“All the things we should’ve said that I never said/
All the things we should’ve done that we never did/
All the things we should’ve given but I didn’t/
Oh, darling, make it go/
Make it go away.”
– Kate Bush, “This Woman’s Work.”
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Spanish filmmaker Ramón Salazar’s new feature, La Enfermedad del Domingo (Sunday’s Illness), is awash with geometry: a swarm of shining orange rhombuses illuminates a high-end restaurant, sloping mountain and slanted roof converge to form the point of a triangle, a woman’s jacket folds into pristine parallelity with her scarf. Virtually every shot calls the eye’s attention to lines and figures, to directionality and straightness and curvature, and, over and over, to symmetry, sometimes perfect, sometimes broken. This devotion to line, contour, and shape certainly serves the writer/director’s painterly ambitions – the repetitious, to the point of obsessiveness, posing of characters within quadrangular frames, along with the almost complete absence of a musical score, stimulate the sense as the film unfolds that one is walking through a hushed museum gallery. Plot and action often feel secondary to the string of meticulous visual compositions arranged (quite explicitly) as a slideshow of memories in the making. Geometry also, because of its ubiquity and unavoidability, becomes the visual code through which Salazar transmits cognitive and emotive information about the inner lives of his characters.
“There are two lines,” wrote the French poet Pierre Albert-Birot, “the curved line that belongs to God and the straight line that belongs to man.”1 This sentiment echoes the famous, and obviously inaccurate, dictum by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí that there are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature, and finds credence in recent studies by experimental psychologists, who have found that very young children instinctively perceive circles (as in apples and flowers and mother’s nipples) positively and downward triangles (as in sharp rocks and thorns and bared fangs) negatively.2 An attentive viewer of La Enfermedad del Domingo will soon become primed to recognize the significance of particular geometric patterns and, in turn, to search for them in the cosmos of the film. Squares and rectangles are precise, predictable, and cold, conveying stability but also confinement. Circles and spheres are non-threatening but difficult to grasp, rolling about and away at the first opportunity, introducing uncertainty to life, but also opening it up to tenderness and love. The attentive viewer will notice the crooked lines of tree roots in the forest as they are contrasted to the ornate columns of a rich man’s home, the aforementioned rhomboidal lamps that oversee a terse family conversation contrasted to the warm spherical bulbs that witness a reunion decades in the making. Eventually the viewer will find it impossible not to notice the quadrilateral openings of homes and cars, the unforgiving angles of stone steps, the hexagonal shape of a wooden coffin, or the circular welcome to be found in the rim of a teacup, or the iris within a dying loved one’s eye, or the curvature of the road that leads one back home.
La Enfermedad del Domingo tells of two women, Anabel and Chiara, mother and daughter. Anabel (Susi Sánchez) is all straight lines, from the makeup on her face to her opulent-yet-tasteful outfits. She lives a glamorous life in a fairy-tale mansion full of golden doorways and gleaming tables for entertaining, courtesy of her husband Bernabé (Miguel Ángel Solá), a businessman who wears perfectly tailored suits and perfectly straight hair, and who is accustomed to deciding how things ought to be handled. But Anabel’s life rests on a shameful secret: decades before, she abandoned her first husband Mathieu and their eight-year-old, Chiara. She just walked out the door and never looked back. As a result, Chiara (Bárbara Lennie) has never found the straight path and has lived a shapeless life, all frump and bumps and bruises. “Does anyone know about me?,” she asks Anabel when the two face each other for the first time in thirty-five years. Her mother shakes her head. “It’s strange. Almost not existing.”
“There is probably nothing in human nature,” Adrienne Rich commented in her indispensable essay “Motherhood and Daughterhood,” “more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.”3 So it is with these two women. Something has happened, and forty-something Chiara has decided to irrupt into Anabel’s life with a request: that the two spend some time together, alone, in the secluded country home from which Anabel ran and which Chiara still occupies. “What if she refuses?,” a lawyer hired by Bernabé demands of Chiara. “I hadn’t even considered it,” she answers. “Why not?” Chiara steals a glance at her mother. “Because of what we are.”
