Why Spaniards make good bad guys: Sergi Lopez and the Persistence of the Black Legend in contemporary European cinema.
The following discussion of these films will be twofold. First, I will offer a brief synthesis of some of the roots and ramifications of cultural prejudice as it has manifested itself over several centuries of European cultural production. In particular, I offer a brief introduction to the Black Legend, which David J. Weber defines as the "inherited... view that Spaniards were unusually cruel, avaricious, treacherous, fanatical, superstitious, cowardly, corrupt, decadent, indolent, and authoritarian" (qtd. in Griffin 105). Second, I shall analyze Harry and Dirty Pretty Things in terms of these films' noteworthy focalizations on the Spanish-ness of the villain, played in both cases by Sergi Lopez. By looking at the production and articulation of Lopez's star persona, I hope to clarify how Lopez has embedded himself "in the imaginary and real social construct that is Spain and the world's view of Spain" (Perriam 10), and how the Black Legend continues to perpetuate itself in contemporary European cinema.
On the Persistence of the Black Legend
Before discussing in detail Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, it will be useful to trace briefly the historical cultural construction of the Black Legend that has persisted in various forms for over five hundred years. The leyenda negra, or Black Legend, is a term coined by the Spanish journalist Julian Juderias in 1912 to describe a popularized European conception of the Spaniard as "as lecherous, deceitful, and cruel" (Maltby 3). In The Black Legend in England: The Development of Anti-Spanish Sentiment, 1558-1660, the historian William Maltby posits that there exists even today a large body of opinion "which actually holds that the Spanish are inferior to other Europeans in those qualities commonly regarded as civilized" (3). Writing in 1971, Maltby indicates that our contemporary heightened cultural awareness has improved international opinion of Spain's reputation, "but to a remarkable degree this respect has not yet been reflected in films, textbooks, or popular literature" (6).
In addition to Maltby, cultural critics and historians such as Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Benjamin Keen, Patricia Shaw, David J. Weber, and, most recently and convincingly, Eric Griffin, have dedicated hundreds of pages to understanding the development and persistence of the Black Legend in Europe. In his excellent study, Eric Griffin outlines the evolution of English anti-Spanish sentiment from the early modern period to the present and discusses how an uncritical acceptance of many ethnic stereotypes that began in the sixteenth century can be traced to the present day. He begins by mapping out the Black Legend as it appears in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, in which one can see an essentialized representation of the Spaniard as "other." In Marlowe's work, as in the contemporary European films I shall discuss in this essay, the villain utters Spanish phrases at key moments in the articulation of the plot. Griffin insists that by emphasizing the villain Barabas's Spanish-ness, Marlowe reinforces through literature the stereotype of the avaricious Spaniard that was already widespread as a result of the translation and diffusion of Bartolome de las Casas's published accounts. Griffin then points to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which dramatizes "much the same kind of ethno-nationalist problem" (99), concluding that "in the English public mind of the 1590s, anti-Semitism and Hispanophobia seem to have been two sides of the same coin" (100).
The Black Legend was never an arbitrary cultural stereotype divorced from concrete national ideologies of power. Griffin illustrates how the cultural manifestations of the Black Legend had clear ideological functions:
The incessant repetition of these anti-Hispanic typologies created a kind of feedback loop that functioned to valorize the ethos of religio-political and ethnic homogeneity that England's absolute nationalists seem to have turned increasingly toward. Further, the plays of the period have in common with many of its Black Legend polemics the fact that in them both we find a discourse of hispanicity that is clearly racialized. For in its 'mature' form, the Black Legend is very much a discourse of color. (101)
Thus, the English construction of the Black Legend of the Spaniard did not just have to do with naval tensions between Spain and England around 1588; rather, it was implicated in much more corrosive religious, political, and cultural struggles and ultimately led to a racialized discourse based upon the construction of an imagined ethnic stereotype. Even after the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588, inspired perhaps by "the continuing frustration of Hapsburg dynastic ambitions in the Low Countries" (Griffin 95), Protestant English polemicists "began to play the Spanish 'race-card' over and over again, virtually flooding the English public sphere with an essentializing typology that marked 'the Spaniard' as cruel, duplicitous, arrogant, bestial, hypocritical, over-sexed, Antichristian, and ethnic" (95). Griffin's interpretation of the final result of this long-term cultural campaign emphasizes the ideological utility of the creation of an image of the Spaniard as a racialized "other," which reinforced "Protestant claims to English governmental institutions and cultural life" (102) while demonizing "the religious traditions, imperial obligations, dynastic inheritances and colonizing projects of Catholic Spain" (102).
