As a child we have so little influence.
Just about everything is decided for us.
It is no surprise that we strive so earnestly for freedom in our late teens. Change everything now! Our one chance, or so it seems, to smash down the walls of the family home, and create a rich palace in gardens of our own choosing. It lasts for about 10 years (for a few it is a lifetime) before we return to the comfort of our childhoods. For by our mid twenties we are kids again. The senior managers our surrogate parents, with those distant relatives, the board of directors, who we hardly see, and think are friendly, our indulgent great aunts and uncles.
Once more we accept our lot; done to, rather than doing, and we know this now; and we let others make the decisions in a world we do not want to understand. Our curiosity left behind the day we walk into our first proper job.
Ana enters the bedroom while the housekeeper leaves it, with a bedpan and towels full of blood. She sees her mother writhing in agony. She is giving birth, but to a strange and awful child. How big will this baby be, we at first wonder, but really we already know the answer: it will be a monstrous giant; a long incubated pain that will kill her soon; leaving a young woman to wander around Ana’s childhood; walking into her dreams and daytime fantasies; a comfort during her moments of confusion.
How much does Ana know? Does she know her mother is back from hospital not because she is better, but to die, in her own bed, slowly in excruciating agony?
How much does she understand? That you can give birth to death? Does she believe this too? We think so. We know that later she blames her father for her mother’s impregnation.
She hardly speaks throughout the film. Her mother, actually herself, an exact replica, thirty odd years later, sometimes talks directly to the camera; the adult making sense of her childhood memories. But these are fragments, a director uneasy inside a child’s mind: he wants some order to the world, he wants us, if only on occasion, to understand it; to see the road signs so we can navigate around this strange country; eventually to leave it behind. He doesn’t trust us to find our own way out…
After the early confusion, and our complete disorientation, we begin to distinguish between the mundane world of the senses and the imaginary fantasies that are invading it. By her bedside Ana looks at death infiltrating her mother’s face. When it rests for a moment her mother’s eyes open and she tells her daughter there is nothing: nada. It is all lies. Nothing exists. We think we know what she means. Does her daughter? She doesn’t want to die, she says, she is scared. Ana stands like a mannequin; there is nothing she can say or do; she is lost in a world beyond her experience. Then death goes back to work; and words are replaced by grimaces and screams; and Rosa returns, ushering Ana away.
Her mother’s favourite, it seems. There are times when her mother treats Ana like a lover; there is something sensual about the caresses she gives; her whole behaviour is provocatively flirtatious. I bite you on this side of neck, I kiss you on the neck; I bite you on this neck, I kiss you on the ear; kissing her on the lips when she says good night. There is also a touch of cruelty the child does not perceive. On a country estate Ana is sent back to find her father; who she sees embracing another woman, a friend of the family. Intended? We believe so. Later, Rosa, cruder in almost everyway – her talk with the child mostly sexual gossip, and there is the inevitable fantasy of daddy’s hands on Rosa’s breasts, Ana asks if she can see them – sends her into a room to expose another affair, the aunt’s who now lives with the children.
Of course, as children, we see the signs of our parent’s pain and misdemeanours. When the aunt is out they raid her bedroom. Dressing up in her clothes, using her make up and wearing her luxurious wig, they become actors in a marital drama, where the woman waits at home while the husband wears himself out in the bedrooms of Madrid. They copy what they have seen, but they have so little understanding, picking up the words without the full meaning behind them, and so they become comic and very odd; the aunt finds them so when she returns unexpectedly.
A child walks down the stairs at night; to the sound of sex. The house is decorated in an antique style; heavily prosperous and oppressive. There is no sense of a personal style, just the weight of status and authority. Everything seems just a little oversized…
The children’s room is ramshackle; and it is where they play games, listen to music, are bored, and sometimes mimic the adult world. Here they copy a world of sexuality, although free of its emotional and physical consciousness; their bodies innocently replicating the gestures, of dancing and fingertip caresses. There is a strangeness to these scenes, which have an ambiguity that we cannot resolve.
