Reviewed by Will Robinson Sheff, Fri., Aug. 2, 2002
THE RED SQUIRREL (1993)
D: Julio Medem; Emma Suárez, Nancho Novo, María Barranco, Karra Elejalde, Carmelo Gómez. The films of Basque director Julio Medem derive a heady power from their constant proximity to the melodramatic, the grandiose, and even, at times, the downright ridiculous. As with Leos Carax or Harmony Korine, the dead-serious notion of cinema as a kind of visual alchemy pervades everything Medem does, which means that when he fails -- as he does often, and with naked abandon -- he provokes unintentional titters. When Medem succeeds, though, his films overwhelm, like a head rush or a hallucination. The director's second feature, The Red Squirrel (Medem's fifth -- Sex and Lucía -- opens this week at the Dobie), is perhaps his most uneven work; its hackneyed plot points, strained symmetries, and abrupt explosions of incongruous violence and humor threaten to derail the entire movie at any given moment. But Medem manages to fashion around these flaws a darkly sensual love story that -- like Lynch's Mulholland Drive -- miraculously transmutes a fairly standard-issue head-bonk-amnesia tale into a vertiginous (à la Hitchcock) plummet into the deep waters where identities mingle and unspeakable truths perpetually threaten to surface. Also like Mulholland Drive, The Red Squirrel's most compelling moments come from an ominously slow unraveling of the secrets of its central characters -- a beautiful and mysterious amnesiac (Suárez) and a suicidally depressed musician (Novo) who, on an impulse, passes himself off as her lover -- as they hide, in a dusty Spanish campground, from the world outside and from the violent pursuit of the amnesiac's husband. Rather than gradually answering the audience's questions about the identities of these two lovers, Medem lets these questions slowly resonate, rhyme, and intertwine -- punctuated by dream sequences, spiritual visions, and sudden shifts (and fusing) of perspective -- allowing his film to hypnotize itself into a fugue locked obsessively around the motifs of love, lust, and loss. Inevitably, Medem's third-act attempt to tie up the film's loose ends (rather than gleefully Cuisinart them into oblivion, as Lynch opts with his amnesia story) causes some of The Red Squirrel's mystery to evaporate -- but not before leaving behind a residue of dread and wonder that remains long after all "explanation" is ostensibly over.