Following Weber and Maltby, Griffin indicates that European anti-Spanish sentiment can be traced, in turn, through the North American colonial period and into the present day: "From these formative moments, Anglo-America has harbored an abiding suspicion of all things Hispanic" (Griffin 103). In the American film context alone there exist several important discussions of problematic Hollywood representations of Latinos (Rios-Bustamente; Gabilondo; Lie; Ramirez Berg; Pachon et al; Shaw). However, in the majority of these discussions, crossover Spanish stars such as Banderas and Bardem are analyzed not as Spaniards but as representative cases of a more generalized formulation of Latino cultural identity that exists in opposition to the hegemonic Anglo-American film culture. The work of Banderas and Bardem in American films might also be analyzed profitably in terms of North American permutations of the Black Legend.
Thus, from its historical beginnings, the Black Legend was an ideologically subversive tool used by European nations such as England, France, Italy, and the Netherlands (Maltby 139) as a way to "to separate the conquest of America from the universal (i.e. European) context to which it belongs" (Fernandez Retamar 19). Fernandez Retamar posits that when viewed through a historico-economic lens, the Black Legend can be seen as an important tool employed in European cultural discourses to exculpate non-Spanish European colonial powers from their own colonial aspirations. If one looks, for example, at the conquest and colonization of America in light of a broader European context, it becomes clearer that "the crimes of colonization are attributable, then, not to one nation or another but rather to the general process of what Marx called 'the primitive accumulation of capital'" (Fernandez Retamar 19). Fernandez Retamar's Marxist postulation is a compelling interpretation of the ideological uses of the Black Legend:
the Black Legend was created and disseminated precisely to mystify this truth, to exonerate 'capital, which comes into the world oozing blood and mud from every pore,' and to throw the blame on one nation, Spain, the most powerful of all in the sixteenth century and therefore the one whose hegemony others desired and plotted to gain. It was the nascent bourgeoisie of these other metropoli who created the Black Legend, naturally not for the benefit of those people martyred by the Spanish conquest but rather to cover up their own rapacity. (19)
Fernandez Retamar explains the perpetuation of the Black Legend in terms of Spanish involvement in the conquest and colonization of America, which was used by other European nations with colonial aspirations (often using Bartolome de las Casas's infamous account as ammunition) as a way to draw attention away from their own complicity in the subjugation and exploitation of colonized nations. The invention of the Black Legend was a way to divert attention from the generalized abuse of European colonies. By pointing to the villainous Spaniard, other monolithic European colonial powers such as England and France were able to take some of the attention away from themselves and thus dissemble their own roles in the conquest of colonial lands.
Many sociological studies examine the cultural practice of stereotyping of this kind. The body of scholarship on the subject emphasizes, as we have seen above, the ideological usefulness of national stereotypes. The social logic of the stereotype transcends purely irrational phenomena. Quoting social psychologists Penelope J. Oakes, et al, Marco Cinnirella points to the social functions of stereotyping, a necessary process that allows "the individual some predictive power in his or her social world" (38). As one might expect, stereotypes owe their existence to diffusion through mass media and by social groups: "powerful social groups are often involved in attempts to deliberately diffuse positive stereotypes of their own group, and, more ominously, negative stereotypes of rival groups" (Cinnirella 42). Referring to Henri Tajfel's influential essay, "Social Stereotypes," Reicher, et al, further observe that "stereotyping is not a neutral process" (Reicher, Hopkins and Condor 68). Indeed, cultural essentialism has very real social functions, as stereotypes help a social group to make sense of the world and confirm its cultural values at the same time that they function ideologically as a way of "justifying intergroup relations and achieving positive differentiation for the ingroup" (Reicher, Hopkins and Condor 68). In other words, knowing what we are not is almost as useful as knowing what we are. As Griffin points out, citing Walker Connor, in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries a significant part of English national identity was forged out of definitions of what the English were not: "not-Welshness, not-Scottishness, and certainly not-Frenchness" (Griffin 71). But the idea of "not-Spanishness" gave the people of early modern England "their surest sense of national identity" (Griffin 71).
Turning now to the context of contemporary European cinema, I should like to explore Sergi Lopez's persona as it is constructed in two recent films, Dominik Moll's Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien and Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, in order to elucidate the ways in which these directors employ the multi-lingual Lopez to exploit and perpetuate the age-old Black Legend in the construction of their narratives.
