the jealous friend of Elena who secretly longs for her in a romantic way. The way she handles Clara's romantic disappointment is a classy display of subtlety.

The rest of the cast is unfortunately pretty poor, with the worst offenders being young cast members Silvia Mariscal and Juan Peláez, who play Elena's worst students in a films' subplot. Their performances are truly weak, looking artificial and forced in their roles. Along Raúl Domínguez' already mentioned work of cinematography, Mariscal and Peláez' work ranks high amongst the film's biggest problems. However, the main problem in "El Deseo en Otoño" is perhaps the director's apparent lack of interest in the initial half of the story. While the second half is filled with interesting twists and culminates in one of Taboada's grimmest finales, the whole build up for this is done in a terribly dull and boring way that's closer to the worst vices of Mexican television of the time, only saved from its tedium by the quite interesting addition of Clara as a complex lesbian figure. The abysmal difference between both halves is unfortunate, as while the second half is truly a masterful display of a director handling suspense at its most Hitchcocknian, one has to endure the terrible dullness of the first half to enjoy it.

Certainly "El Deseo en Otoño", or "The Desire in Autumn" is far from being one of Taboada's best films but, despite its notorious problems (made worse by the obvious low production values), the film has enough elements of interest to be worth a look. The last half of the film alone is a nicely constructed piece of suspense, and a pretty good homage to Hitchcock. If one forgives the staggering dullness of its first half, "El Deseo en Otoño" proves to be an actually intense and rewarding thriller that showcases the visual talents of Taboada. While not Taboada's best work, "El Deseo en Otoño" isn't really a bad film after all.


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