Double Features: The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) and The Duellists (1977)

I finally caught up with some of the more challenging and lengthy films of world cinema that had been high on my to do list the past year: the full 12h 40m cut of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)  -it made a brief, delightful appearance on Netflix streaming last fall, and if only they would add and retain more content like that I wouldn’t be so ready to cancel-, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973), the 317m cut of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994), and Lav Diaz’s Norte, The End of History (2013) among others. I really enjoy the immersive experience of longer films and I can’t think of an instance where I don’t prefer the extended director’s cut of a film to the theatrical cut, and it makes me crazy when I read that one of the main reasons attributed to the Blade Runner 2049 (2017) box office failure was its rather lean 164m run time. I still hold out hope that Terrence Malick will tire of his “ennui of pretty white people staring out windows” phase and put together a six hour or whatever cut of The Thin Red Line (1998) for a special Blu Ray release. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) by comparison weighs in at mere 183m, and has only a tenuous connection at best to The Duellists (1977), but it has a reputation for being a unique and difficult film and it seemed a good time to give it a watch.

The Saragossa Manuscript is based on an 1815 novel by Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Zaragoza, adapted by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski and directed by Wojciech Has. Count Potocki was born into an aristocratic family, well educated, wealthy, and well traveled, he was an ethnographer and one of the first travel writers, and also became a publisher and reformist. He wrote the bulk of the novel over the last three years of his life while suffering from severe depression and other mental derangements, and it was published posthumously after he shot himself in the head with a homemade silver bullet at age 54. He was metal as fuck for doing that as he apparently believed he was becoming a werewolf, though modern scholars think this may have been a symptom of advanced syphilis. The novel is a series of 66 interlocked stories in the style of Decameron and The Arabian Nights that Wojciech Has boiled down into a philosophical film heavily influenced by surrealism, whose painters had in turn adopted the novel as a foundational text along with Blake, Poe, and Sade. The film was shown in the US in 1972 in an abridged cut that was seen by Jerry Garcia, tripping balls I would imagine, who loved the film and roped Scorsese and Coppola into a decades long quest to restore and release the complete film, which sadly for Garcia was not completed and shown theatrically until 1999, and then was also subsequently released on DVD as a part of a digitally restored 21 film series Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.

During a battle in the town of Saragossa, a officer in Napoleon’s army (the tenuous connection) wanders off the battlefield into an inn and discovers a book on a table on the second floor. He proceeds to leaf through the volume and is entranced by the elaborate drawings of two beautiful princesses, two hanging bandits, and other magical delights. The Spanish enter the inn and tell the officer that he is now a prisoner, and he calmly asks for a moment more to look at the book, bemoaning the fact that he cannot translate the text. A Spanish officer looks at the book and also becomes entranced, he dismisses his men, and begins to translate the Spanish text for the other’s benefit when he realizes the story it relates recount the adventures of his own grandfather, Alphonse van Worden, a Captain of the Walloon Guard in 1739 who is trying to find the shortest way through the Sierra Morena mountains from Andalusia in the south to join his regiment in Madrid. The officers are never seen again as the film enters Van Worden’s journey to Madrid and his perspective of the haunted moonscape of sinister rock formations and contorted, petrified trees, a desolate wilderness where his servants warn him of curses, bloodthirsty ghosts, and tell him “invisible hands will push you into the abyss.” They happen upon two gypsy bandits swinging at the end of ropes on a gallows amidst a pile of human skulls writhing with snakes and Van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski, a famous Polish actor who put aside his trademark dark sunglasses for this role) ignores the sage advice of his men, who subsequently disappear, and pushes on to arrive at an isolated inn called Venta Quemada, which the proprietor and his wife are abandoning for the night because the ghosts come out then, when he laughs off their warnings and says he’ll take a room.