What they are is the primary concern of the film, though some of the answers come through telling rather than showing. First and foremost, as Salazar emphasizes time and again, they are mirror images of each other. Often he aggressively crosscuts from one woman to the other, as in one beautiful sequence in which Chiara bringing a cigarette to her lips becomes Annabel drinking her tea with the exact same motion. “I see myself in her,” Anabel tells Bernabé when he asks why she would agree to go off alone with a virtual stranger. Both women, it turns out, are independent spirits, resistant to the constraints placed on them by men, though ultimately surrendering to them. Both find it easy to lie, but are not so good at recognizing deception in others, and both can be mean and callous toward those closest to them, but can also show kindness in big ways and small. The first and last shots of the film mirror each other like mother and daughter. Both are of two trees standing. The opening image centers on the bases of the trunks in the midst of the forest, so that the viewer can take note of their intertwined roots. The closing one looks up to the crowns of trees flanking the house, which stands in for the women’s shared history.
Except, of course, that the symmetry cannot be complete. A terrible deed was committed, of which Anabel was the perpetrator and Chiara the victim. Anabel, for all her faults, has presence and character and the dignity to recognize that her life is the result of her own choices. Chiara lacks that luxury, and knows it, and hence cannot see herself as anything but the young girl sitting by the window waiting for mommy to come back. Her little cruelties toward that heartless mother, her small shows of power once the two have absconded from the world – “You wash the dishes!” – are ultimately pathetic, since both know that Anabel can win the match by simply walking away again. Anabel stays, at first, not out of obligation but out of curiosity. “What do you want?,” she demands of Chiara, who delays responding as long as possible, not out of fear or shame but out of an inclination they share, as one character puts it late in the film, for “intrigue.”
Chiara’s agenda, which is Salazar’s agenda, is most emphatically not to punish Anabel for her sins nor to show her the path to moral redemption. “I want to apologize to you,” says Anabel. Chiara cuts her off. “I don’t want you to.” The goal instead is to prod Anabel away from the straight-lined world in which she has built her life, and back to the curved world of Chiara, the woods, and, Salazar implies, the deepest stirrings of her soul. Anabel all but admits this to Mathieu (Richard Bohringer, sporting the bushiest, curviest eyebrows you’ve ever seen), the man she abandoned all those years before. “I wanted more,” she tells him. “And did you find more?,” he asks, already knowing the answer. “I did. But it’s never enough.”
It is here that the film finds itself on shaky ground. Is there a hint of woman-can-only-be-happy-as-mother conservatism, or at least cliché, at play? Of “I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me,” as Charlene put it in song? Having established that Anabel is simply not the mothering type – she offers her second daughter, a curly-haired, dog-loving sprite named Greta (Greta Fernández) born of her marriage to Bernabé, no more than cool detachment and barely disguised annoyance – Salazar seems intent on making motherhood the core, long repressed, of her being. Right around the time the fictional Anabel was going out for the proverbial pack of cigarettes, the feminist philosopher Virginia Held warned that “dominant patterns of thought have seen women as primarily mothers, and mothering as the performance of a primarily biological function.” As a result, society has seen women as “being closer to nature than men” and “engaged in an activity which is not specifically human.”4 This, or something close to it, seems to be what Salazar has in mind for the climactic denouement of his story, except he does not recognize it as problematic.
The final act of the film is meant to feel primal and, yes, animalistic. Anabel agrees at last to fulfill Chiara’s request, which the film foreshadows, in a nod to Chekhov’s The Seagull, with, well, a seagull. Salazar has Anabel and Chiara strip naked in the middle of the dark wood, the younger woman clinging feebly to the older. “Mother! Mother!,” Chiara calls, using the word for the first time since we have known her. “I understand,” she whispers. “What?” “Everything.” The attentive viewer cannot help but notice the curve of the slope the women use to enter the pond where the deed will be done, nor the perfect circles formed by the ripples in the water, nor the contours of shoulders in deliberate movement as one body lowers the other below the surface, nor the shape of the tear that clings to a mother’s eye as she holds her daughter under.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s trailer and images released by the production company for publicity purposes.
- Quoted in Debra Kelly, Pierre Albert-Birot: A Poetics in Movement, a Poetics of Movement (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997), p. 290. [↩]
- For example, Yinan Wang and Qin Zhang, “Affective Priming by Simple Geometric Shapes: Evidence from Event-related Brain Potentials,” in Frontiers in Psychology, June 2016. [↩]
- Adrienne Rich, Essential Essays (W.W. Norton, 2018), p. 114. [↩]
- Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 55. [↩]