Obituary

Bigas Luna, Iberian passion on screen

The filmmaker who discovered Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem dies at 67

Bigas Luna (1946-2013).
Bigas Luna (1946-2013).Alberto Estévez (EFE)

The death of filmmaker Juan José Bigas Luna on Friday at the age of 67 robs the world of the man who taught us that a woman’s breasts can taste of Spanish omelet, and pour forth a milky path that leads us to worlds of pleasure. Who posed the question that if a man has two testicles, why can’t he wear two Rolexes? Who told us that it is possible to be both a prostitute and naïve, that there is a direct link between poodles and stagnant swimming pools, that food, sex, and humor should be connected, that eroticism is dark and at the same time human, that the Earth is mother, that cinema is a pale reflection of the telluric, and that for the short time we are on this earth we might as well enjoy ourselves, otherwise, what are we here for?

Bigas Luna had told nobody about the leukemia that killed him, and had pressed ahead with Second Origin, his screen adaptation of Catalan novel El manuscript del segon origen, by Manuel de Pedrolo. Filming was due to begin this summer, and according to co-screenwriter and producer Carles Porta will go ahead, “in accordance with his instructions, planning, and enthusiasm.” The film, to be shot in 3D, tells the story of two children who appear to be the only survivors of an attack by aliens that wipes out all mammal life on the planet, and is a reflection on sexuality and the environment.

Sexuality and the environment: two subjects close to Bigas Luna’s heart. He died at his farmhouse in La Riera de Gaià in the Catalan province of Tarragona with his wife and three daughters by his side. In recent years he had increasingly dedicated himself to his garden, growing tomatoes, baking bread, looking after his rooster, Obama, and producing small amounts of wine. He also had a website, called panvinoychocolate.com, where he would deposit pearls of wisdom such as “The Earth is sacred.” Film had become just one of the ways he chose to share his pleasures.

Perhaps this love of food explains his first film, Tattoo, made in 1976, which introduced the world to Pepe Carvalho, the gastrodetective created by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Bigas Luna had worked in industrial design, and found in movies a spectacular tool into which he poured his powerful imagery.

Ham and eggs: Bardem and Cruz in 'Jamón, jamón.'
Ham and eggs: Bardem and Cruz in 'Jamón, jamón.'

During the post-Franco period, when Isabel Pisano became the dynamo for his electric eroticism, and accompanied him to Cannes with Poodle (1979) and Reborn (Dennis Hopper in a Spanish thriller with stigmata!). Both films made it clear that Bigas Luna was unlike anybody else, that he was a shaken-up Buñuel with leeks and snails. After four years in Hollywood, he returned to premiere the pioneering Anguish, before Lola, in 1987, brought an end to an era. Bigas Luna took time out to paint, and three years later came The Ages of Lulu, an adaptation of the bestselling rites-of-passage novel by Almudena Grandes, in which Bigas Luna managed to include what he described as “my thing: transvestites and sadism.”

Then came Jamón, jamón (the first installment of his Iberian trilogy), and suddenly Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Jordi Mollá exploded on to our screens, and Bigas Luna was a box-office hit. He described the film as a poem that began: “Raúl and Conchita. / Got together because / garlic is what they both liked the most in the world. / The Greek philosophers also smelled of garlic. / Raúl with his ham — Conchita with her pearls. / The boy from the interior and the whore mother. / The thief and the lady.” A quixotic Cain and Abel, Goya’s black paintings, the sweat of sex, a ham versus a ham... Jamón jamón won the Silver Lion at Venice in 1992. The trilogy was completed with Golden Balls, a visionary glimpse of Spain today, and the more poetic The Tit and the Moon (winner of the best screenplay award at Venice), in which he showed his innate talent for discovering young actors and getting the best out of them.

For better or worse, his films were always very Bigas Luna: Bámbola, a paean to eels and humidity; The Chambermaid on the Titanic, which provided a masterful twist to the sinking of the liner; Volavérunt, in which he radicalized the binomial of Goya and the vagina; and the lovely Sound of the Sea… The 21st century injected new life into Bigas Luna and prompted him to make his most youthful film, Yo soy la Juani (2006), an outing that showed up directors 30 years his junior. There was also his defense of bullfighting in Catalonia, his 2003 stage production of Valle-Inclán’s Comedias bárbaras, his installation at the Shanghai Expo… His last film, DiDi Hollywood, may not be the greatest epitaph, but even in his most imperfect work, as with the ugliest tomatoes in his garden, were to be found his love of the soil, a sexual landscape and him, always himself, Bigas Luna.

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