A topless servant wanders into the kitchen as he looks for a meal and tells him that her two ladies have invited him for dinner. He follows her into a hidden, cavernous suite where a bevy of scantily clad female servants are putting the finishing touches on an elaborately prepared feast. Two beautiful Moorish princesses, Emina and Zibelda, arrive and tell him they are sisters and his first cousin, they are also incestuous lovers who have never been with a man, and have awaited his arrival because he is the last of the Gomelez line and they must both marry him to produce heirs. Van Worden tucks into the meal and seems pretty excited about the impending threesome, and though he balks a bit when he is told he must convert to Islam to seal the deal, he is happily seduced and promises to keep them secret while they in turn promise to always remain in his dreams. Afterwards, the sisters demand that he drink from a large chalice with a human skull goblet, and he suddenly awakens back in the mountains under the gibbet with the two rotting gypsy bandits swinging from nooses, his servants dessicated bodies beside him, the wall of human skulls around him. Nonplussed, he journeys back to Venta Quemada and finds the inn deserted, the room of the Princesses a decayed wreck with rats nibbling on human bones.

Van Worden departs on his horse and arrives at a church where a wise, long bearded monk and his ward Pacheco, a one-eyed, psychologically damaged simpleton who he is told has been cursed by the devil, provide him with food after he is asked if he wants to have his belly or his soul nourished. The monk seemingly tests his Christian faith and Van Worden begins to tell his father’s story, also an officer in the Walloon Guard, and an inveterate duellist (the other tenuous connection) with 130 duels to his account, who one day challenged a fellow traveller to a fight. He loses but lives, and while his wounded body is taken from the town on an oxcart, he begs for water, and when they laugh at him he says he would sell his soul for a drink. A beautiful woman appears from out of nowhere and provides a drink, she is a Gomelez woman and becomes his father’s wife and is Van Worden’s mother. They remain happily married and preside over the father’s ancestral castle where Van Worden is eventually commissioned into the Wallon Guard himself and sent off to Madrid. This tale completed, the monk requires Pacheco tell the elaborate story of his own undoing by his love for his stepmother’s sister, who in turn is in love with him at the expense of his father, and betrays him with another incestuous menage a trois that is arranged to take place at the inn Venta Quemada. Pacheco’s tale devolves into convoluted surrealism that echoes Van Worden’s tale with the gypsies here descending from their ropes to pluck out his eye and the Princesses appearing to whisper seductively in his ear. After the story, Van Worden stays the night in the chapel with the monk after falling and being knocked unconscious, and in the morning is pointed towards Madrid and departs, where he is promptly arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, whom nobody expects.

The Inquisitor proceeds to cage Van Worden’s head in a horned metal mask and torture him for information about the Muslim Princesses. Suddenly, the Princesses arrive with the two gypsy Zoto brothers and their armed men, where they rescue Van Worden and tell him the hanged men he saw were imposters. He travels back to Venta Quemada with the women, who remove his Christian locket and make it disappear despite his protests and replace it with a talisman necklace that contains locks of their hair. A large turbaned sheik then barges into the room with his guards. The head of the Gomelez family, he berates Van Worden for being with the women and forces him at swordpoint to again drink from the goblet. Van Worden awakens back under the gibbet with a broken rope around his neck amid the skulls and decaying bodies, but this time he encounters a fellow survivor from the noose, a cabalist who speaks of the Song of Songs and Jewish mysticism. They walk back to Venta Quemada to find their horses in the stable and evidence of the previous nights feast on the table, the Cabalist finds Van Worden’s missing locket and jokes about the time he spent there himself with the two princesses, which makes Van Worden jealous. They begin to journey and are soon joined by another man, Don Pedro Velazquez, who narrowly escaped from the Inquisition men who are searching the area for Van Worden. The Cabalist suggests they retire to his nearby castle, as the Inquisition wouldn’t dare enter, and they can recover and consider their next moves from there. Thus ends the 80m of Part One.