Sergi Lopez's Development as a Star
Through his participation in transnational cinematic productions such as Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, Sergi Lopez has rapidly become one of Spain's most recognizable actors. Nevertheless, in his book, Stars and Masculinities in Spanish Cinema: From Banderas to Bardem, Chris Perriam concludes by acknowledging that he might have included Lopez, since he "has quickly become one of the most interesting actors, and one that [he] might have discussed, despite his late association with mainstream Castilian-language cinema" (201). (1) In her review of Perriam's work, Maria M. Delgado expands on Lopez's absence from the book and offers some further observations as to his importance to contemporary Spanish film studies. She notes how his work in various national cinemas--Catalan, Castilian and French--"could also have offered some challenging contexts for the discussions around nationality, masculinity, otherness, and identity" (821). Delgado concludes by pointing to new directions in European film star studies:
As so many of these stars cross national boundaries, working across countries and continents within different language cinemas, future scholars face the challenge of drawing from their multilingual work as well as their ventures in theatre and television in determining how their personas are constructed. (821)
The internationalization of film stars, however, is not a new phenomenon. The tradition of cross-cultural, multilingual work, particularly in European film, goes back at least to the advent of sound in cinema. And since the 1950s, French cross-over stars such as Alain Delon and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Spanish actors Fernando Rey and Francisco Rabal represent paradigmatically the transnational complexity of European cinematic production. Yet, while Spanish actors like Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas have found success in American mainstream films, Sergi Lopez is unique because, like Delon, Trintignant, Rey, and Rabal, he has remained in Europe. Further, it must be emphasized that in crossing over to American productions Banderas and Bardem have tended to transcend or forgo any peculiar Spanish national identity in favor of universalized Latino roles: for example, Bardem as Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000) or as a Los Angeles drug dealer in Michael Mann's Collateral (2004); and Banderas as the Chilean peasant Pedro Tercero Garcia in Bille August's adaptation of The House of the Spirits (1993) or as a Mexican adventurer in any one of the permutations of the Zorro or Mariachi cycles. Thus, the international success of Bardem and Banderas has depended upon Hollywood transmutations of any Spanish masculinity and the concomitant construction of a pan-Latino filmic persona. By remaining in Europe, Lopez has maintained an Iberian identity through his work in French, Catalan, English and Castilian films. What is remarkable about Lopez in particular is that his mainstream success in European cinema has become increasingly tied to European directors' gratuitous exploitation of a stereotypical "Spanish" national identity.
Although my purpose here is not to write the last word on Lopez's star persona, I should like to offer a brief outline of his career before turning to the Moll and Frears films. Lopez earned early recognition for his work in several films by French director Manuel Poirier, most notably in Western (1997), which won the Prix de Jury at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. (2) A few other films warrant brief attention: Manuel Gomez Pereira's Castilian production, Entre las piernas (1999), in which Lopez plays Claudio, Javier's (Javier Bardem) sneaky business partner; a solid romantic lead performance in Frederic Fonteyne's Une liaison pornographique (1999) opposite Nathalie Baye, who won the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival for that year; and Javier Balaguer's Solo mia (2001), in which Lopez acts opposite Paz Vega, embodying sympathetically the role of an abusive husband. In a small part that capitalized on Lopez's success in Harry, the French director Daniele Thompson cast him in Decalage horaire (2002), in which Lopez again appears in a French film as a Spanish-type. He plays Sergio, an exaggerated representation of the jealous "Latin lover" who appears briefly in the beginning of the film to verbally abuse his ex-lover in the busy airport cafe.
Aside from these films and the films to be discussed below, Lopez has worked in a number of "largely bread-and-butter French comedies" ("The Talent" 22), bringing "extra layers to parts that could have been mere caricatures in other hands" ("The Talent" 22). For reasons of space, however, I have chosen to leave out Lopez's lesser known early films. Nevertheless, having worked in a variety of roles in a career spanning less than fifteen years, as Sergi Lopez's star grows it will become necessary to explore with more detail the early development of his persona.
The Spaniard as Sociopath:
Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien (2000)
The construction of Sergi Lopez's star persona has relied increasingly on his ability to play the markedly Spanish villain. To date, Lopez has found his greatest critical and popular successes embodying the stereotypical Spanish bad guy in films directed by Dominik Moll and Stephen Frears. Although he received favorable reviews for his work in Frederic Fonteyne's Une liaison pornographique, it was his performance in Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien that earned Lopez his greatest critical attention and a Cesar for Best Actor. (3) He also won a Best Actor prize at the European Film Awards. Lopez's costars Laurent Lucas and Mathilde Seigner give fine performances as the harried, tired couple befriended by Harry in the film, but as director Dominik Moll insists in an interview at the Cannes festival, "Sergi got all the attention" (Noh 21). (4)
Critics have expressed special admiration for Lopez's ability to play the villain. Olivier de Bruyn calls Lopez in Harry "formidablement inquietant" ("tremendously disturbing"; 13) and "vaguement demoniaque" ("faintly demonic"; 14), while Anthony Lane writes that Harry's first appearance in the washroom is unshakeable: "you will try, and fail, to shake from your brain that first image of Harry: stocky, still, unblinking, with a smile an inch too wide and hands that droop and drip in front of him like a puppet's, fresh from the faucet. He really is a schoolmate, and he wants to be a friend; yet he is also a madman, with the adhesive glazed of the deranged, and Michel is stuck fast" (100). While Lane criticizes some of Moll's decisions vis-a-vis Lopez's character, he writes admiringly that Sergi Lopez "inhabits the role of Harry with ominous command" (101).