Ana believes her father is the cause of her mother’s early death; and a childhood she can only remember with dislike: it was a long journey out of unhappiness, she later says. He killed her mother. It is so obvious to a child who can read the signs. The rows and unhappiness, her mother’s tears - the seeds of that fatal birth…
Always at the mercy of others; mostly your parents; their motives hidden and unfathomable. What do they mean! They don’t tell you much, if anything at all. Most of what you know you have to work out for yourself. Such a world can become overwhelming. Mother dies, father dies; the aunt and the senile grandmother move in. Your aunt is nice, but she is strict. Before the funeral she demands Ana kiss her dead father in his coffin, to observe the proprieties. You must eat properly! And it is the youngest child who is the favourite now. These changes are vertiginous. Ana in the garden looking up she sees herself standing on the roof of their large house - her father was high up Franco’s military. She imagines herself looking down; she is feeling dizzy. Shifting, circling, the scene subtlety shifts and tumbles, suffers vertigo too, until Ana is once again alone. A child in the garden; and the noise of the traffic outside.
You often get it wrong. Ana’s mother tells her a story from her own childhood. About a tin she was asked to throw away. Of course she wanted to know why. We can imagine the curiosity; the rich mysteries placed inside that container when her mother at first refuses to tell her. Under pressure the mother admits it is poison; just a spoonful can kill an elephant. Far too fascinating to throw away, she keeps the tin, hidden somewhere; out of reach of the adults. Later she tells the story to her daughter. A magic box! Its potions strong enough to change the world! Now she can do, rather than be done to!
The film begins. A child is walking down the stairs at night, and we hear a man and woman together in bed. As the child comes down the voices become more intimate. But something goes wrong, it is like the spluttering of a car after it picks up speed: the man is finding it hard to breathe, he strains, he is in pain… there is a scream; we hear a woman panic. She opens the door, her blouse open, her skirt undone; she stares at Ana and leaves the house. Ana walks in to find her father dead. She tries to wake him. Is he asleep? We assume she thinks so. She takes a glass of milk to the kitchen; empties it and washes it in the sink. Odd we think. Odder still she shuffles the glasses round, hiding it amongst the others. A peculiar child. Is there any sense to what she does?
Carlos Saura has, for a few moments, returned us to the world of our childhood, where the world is tilted at an odd angle; so that most of it is hidden or strangely obscured. There is so little we now understand!
Her mother appears. She takes her to bed. This is the first of many visits. In a world populated by uncertainty, with so much experienced, but so little under control, or properly understood, better to fill it with one’s own imagination. Her dead mother dominates that world, now a mythic matriarch; a musician thwarted by the carnal designs of a husband; though later, when older and more reflective, she wonders if her mother, lacking confidence in her own talent, wanted an excuse to give up her profession. Those simple signs have become complicated with age.
Other visions are cruder: Rosa words turned into her father’s furtive fondling; her Aunt killed, because she hit her once, because she terrified her. Children act without knowing what they do. Often they cannot understand the consequences of their actions; are unable to perceive the effects on the emotions of their victims. She points a pistol at her aunt and her friend, and is imperviousness to their reaction. She has no sense of why the adults would be scared; she doesn’t know the gun is full of live bullets: the idea of the pistol, what it stands for, a gift she says from her father, more important than its tangible reality; the real threat it poses.
Sound analysis is replaced by dreams and made up stories; often confused with the world outside her head. What really does exist outside Ana’s mind? There are times when we are not sure. Although the film resolves itself, it aches after truth, and refuses to succumb to the subjective imaginings of a young child. So the city keeps breaking in, the noise of traffic from a major thoroughfare that constantly invades the overgrown garden of the family home.
No fantasy is as powerful as reality. The grandmother refuses to die, she will not drink the poison; and the aunt will survive a wish to kill her: the tin contains no magic. The milk in the glass is just milk, and has no deadly substances. The child has begun to grow up. The holiday is over, and the children return to school; the last scene in the film. You begin to understand what really happened; and you accept the inevitable. You are a child. Things happen to you. You cannot change them; however hard you wish.