The longer and much more elaborate second part jumps off with their arrival at the Cabalist’s castle. Van Worden is immediately ill at ease and resolves to depart for Madrid while the Cabalist sends him to the library to relax among his huge collection of books. Van Worden immediately finds the book that jump started the film and he is amazed and frightened to find drawings and stories of the events that had just occurred at Venta Quemada. While Van Worden paces and frets and seeks Velazquez, the Cabalist sneaks in and removes the book, berating his sister Rebecca for leaving it out, “If he had read to the end, the events which are to follow would make no sense.” The men are then introduced to the beautiful Rebecca, and they begin to settle in when a band of gypsies arrive. They are friends of the household and their leader Avadoro joins Rebecca and the men and launches into his tale and we begin the long descent into the rabbit hole of his story.

 

I hope at this point the somewhat detailed description of part one has whetted your appetite for the second, as to proceed with any degree of specificity from this point on is a fool’s errand. I consider myself a practiced observer and reader of film and text and rarely find myself lost or confused, but by the time this tale had nested for the sixth or seventh time within the tale of a participant of the previous tale, and the panoply of characters involved formed a different perspective but were still tangential participants from another’s previous tale, as well as events from earlier in the film, I’ll admit that I started to lose the thread and simply gave over to the pleasure of the tale being told and simply trusted Has to unwind it all in a satisfying fashion. The closest contemporary analogue would be something like Primer (2004) or Inception (2010) and I have no idea how the 2 hr and 2.5 hr edits that had been circulated back in the day when this was released could have been intelligible at all, as one gypsy who interrupts Avadoro’s tale says, “I’ve lost the feeling of where reality ends and fantasy takes over,’ and that ambiguity is I’m sure much of the point. Suffice to say, the tales themselves recount love, jealousy, betrayal, a duel, con artists and thieves, fortunes made and lost, vendettas and revenge, and the randy, unfaithful temptress Frasquita at the center of it all. Once finished, Avadoro nimbly retraces how the tale traveled through all the characters to himself as a peripheral participant, and Rebecca remarks, “It’s enough to drive you crazy, but one story creates another, and then another,” they also realise that the man who wins 11 duels at the end of the tale is in fact Van Worden’s father.

At this point, a rider enters the compound and tells Van Worden that important affairs are calling him, and with reluctance and trepidation he allows himself to be lead away while the Cabalist looks on knowingly, and he journeys back to Venta Quemada. He arrives and is again greeted by the topless servant girl who leads him back to the chamber where he is greeted warmly by the Princesses, and seated at the table is the turbaned sheik of the Gomelez family. The sheik reveals he is also the old holy man and relays that everything that has occurred has been arranged by him as a test of Van Worden’s honor and courage: Pacheco, the Cabalist, Don Pedro, the Inquisitors and Gypsies are all his people, and tells him that both the Princesses are pregnant, which now guarantees the Gomelez family line. He then hands him the book which recounts all his experiences to that point, and says, “The rest you can write yourself.” Van Worden asks of the Princesses that they now tell him who they really are, they reply that he should close his eyes and drink from the shull goblet and when he hears them call his name, open his eyes and come find them. He follows their instructions and awakens to find himself in an empty room, he approaches the window and sees the canopied bed in the sand, he calls and the Princesses and another man, who is actually himself, turn and smile back at him, he walks up to himself, and confusion and laughter turn to fear as the women smile and nod mysteriously. He awakens back under the gallows, his servants alive and beside him, and they then make the journey to Saragossa where Van Worden winds up in the same inn which opened the film. He begins to write in the book, and then is informed two ladies would like him to join them for dinner, he stares out the window and sees a desolate countryside and a mirror appears before him that carries the reflections of the Princesses smiling and coming toward him, he turns away and throws the book and it lands on the table exactly as it will be discovered by the French officer.

The movie is filmed in high contrast B/W on 35mm and the cinematography is stunning in the digital restoration. The detailed set design is meticulous and presents an array of unique and interesting objects that lend a magical realism to the world that was characteristic of Has’ work, the Polish locations standing in for Spain seem perfectly of the period, and the cast is uniformly charming. Krzysztof Penderecki’s classical and baroque score beautifully complements the story beats, and his orchestral music has been used by Kubrick, Friedkin, and David Lynch as well. The recursive narrative of compelling and entertaining characters, reversals of fortune, bawdy humor, and the feedback loop of mystical weirdness was delightful throughout one man’s search through the past to find the future, and the film is highly recommended. 