Lopez's physiognomy appears to be especially suited to roles as the villain. His dark eyes and hair, broad smile and bright white teeth make him a handsome scoundrel. At the same time, if we recall his starring role opposite Nathalie Baye in Une liaison pornographique, these same characteristics allow him to play also a compelling and attractive love interest. (5) Lopez's physical characteristics and professional training also allow him to play with convincing proficiency ambiguous characters. Several critics have pointed to the ambivalence inspired by the character of Harry, who simultaneously attracts and repels the viewer (Kelleher 38; Rocchia 39).
One scene from Harry in particular has received a great deal of critical treatment. Following the encounter with his high school friend (Laurent Lucas) in a rest-stop bathroom, Harry has insinuated himself into Michel's family vacation and has undertaken already to facilitate his friend's return to writing. Aside from a general feeling of unease, the viewer does not know that Harry is homicidal until he has stolen a van and used it to push Michel's parents' car over a cliff. Michel does not know, of course, that Harry has just killed his parents, so he does not protest when Harry accompanies him to his late parents' home. In a dramatic sequence, the viewer becomes aware of Harry's strange extreme affection for his friend: after identifying his parents' bodies, Michel glumly looks through his old things. Harry peers through the cracked open door of Michel's childhood bedroom while Michel rifles through his high school poetry and short stories. The scene is charged with a dramatic soundtrack that commences when Michel opens a student magazine in which his short story, "Les singes volants," appears. Moll employs a cut to a close-up reaction shot of Harry, who is peering into his room through the partly open door. The light from the room eerily lights Harry's eye as he watches Michel read from his journals with joyful anticipation. Harry's dark eyes gleam with malicious intention. This scene is mentioned by several critics who, perhaps inspired by a note in the film's press book, see a nod to Hitchcock (Lane 100; Hoberman 131; Noh 18).
Yet, of the substantial reviews of Harry, no critic makes any mention of Moll's careful emphasis on Harry's Spanish-ness. Whereas French viewers will note from the beginning Lopez's Spanish accent, at no point in the development of the plot is an explanation given regarding Harry's heritage, except that his wealthy father died, leaving him financially independent Nor is Harold a typical Spanish name. Yet at three key moments in the film, Harry speaks in Spanish. The first clue as to Harry's true identity is suggested in the scene mentioned above in which Harry peers into Michel's room while he reads his old work. This is one of the creepiest moments in the film, and serves structurally to link Harry's character to the film tradition of Hitchcockian bad guys. Harry reveals his real intentions for Michel in this scene through an intimate close-up shot, which, significantly, is also the first instance in which Harry speaks in Spanish. Michel leafs through his old story about the flying monkeys, perhaps thinking of returning to writing. Seeing that his elaborate machinations are finally having a positive effect on Michel's authorial aspirations, Harry says with pleasure, "Muy bien. Muy bien. Asi asi. Venga, venga" ("Very good. Very good. That's it. That's it. Come on. Come on"). In the American release of the film, these words are not translated with subtitles, a fact that emphasizes further Harry's evil otherness. Moments later, after he fears that he may have over-stepped his welcome in Michel's life. Harry utters, again in Spanish, "Mierda" ("Shit"). Harry's last words before dying are Spanish, too. After Michel has somewhat reluctantly realized that he cannot allow Harry to murder his wife and daughters, he stabs Harry with a kitchen knife. With comic understatement, the moribund Harry says, "Me siento mal" ("I don't feel well"). Michel buries the evil Spaniard in the old well in the back yard, and once the Harry has been dispatched, familial bliss ensues.
Harry concludes much as it begins, with Michel and his wife and daughters on the highway. Only now they drive in comfort in their new SUV, purchased by Harry, and the viewer sees that Michel has written a promising manuscript entitled "Les oeufs," presumably based upon his recent experience with his psychotic friend Harry. The eggs, which function as an objective correlative representing Harry, can be related to fertility (Harry eats them after orgasms to boost his libido). Thus, the film's resolution is based upon a symbolic consolidation and reaffirmation of the family unit. Although he was always devoted to Michel's success as a writer, Spanish Harry ultimately represents a danger to French family stability. Even though he is useful in the establishment of Michel's family's final happiness, Harry, who has no family of his own, is established as a markedly foreign threat to family peace and solidarity. It should be emphasized, however, that although he dies in the end, Harry does succeed in exerting posthumously his influence on Michel, as he has embraced finally his role as writer and pater familias.
The Spaniard as "Sneaky" in Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
The role in Dirty Pretty Things was Sergi Lopez's first in an English-language film, and, as with Harry, also earned him very favorable reviews. In Frears's film, Lopez plays the manager of the Baltic Hotel, where the protagonist Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) moonlights as the night desk clerk. When Okwe finds a disembodied human heart while repairing a clogged toilet he brings it to his boss--known to almost everyone as Sneaky, although his employees call him Senor Juan to his face.
