SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Monday, 1 October 2012

'Flor de fango'/ 'Flower in the Slime' (2011) - Claudia Zepeda and Odisio Bichir in a bloody, sultry, Mexican standoff!

*This review contains spoilers in the sludge - watch before reading*

On the day the Mexican film 'Flor de Fango'/ 'Flower in the Slime' screened at the Raindance Film Festival in London, the headlines making the Sunday papers were full of often salacious details about the arrest of a British maths teacher who had left his wife and fled to France with a 15-year-old pupil at the school where he worked.

The man's wife had kept what the media described as 'a dignified silence' back home and the teacher had been cornered and arrested in Bordeaux while applying for a bar job. The runaway couple had hoped to start a new life together far away from the scandal their elopement had caused. It was never going to happen.

The girl in this real life case, on the day of Flor de Fango's timely UK premier at Raindance, was reported to have flown back home to be with her family who had been frantic with worry. The day after the screening of the movie (that addresses similar issues to the real life alleged 'abduction' that had taken place) it was announced in the British press that the wife of this errant teacher who had been left to face the humiliation as soon as her husband had fled the country for a new (and clearly unobtainable) idyllic life abroad with the young girl after being married for just over a year back home - had left him and would seek a divorce.

The teacher was to be flown home to the UK to stand trial, all the while insisting this is what he wanted - to be back near the girl he claimed to still love. The pursuit of this young schoolgirl was clearly not about to stop just because they had been caught.

The film I was watching at Raindance couldn't have been more relevant if the movie's press office had set up the whole 'Schoolgirl Elopes With Teacher' story as a publicity stunt themselves.

'Flower in the Slime' (the on-screen translation at the screening was 'Mud Flower') tells an unsettlingly similar story to the real life pupil and teacher elopement making the news. A middle aged man, Augusto (Odiseo Bichir) visits the hospital where his wife's former nanny is dying. At the hospital he encounters the daughter of the dying woman, a 14-year-old girl called Marlene (Claudia Zepeda) in a hospital hallway. Their first encounter sets the tone for the rest of the movie as Augusto stops and stares (unconcerned by what others may think) at the young girl sitting on the floor with the camera dwelling, as it does for much of the movie, on lingering shots of the grinning Marlene in her school skirt and long white socks - focusing on her bare legs as if the actress is there as little more than a filmmaker's fetish doll (although we remain observers, far removed from the real slime that the film gets some of its characters to wallow in alone). Of course, by the time the end credits roll, Marlene is less of a sexualised object (by those around her) than we may at first have been led to expect.

Actually, the film is consistently less lurid and salacious than any plot summary may make it sound - or that the film could have become. All the most lurid elements are shot very clinically and often in muted pastel colours with a languid (if never slow - another rather nifty juxtapositional effect) pace. While there is plenty of bare flesh on display, it's never more explicit than a peek into a changing room through a half open curtain as the young girl gets dressed; the camera tracing a queasy path up her long legs to stark white cotton briefs where Augusto's gaze (and the camera lens) lingers far too long to be just an innocent glance. There is of course a seduction to follow between older man and the girl left in his care - but we are mostly left to assume the worst and never witness the full sexual act directly, and there's always a chance it may never have happened. Although it probably did.

There's a surreal edge to this movie that often disorientates. When the nanny is buried, Augusto attends the funeral and watches her glass-fronted coffin being lowered into the ground. The face of the dead woman is replaced by that of his wife, and then - standing
behind all the mourners now - we see the woman who has just died, smiling and watching her teenage daughter standing with Augusto and his wife, Ruth (Claudia Ramirez). Whether the ghostly woman is smiling because she is happy that her daughter is in safe hands now, or mocking Augusto with an 'I know what you are up to' smirk, is hard to tell.

Marlene's mother worked in a brothel and her father could be just about anyone in Mexico. There's a hint, told through similar tattoos on legs shared between the young girl Augusto falls in love with and his wife, that Marlene and Ruth worked in the same place. When Marlene's tough half-brother Genaro (Javier Escobar) arrives on the scene, the activities of Augusto's wife are hinted at in ever more damaging detail, but while Augusto is happy to defend his wife's honour, he is even happier to ask young Marlene to run away with him to the coast for a new life together. The grandparents of Marlene have asked Augusto and Ruth to look after the girl, but Marlene's half-brother is having none of that plan; before Augusto has a chance to run away with his teenage crush, Genaro snatches his half-sister and takes her, perhaps even willingly, we don't really know - to a life of seclusion in Mexico City's seediest brothels. Augusto, predictably, gives chase.


The screening of 'Flower in the Slime' is sold out at the Raindance premiere and clearly forecasts a new Mexican wave of fresh talent in director Guillermo Gonzalez with a debut movie that can best be described as a vibrantly harsh, very violent revenge flick with frequent splashes of unnervingly clinical and cold-hearted Lolita-ish riffing to spice things up.


Odisio Bichir, well known for his TV roles and hard-edged crime films in Mexico, plays the role of a middle-aged obsessive as a man annoyingly determined to be with this young girl in a performance that is genuinely unnerving and leaves a bad taste in the mouth (there is no redemption or explanation as to why he behaves like he does on offer - he is just of a mind to do this, and so he does). This is a man obsessed - and slightly stupid. There is little thought or consideration here; the predatory nature of Augusto's actions are clear and without the need (for him) for conscience. He is an entirely unlikeable man (but played by Bichir quite sweet-naturedly - almost wistfully, which kind of makes it worse) and his pursuit of this young girl is relentless.