I am a huge admirer of Ridley Scott’s films and was always perturbed that reviews and comments on the old site tended to be kind of hostile and dismissive and snarky of his later films, basically post Blade Runner (1982), which is absurd. The only major criticism that I would have of him is that while he is clearly capable of excellence, he tends to consistently settle for very good, ready to move on to the next project. I find all his films highly rewatchable, even a trifle like A Good Year (2006) is damn entertaining, because of his assurance as a director and his incredible ability to frame and focus the action and actors in his scenes and integrate CGI and other SFX into his work. The only film of his I never much liked was Black Rain (1989), because, kinda racist, and Andy Garcia is a hack. I had originally intended to use this article as an opportunity to revisit a couple of his lesser discussed films or even dive into the two recent Alien prequels for the hell of it, before deciding on Saragossa as the Double. I just can’t resist the opportunity to advocate for something else though, and will briefly argue for the unfairly maligned The Counsellor (2013), a film whose reputation will surely grow beyond cult status in the years to come.

The Duellists (1977) was his first film, written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes from a Joseph Conrad story, The Duel, itself based on a true story of two Napoleonic officers who engaged in 17 duels over two decades, and it’s basically unfair to compare this movie to others’ debuts, he was 40 and already had fifteen years of commercial and television work under his belt, and the experience and talent is obvious from the impeccably framed first image of a young girl herding ducks through a path in the countryside near Strasbourg in 1800. She comes upon a duel in progress. Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel, perfect) defeats another man with aggression and confidence, he’s really enjoying himself as he runs the man through the belly. The nearly dead man happens to be the mayor’s son, and a General dispatches an unwitting man from his staff, Lieutenant Armand D’Hubert (Keith Carradine, at his best) to find Feraud and confine him to his quarters. D’Hubert tracks Feraud to the salon of a notorious local beauty, Madame de Lionne, and after making his polite apologies to the hostess, leaves with a visibly hostile Feraud. D’Hubert further inflames the constantly bitching Feraud, “some sausage eaters son, who cares,” when he doesn’t defend Napoleon quickly enough for his taste when challenged. When they arrive at Feraud’s home, the irascible and irrational man continues to insult and provoke the even tempered D’Hubert who argues he has no ill will and is merely doing his duty. Feraud doesn’t care and insists that he has been dishonored and insulted, he demands a duel, threatening to kill D’Hubert where he stands otherwise. They retire to a courtyard where D’Hubert manages to wound Feraud and bash him in the head with the hilt of his sword, Feraud’s mistress intervenes though and prevents any further damage when she attacks D’Hubert.

The film deliberately recalls the then recently released Barry Lyndon (1975), not only in quality, but with the close attention to period detail, use of natural light, perfectly chosen locations, and in the sublime cinematography of the clouded skies at dawn that frame the fields and ancient stone buildings where the duels take place. The film is also filled with great actors in small supporting roles, as D’Hubert returns to his billet and sends his friend and roommate, army surgeon Dr. Jacquin (Tom Conti) to tend to Feraud’s wounds because he is an honorable man. Jacquin returns and they drink and discuss the unbearable Feraud, when he reminds D’Hubert that three conditions will prevent the escalation of the duel, if they are at war, if they are of unequal rank, and if they are not in the same country, so he suggests, “Stay ahead of him, stay away from him, and keep fighting.” As grim luck would have it, active war returns, though D’Hubert has been kicked off the General’s staff for dueling with Feraud before he can call an inquiry to clear his involvement and sent into battle, and they will not meet again for six months until they both arrive in Augsburg in 1801 during a hiatus in the fighting. Feraud immediately challenges him to a duel and seriously wounds him in the shoulder such that D’Hubert cannot continue the fight, which absolutely enrages Feraud who had intended to kill him. While recovering D’Hubert enjoys the company of a former lover Laura (Diana Quick) and takes fencing lessons from a master. Laura confronts Feraud to prevent the duel and in a great exchange, he says, “I know a man who was stabbed by a woman; gave him the surprise of his life.” She replies, “I once knew a woman who was beaten to death by a man. I don’t think it surprised her at all.” In their next duel, held in a cellar with heavy sabres, they fight to a bloody, exhausted draw in a brutal fight. D’Hubert is then relievedly promoted to Captain on merit while recovering, and the duel is again off the table as men of unequal rank cannot fight.