A glance over some of the criticism of Frears's film further fleshes out the construction of Lopez's persona that had already begun to coalesce in Harry. Again, critics point to his ability to embody ambiguous characters. David Denby calls Lopez in Dirty Pretty Things "cheerfully sinister" (101), while in an interview Stephen Frears himself points to Lopez's ability to inspire contradictory feelings in the viewer. Frears admires Lopez's ability to give a terrible character some sort of sympathy: "Sergi Lopez is such a fine actor, however, that even after the rape, he somehow remains engaging" (Lucia 12). In an almost absurdly acerbic review of the film, Iain Sinclair expresses a grudging appreciation for Lopez's acting: "Sergi Lopez, the demonic Mr. Juan (aka Sneaky), all hair-and-mirror reflexes, covers the Latin market: a Bunuel blend of charm and chill, always changing his uniform, adjusting his tie, admiring his profile in the driving mirror" (34).
Richard Dyer has written that "What a character says and how he/she says it indicate personality both directly (what a character says about her/himself) and indirectly (what a character betrays about her/himself)" (126). In both Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, Lopez's characters' speech says something important about who they are and what they represent. In both films, there is a direct correlation between language and personality, for it is at the moment they speak in Spanish that these characters reveal quite overtly some essential part of their filmic identities. The dramatically ambiguous Sneaky character is constructed first and foremost based upon markers of a supposed Spanish national identity; his dress, speech, gestures, and actions all point to a stereotypical Spanish character. When Sneaky first appears, for example, he is driving a black Mercedes Benz and listens to loud music featuring Spanish guitar riffs. He is dressed as the stereotypical Latin lover, full of what Sinclair calls "hair-and-mirror reflexes" (34). Sneaky emerges with a silk shirt open at the neck exposing a hairy chest and a thick gold chain, and the viewer gets a privileged view of his brilliant white teeth in a close-up shot from the point of view of the mirror in his office. The speech of other characters also serves to emphasize his Spanish-ness. Okwe's friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) refers to Sneaky as "the Spanish guy."
While there are many indicators of Sneaky's Spanish identity throughout the film, it is at a key moment in the development of the plot that he first speaks in Castilian. After Sneaky has discovered that Okwe was a doctor in his native Nigeria, he endeavors to entice and then to force Okwe into becoming his partner in crime. If Okwe will agree to help him by removing kidneys to be sold on the black market, Sneaky offers him 3,000 [pounds sterling] per operation and a passport for himself and for his friend and love interest Senay (Audrey Tautou), a Turkish refugee. As Okwe's situation becomes more desperate, a late night call for room service brings Okwe upstairs, where Sneaky awaits. The viewer hears Sneaky's voice behind him, saying, "Buenos dias, negro." As in Moll's film, Spanish words are not translated in the subtitles, which imbues the words with a foreign-ness to accompany his evil character. Okwe turns around and sees Sneaky, who is dressed in his red hotel suit and stands in the doorway beckoning menacingly for him to enter. A woman in her underwear sits on the bed, waiting to trade a kidney for a passport. In this scene Sneaky represents a diabolical intermediary between civilized society and the sordid underbelly of human greed and cruelty. He literally opens the door to a hellish reality that victimizes the unseen denizens of late capitalist society, illegal immigrants and undocumented workers. When Okwe refuses to operate on the woman, Sneaky becomes enraged and again reverts to his "native" tongue, calling him an "Hijo de puta" ("Son of a bitch"). Even when Okwe threatens Sneaky with a scalpel, Lopez's character offers his oily smile. With his red uniform suit, slicked-back hair, and devilish good looks, Sneaky is a skillfully constructed diabolical character.
Later in the film, while Okwe prepares for another surgery, Sneaky walks whistling down the hall of the hotel to the "operating" room. In this scene he is shot from the waist up from a low angle, which adds to his overall menacing appearance. Overt indications of Sneaky's Spanish-ness increase as this decisive scene reaches its climax. He enters, and seeing the transformed hotel room, he says appreciatively, mixing Spanish and English, "Joder. So this is how you do it right?" Okwe gives Sneaky a drugged beer on the pretext that alcohol will calm his nerves, and as the drug takes effect, he begins to slur Spanish and English. As Sneaky begins to lose consciousness, there are a series of cuts to point-of-view close-up shots as he garbles Spanish and English. When the viewer begins to see Okwe's plan, the threat represented by Sneaky dissipates. Thus, while Sneaky's earlier comment, "Buenos dias, negro," functioned as a malicious comment used to belittle Okwe and assert his malign power over him, when Senay and Okwe have finally gotten the better of Sneaky--now drugged and slurring a confused combination of Spanish and English--the effect is purely comic, revealing the Spaniard now as a duped inept schemer.