Augusto's wife watches the seduction flare; spying on her husband and the young girl from behind half-open doors as the two flirt and do childish things like blow into each others faces to imagine what they might both 'taste like' - and then a hug and a more lingering flash of thigh from Marlene soon makes things more serious.

It's all very quick. The moment where Marlene straddles Augusto on the floor and leans towards him for a first kiss is startling. Augusto's face looks set to explode with desire but there's a flash of uncertainly for a second or two, quickly replaced by that more unstoppable look of wide-eyed excitement. If there's a moral compass kicking in for Augusto, there's no regret after his seduction (or his willingness to be seduced) at all.

Marlene is happy to flash her flesh outside the schoolgates, but when a caretaker tries to entice her into the school toilets she tells him to get lost and covers up her legs with a prudish sweep of her hand. Towards the end of the film Marlene is happy to work in a brothel with no real need of escape. Augusto is convinced she needs saving.  Marlene's half-brother asks him why his form of rescue is any more valid than the one he can offer her - after all, it's Augusto who is doing the chasing, stalking her across the country. "It's all about fucking," is a line that is spoken at the end of the film, and it's a fair reflection of the motives of Augusto's self-gain, Genaro's financial gain and even Marlene's survival instinct kicking in.

There's a tortuous and telling scene in the movie between husband and wife, just before Augusto tries to run away with Marlene. Ruth is pleasuring Augusto under the bed sheets with her hand but he just lies there with no expression on his face as his wife starts talking about Marlene and how the girl could tag along on a work conference that she has to attend - but whether she is trying to entice her husband into enjoying sex with her again by nurtuting his fantasies over Marlene by talking about the girl as she masterbates him (as some kind of fantasy - perhaps the only way they can be close) or just trying to adapt the girl into some kind of routine away from Augusto and the spare bed they now share by offering him the chance of time alone to think through his actions, is uncertain. When his wife takes her hand away we can't even be sure whether Augusto has climaxed. There is no emotion, just a blank face.

It's hard not to remember the headlines of the last few days, at this point in the film, about the real life teacher and pupil fleeing to France and especially some further details that come out about the man having been described by his wife as being 'distant' on their last holiday together. There's a holiday snap mentioned of her husband posted on a social media site where he is described as just: 'sitting on the balcony of the hotel - where he stayed all night'. We see the picture in the papers and it's the image of a man staring blankly out at the horizon, perhaps considering the next step in his relationship with a young pupil at his school who he has developed an increasing, illicit attraction towards.

Even more worryingly in the movie, there is a hint, when Ruth sees Augusto and the girl together for the first time, that he has done this kind of thing before - the loyal wife has a resigned look on her face, or is this just because she realises that the young girl has a history; the daughter of a friend who was once a sex worker in a local brothel where she also, perhaps, may have visited and worked as well. Is Augusto's coldness towards his wife a result of rising suspicions he has that she may not have been as faithful as she makes out -suspicions that build up in Augusto's head, become more certain, as the film plays out?

Claudia Zepeda as the young Marlene is fabulous; seductive and refreshingly unpredictable in her role as the seemingly innocent but clearly (probably) quite calculating young girl, happy to be the centre of attention with the admirers or the self-styled protectors she chooses. There's more of course to the girl's motives (revealed, but still unfocused, by the end of the film) and in the drug-fuelled underage world of teen prostitution and criminal gangs, there emerges a thread of violence to the narrative that becomes more bone-breakingly brutal and sadistic as the movie goes on. We sink further into a worsening sutuation with Augusto, rather like the characters in Bigas Luna's 'Ages of Lulu' (1990) start off with furtive sexual discovery and fumbles in the dark before an ending that sees degradation, prostitution and pain as a norm that needs to be escaped from. The only really explicit sexuality in 'Flor de fango' comes in the strip bars where Augusto searches for Marlene. The girls at these clubs perform to the men in the crowd; showing off their surgically-enhanced bodies almost as a deliberate contrast to the soft pastels of the less blatant (but far more sinister) Lolita-ish seduction involving Marlene that establishes a fragile, awful calm before the film spirals out of control and into eventual bloody violence.

'Flor de Fango'/ 'Flower in the Slime' is Claudia Zepeda's second movie in Mexico after last year's 'Perras' where she starred as one of a group of ten schoolgirls locked in a school following a crime that one of them has to confess to before any of the girls can be freed. It will be interesting to see Zepeda perhaps play a different kind of role soon, but for now her performance in 'Flor de Fango' remains outstandingly restrained but, by contrast - also effortlessly provocative.

It's another of those wonderful contrasts that the film presents us with, making it very difficult to categorise or explain this movie, you really have to watch and make your own mind up - or just enjoy the mash-up of seediness, street violence and revenge-seeped action for what it is. It's also a film that's yet another breathtaking showcase for the beauty and brashness of Mexico City, as seen in other similar movies from that country, including the magnificent 'Amores Perros' (2000).

This is clearly a film that delights in surprising the viewer and does so with style. It's entirely unpredictable and does everything it can not to be the kind of movie you expect it to be. While the central theme is clearly "all about fucking" (every member of the cast is driven by this need in some way) - the act itself is less important (if at all) to the worsening fallout that follows. 

I thoroughly enjoyed 'Flor de Fango' and found it a very odd, sullen and unclassifiable movie swimming in its own cold sweat of the 'pocos pero locos' - the 'crazy few'.


Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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