 

 

 

The story advances to Lubeck in 1806 where D’Hubert chances upon Feraud, now also a Captain. D’Hubert is to be promoted to Major after two weeks leave, and attempts to slip away, but is spotted by Feraud’s loyal second, who points him out while Feraud grins madly and taps his Captain’s stripes. This time, Feraud demands they duel with sabres from horseback, and to defend the honor of his mounted company D’Hubert must reluctantly agree. His life flashing before his eyes, and shaking with fear, he charges at Feraud in front of a large group of soldiers and lands a hard accurate slash to Feraud’s head that unhorses the man and ends yet another round as the doctor present refuses to allow the profusely bleeding Feraud to continue. D’Hubert is the winner and rejoices with the confidence of his victory, whooping and galloping away, and soon after Feraud is mercifully sent to Spain. They don’t meet again until the retreat from Moscow in 1812, where amidst beautiful shots of the frozen dead and the defeated starving soldiers trying to survive, Feraud, now a Major as well, again renews his challenge to duel, and an angry, determined D’Hubert accepts, though they are interrupted by a Cossack assault and forced to retire before fighting each other. D’Hubert now wants blood and an end to the madness and vows next time it will be with pistols, and the men seperate and continue the retreat.

In 1814, D’Hubert is now a General, still recovering from his wounds, and living at his sister Leonie’s villa in Tours, where she plays matchmaker and he falls in love with a neighbor, Adele (Christina Raines, Carradine’s girlfriend at the time, having met while making Nashville (1975)). He is a mellowed man and when a Bonapartist agent (Edward Fox, overqualified) attempts to recruit him to join Napoleon’s rebellious return from exile, he politely refuses. Feraud, also a General, learns D’Hubert refused to help, considers him a traitor and claims that was the reason why the duel originated and has endured all these years, though when D’Hubert gets wind of the big talk, he denies the alleged cause angrily, and while keeping the details private, tells an officer to find Feraud and remind him of Madame de Lionne. The film is told mostly from D’Hubert’s perspective throughout and the depth of Feraud’s character is a credit to Keitel. He conveys the man’s anger and violent monomania with his tone and bearing in his brief non dueling scenes, and though an irrational, murderous bully he also makes it clear he has that soldierly bonhomie men would be loyal and drawn to, as he is a confident, fearless fighter who constantly wins duels and rewards those devoted to the Napoleonic cause. Carradine is also excellent with a more complex, introspective role that plays up his decency and intellect and they are well matched against each other, it is among the finest work they’ve done in their distinguished careers.

Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo after the 100 Days, and the rebellious chief officers, Feraud among them, are slated for execution. D’Hubert is now a contented, married Royalist and expectant father, and soon to be promoted to Marshall in the King’s army. When he learns of Feraud’s imminent execution he meets with Joseph Fouche, the Minister of Police (Albert Finney, also overqualified, he took the role because he was dating Diana Quick, and accepted a case of Champagne as payment) and uses his influence and connections to have Feraud spared and then demands that no one ever be told of his involvement. Feraud is paroled to live under police observation in a distant province near Tours, where he soon learns D’Hubert is to be promoted to Marshall. He sends two men to challenge D’Hubert for him, who could refuse and have the men executed as they would be violating their parole, but he nonetheless agrees to meet at the same spot at dawn and duel with pistols to finally end it. He spends a pensive, melancholy night with his wife’s old uncle for company, and emerges at dawn alone, forced to use one of Feraud’s men as second as he would never ask his friends to participate in an illegal duel. He suggests they fight in the nearby ruins of a moated chateau, a hilly, decayed, maze like estate run riot and overgrown with nature, a stunning and atmospheric location, with Feraud entering in one end, D’Hubert the other, each armed with two pistols. When they finally encounter each other, Feraud narrowly fails in his two shots, while D’Hubert retains one. Feraud faces him, throws his pistols aside, and demands he shoot. D’Hubert fires in the air and says, “You have kept me at your beck and call for fifteen years. I shall never again do what you demand of me. By every rule of single combat, from this moment your life belongs to me. Is that not correct? Then I shall simply declare you dead. In all your dealings with me, you’ll do me the courtesy to conduct yourself as as a dead man. I have submitted to your notions of honor long enough. You will now submit to mine.” The film ends with Feraud atop a cliff overlooking a river as the sun rises through the mist, placid and inscrutable, and with the seething hatred curiously absent from his mien for the first time, he faces the sunrise, his unreasonable anger finally tempered by the implacable honor of his foe, a superb and memorable movie.

I recently rewatched The Counsellor for the fifth time when I found out that Scott had released a 138 minute Director’s Cut, I loved the movie and had wanted more from the first time I saw it. How this beautifully filmed and orchestrated, totally gonzo tale of the inexorable march of fate, peopled with hilariously colorful characters, and penned by Cormac McCarthy, was panned and dismissed is beyond a crime. I can only assume the bleak violence of the cynical story was too much for most people. I mean, you have two of the most beautiful people in the world, Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz passionately in love, Javier Bardem as a flamboyant drug dealer, Cameron Diaz as his even more flamboyant, treacherous girlfriend, adorable pet cheetahs, drug dealer chic sets and costumes, not one, but two, elaborately staged decapitations, an awesome Cartel shootout and truck hijacking, the meticulous truck repair aftermath, Brad Pitt in slimy character actor mode, sublime cameos from Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Edgar Ramirez, and Natalie Dormer, the hilarious pair of Dean Norris and John Leguizamo in Chicago, Ruben Blades philosophical Cartel chief delivering a bemused, detached monologue, and the inevitable arrival of that plain brown wrapped snuff film DVD to the seedy Mexican hotel. Did people also need this brought to their bed gift wrapped on Christmas morning by the nude fantasy person of their dreams?

The movie opens with fate’s missile, a motorcycle screaming down the highway through an open window, already en route, while Fassbender and Cruz make joyful, oblivious love, unknowing while the courier’s actions doom them and nearly every other character in the film, their destiny sealed by that streaking rider. The cruelty of the juxtaposition hurts, death is coming for everyone, love provides no immunity, and while Fassbender’s decision to seek a shortcut out from under his financial problems with an unfortunate investment finalizes the oblivion, his mind was made up before the biker cruised past, the daisy chain of coincidence and isolated decisions among these separate people bringing him the proverbial fate worse than death. And they all try to warn him. Bardem’s giddy, overconfident dealer Reiner, as oblivious as Fassbender’s Counselor, Pitt’s worldly profiteering drug connection Westray, who warns the Counsellor of chaos, but recognizes him as the embodiment of it, and then the belated sympathy of Ruben Blades cartel boss, “The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you made is different from the world where the mistakes were made. You are now at a crossing. And you want to choose, but there is no choosing there. There is only accepting. You are the world you have created. And when you cease to exist, this world you have created will also cease to exist. But for those with the understanding that they’re living the last days of the world, death acquires a different meaning. The extinction of reality is a concept no resignation can encompass.” Then he hangs up and takes a nap. I fucking love this crazy one of a kind movie.

Addendum:

The Saragossa Manuscript can be purchased from Amazon. The Duellists and The Counsellor extended cut streams can be rented from Amazon. Cheers.