Dirty Pretty Things is a film about commerce. Introducing her interview with the director, Cynthia Lucia writes that "Frears's films examine self-interest in the context of community and the needs of smaller ethnic or marginalized groups in the context of a dominant culture, whose rules are designed to inhibit and exploit those 'others' living on its periphery" (8). She observes that
all of the characters in Dirty Pretty Things occupy society's margins--from the Turkish deli owner who supplies Okwe with the khat he chews to stay awake and the black prostitute whose dry humor is her defense against a difficult life, to the two men who play porters: Ivan (Zlato Buric), a Slavic doorman at the hotel, and Guo Yi (Benedict Wong), a Chinese morgue attendant who is Okwe's friend and chess partner. (9)
The people who fight to survive in the London depicted in the film live unseen below the surface of mainstream first world economies. The characters are, for the most part, undocumented laborers from Africa, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and China: taxi cab drivers, prostitutes, hotel maids, sweatshop seamstresses, night watchmen. The only foreign character from a prosperous Western European nation is Sneaky, the Spaniard who preys upon the immigrants who will risk their lives for a passport and a chance at the freedom it will provide. The film comments quite clearly on some of the most sordid ills of globalization and the exploitation of immigrant laborers. The black market in human organs is connected in turn to more acceptable forms of mainstream commerce through the ironic inclusion of a scene in which Sneaky sells truffles to a hotel restaurant. Occurring half way through the film, this scene links the sale of human kidneys and truffles, both of which come packaged in a Styrofoam box. The film is critical of the exploitation of these immigrant characters, whose organs are boxed-up like culinary delicacies, extremely rare items available only to the very wealthy. The Styrofoam box that Sneaky carries in these scenes establishes his character as a purveyor of costly commodities.
David Denby also has emphasized the positive message of the film, pointing to the economic relationship that exists within this marginal society of immigrants who live and work in a world hidden from prosperous mainstream London. Even while these characters fight against their marginalization, Denby admires the way that the film "chronicles the way that exploited people take care of one another, exchanging favors while finding the holes in the porous British welfare system" (101).
These characters are undoubtedly exploited, but I should like to take a closer look at the exploiter who takes advantage most successfully of this system predicated upon the commodification of human life and body parts. For while a positive reading of the film may be constructed by emphasizing the solidarity that exists among exploited immigrants, the significant focalization on the Spanish-ness of the villain--also an immigrant--demands a closer account.
In the feature commentary that accompanies the American DVD release of Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears spends several minutes discussing Lopez's performance in Harry. The director does not mention explicitly why he chose Lopez for the part of Sneaky, but he hints that it was due in part to the strength of his performance in the earlier film. Having seen his performance in Harry, Frears says of Lopez, "He's brilliant," and, "He's so manly" (Dirty Pretty Things). Yet as Frears continues to comment on Lopez's performance in Dirty Pretty Things, he confesses that he cannot explain why he chose an actor who speaks "dreadful" English:
His English was dreadful. But he's the most wonderful man. He's from Barcelona. He won't even acknowledge being Spanish. He's Catalan. And he became famous. He went to France and became a French film star. He's absolutely lovely, but his English was hopeless. He watches the film and just laughs: "well this man can speak English but I can't." (Dirty Pretty Things)
In spite of Lopez's difficulties with English, Frears expresses great admiration for his abilities as an actor. Frears admits, however, that he was perhaps misguided to cast a man who could not speak English in the role of Sneaky--"Afterwards I thought, I must have been insane" (Dirty Pretty Things)--but notes that he was very pleased with the result. Upon seeing Lopez act, he says, "our mouths fell open" (Dirty Pretty Things), even at the same time that he realized that it was "a ridiculous thing to ask of someone to act in a language other than their own. Afterwards I wondered what I thought he would do. I thought he'd have the nerve to do it, but not to this level" (Dirty Pretty Things). Thus, Frears marvels that his producers even allowed him to cast a Catalan actor who does not speak English: "I can't believe I was allowed to do it, because you never could have defended it" (Dirty Pretty Things).
The question remains, then, as to why Frears not only chose to cast Sergi Lopez in an English-language role for which he was ill prepared, but why the character he portrays is depicted so obviously as a Spaniard. Indeed, Frears mentions that Lopez identifies himself first and foremost as Catalan, but he does not speak in Catalan in either Harry or Dirty Pretty Things. Of the substantial body of reviews of both films, no critic makes any mention of the fact that it is at the moment in which Lopez's characters reveal themselves to be truly oily that they speak in Spanish.
Sergi Lopez's skill as an actor--and thus his value to the construction of the narrative--comes from his ability to evoke ambiguous feelings of repulsion and attraction in the viewer. In the preceding pages, I have outlined a general picture of Lopez's star qualities. Taken from the reviews of the films cited above, we might synthesize the Lopez persona with a few excerpts: "charismatically raffish" (Noh 18); "suitably oily" (Mottram 55); "formidablement inquietant" ("tremendously disturbing"; Bruyn 13); "vaguement demonique" ("vaguely demonic"; Bruyn 14); "nice-guy innocence and sociopathic malice" (Flint); "he wants to be a friend; yet he is also a madman" (Lane 100); "demonic" (Sinclair 34); "blend of charm and chill" (Sinclair 34); and so on. Sergi Lopez's villains stand on the fine line between normal and strange, good and evil, known and unknown. His characters in Harry and Dirty Pretty Things derive much of their dramatic effectiveness from that ambiguous space between what is comfortably familiar and what is menacingly foreign. The viewer is drawn to and repulsed by these characters, but when they speak in Spanish the viewer becomes suddenly aware that these villains are definitely some kind of "other." The question remains, then, why do Moll and Frears emphasize Lopez's Spanish-ness? And what does it mean when a film points so clearly to the bad guy as a Spaniard?
Why Spaniards Make Good Bad Guys
By concentrating on a star like Sergi Lopez, who has made a career of his ability to successfully embody the vices that comprise the European stereotype of the Spaniard, we can better understand the subtle ideological underpinnings of national prejudice in contemporary European cinema. As Richard Dyer shows in his seminal study of film stars, "what is important about the stars, especially in their particularity, is their typicality or representativeness. Stars, in other words, relate to the social types of a society" (53). Contrary to its construction in Spanish films, in recent European cinema Sergi Lopez's star persona has been based largely upon his representativeness of the Spaniard. Sneaky and Harry are not only bad guys, but also they are characters that are constructed as types that represent in a very specific way a foreign national identity that exists in opposition to the cultural values espoused by these films. Expanding on Dyer's study, Andrew Spicer has emphasized that
Male stars represent easily recognized types of masculinity which have been socially, culturally and historically constructed, embodying important beliefs about power, authority, nationality and class. Paradoxically, they embody the type in a way which is uniquely their own. This combination of typicality and uniqueness encourages audience identification, admiration and desire. (144)
The construction of the star, like the films in which they appear, has an ideological component whose coherence is plugged into issues of class, nationality, culture, and power. Raymond Durgnat writes that a nation's home-grown stars say a great deal about that nation--"The social history of a nation can be written in terms of its film stars" (qtd. in Dyer 6)--while Alexander Walker notes that stars "are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of [their] society" (qtd. in Dyer 4). But stars do not only signify within their own national cultural contexts. Their performances also bring to bear specific characteristics that are tied to their extra-filmic personalities and national identities. If home-grown stars encourage "audience identification, admiration and desire" (Spicer 144), so too do foreign stars encourage their own set of audience identifications, reactions, fears, and desires. In Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, Sergi Lopez's portrayal of the Spaniard is representative of stereotypical cultural values antithetical to those of the societies depicted in the films.
Something important can be said of a nation's social history based upon its representations of foreign film stars. By taking into account the construction and articulation of Sergi Lopez's star persona within the thematic and formal contexts of Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, we can begin to discern a subtle cultural ideology that has its roots in a historically conceived European Hispanophobia. Even more than in Harry, the political and economic issues that pervade Dirty Pretty Things make Frears's film an ideal space of cultural production in which star personae communicate implicit ideas about power and prejudice. Sneaky is not just the bad guy. He is a Western European immigrant who preys upon non-Western European immigrants, and while the film concludes with an apparently positive message about solidarity among the marginalized, the exploited, "invisible" workers who appear in the film only win when they defeat the evil Spaniard by appropriating their own "sneaky" tactics.
Just as we never learn much about Harry's background, the circumstances that surround Sneaky's presence in the London of Dirty Pretty Things are never made clear. Surely there are seedy hotels in Spain where Sneaky might profit from his command of English and sinister prowess at exploiting the powerless refugees and undocumented laborers that work in them. Further, notwithstanding Lopez's superior acting skill, there are certainly any number of English or non-Spanish actors more proficient in English who might also have played the role of Sneaky with the appropriate level of charming malevolence.
Sergi Lopez brings to Frears's film a symbolic value that transcends a mere battle between good and evil. As we begin to see in Harry, like any star of any national identity, Lopez brings with him to Dirty Pretty Things a persona that is already "bound up in particular historical and contemporary social circumstances" (Perriam 8). With a combination of casting and performance, Dirty Pretty Things significantly emphasizes Lopez's invented Spanish-ness in order to suggest a deeper meaning. By making the ultra-villain Spanish, Frears's film places the blame for the systematized exploitation of undocumented laborers in London squarely on the shoulders of the historically cruel, licentious, rapacious Spaniard, and thereby seeks subtly to exculpate mainstream English society from the economic and social ills that spring from its particular form of late capitalist globalized society. Although we might argue that Frears's project is to portray sympathetically the unseen society that exists just beneath the surface of contemporary London, by examining the relationship between Sneaky and the other characters in the film it becomes clearer that the lion's share of the blame for the exploitation of undocumented laborers belongs to the not-English Spaniard.
Further, by making immigrants prey upon each other (and leaving white Anglo-English out of the picture), Dirty Pretty Things communicates an implicit message. Not only are these night-dwelling immigrants and foreigners invisible, but they in fact exist within their own, very separate realm almost completely insulated from the world above ground. The film's conclusion suggests that whether the kidney comes from Senay, a Turk, or Sneaky Juan, a Spaniard, is unimportant as long as there is a kidney to be bought for the little English girl and transported to the "visible" world by the blonde-haired Englishman who descends into the parking garage to pick up the kidney and pay for it.
Thus, while the final message appears at first to be one of solidarity--the Nigerian, the Turk, and the prostitute standing defiantly before the English organ buyer--the symbolic equation only reaches its balance with the sale of an organ taken from an immigrant. Most importantly, final responsibility for the cruelty and inequality of this subterranean society rests not on the society that allows it to exist but upon Sneaky Juan and, to a lesser degree, the Punjabi sweatshop owner, who are also immigrants. When we view the film through the lens of historically based cultural prejudices such as the Black Legend, it becomes apparent that the importance of Sergi Lopez's role goes beyond his skill as an actor: the real significance of his emphasized Spanish-ness lies in the strategic separation of the exploitation of immigrants in London from the English (and European) context from which it springs. By making the bad guy a Spaniard we might overlook the culpability of late capitalism, English politico-economic reality and the more sinister ills of globalization. (6)
Borrowing from Vincendeau's Stars and Stardom in French Cinema (2000), Chris Perriam indicates that, like the stars of other national cinemas, Spanish stars "embed themselves in the imaginary and real social construct that is Spain and the world's view of Spain" (10). To date, Sergi Lopez has found his greatest career successes by embedding himself in an imaginary conception of Spanish national identity that has its roots in five centuries of European historiographic and literary production. This is perhaps an overly high-sounding formulation of an uncomplicated concept: the Black Legend of the Spaniard persists in contemporary European culture. Sergi Lopez is living proof.
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(1) Perriam examines contemporary Spanish cinema through the lens of star studies, linking on screen personas to off-screen personalities as a method of illuminating the cultural meanings of Spanish male film stars and the layers of signification they bring to a film. He devotes chapters to actors such as Imanol Arias, Antonio Banderas, Carmelo Gomez, Javier Bardem, Jordi Molla, and Sanz.
(2) Lopez appears in eight films by Manuel Poirier. In addition to Western, Poirier cast Lopez in Chemins de traverse (2004), Les femmes.., ou les enfants d'abord (2002), Te quiero (2001), Marion (1997), Attention, fragile (1995), ... a la campagne (1995), and La peite amie d'Antonio (1992).
(3) Moll's film was nominated for nine Cesars, the French Academy Awards, winning four, Best Actor for Sergi Lopez, Best Director for Dominik Moll, Best Editing for Yannick Kergoat, and Best Sound for Gerard Hardy, Gerard Lamps, and Francois Maurel.
(4) Moll says that he discovered Lopez in Poirier's Western, but that he was hesitant about his accent: "I met and tested quite a lot of actors for all of the parts, my producer had distributed Western and thought I should meet [Lopez]. Actually, I was a bit hesitant because of his accent. I thought if he and Michel were in high school together, if he'd grown in France, would he still have an accent? Stupid reasons like that, and then when I met him, I knew he had a sincerity and straightforwardness. I knew he was very likeable because he had always played nice, likable guys in films. We then worked on a couple of scenes where you saw Harry's darker side and he was very good at that. You could also feel his potential for madness, so he had the ideal combination" (Nob 21)
(5) A recent profile of new talent in Variety magazine describes him as having "the body of a well-fed country lad, a short black-and sides haircut, a barn-door-size grin: 37 year-old Sergi Lopez has turned his strapping boyishness to good use playing childlike men adrift--sometimes violently--in adulthood, warranting European Film Academy and French Cesar actor nods for 'With a Friend Like Harry.' How far can he go? Speaking four languages gracefully, he has kudos" ("The Talent" 22).
(6) The exchange and trades that take place in the underground world of Okwe represent a pre-modern, idealized by primitive pre-capitalist society that exists in opposition to the cruel capitalist world in which Sneaky Juan moves so easily. We might be tempted to take our interpretation one step further, suggesting that by casting the Spaniard as the bad guy, Frears places his story into a larger context that draws attention to the historical complexity of relations between Spain and the African and Islamic traditions, represented paradigmatically by Okwe, the African, and Senay, an Islamic Turk. These characters are not merely authentic representations of real immigration patterns in Western Europe but also play into a symbolic equation in which the Spaniard has always (at the very least since the sixteenth century) been portrayed as the villain.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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