"For me, writing a poem is like having a secret. It's like making love and delaying orgasm as long as possible. I find it hard now. My poetry is the result of the invention of an identity. Once identity is assumed, nothing stimulates the imagination less than being what you are. Furthermore, one's maturity is a silly time in life when the only intimacy is headaches, and paradoxically life starts becoming alarmingly short because you spend the whole day worrying about your fear of death."—Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-1990).
Sigfrid Monleón's The Consul of Sodom (2009) is a lavishly-produced biopic draped with literary weight. You need to love language—particularly poetry—to fully appreciate Sodom's Venusian excess and baroque melancholy. Sumptuously lensed by José David Montero, Sodom joins the ranks of such films as Kavafis (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000) in its effort to retroactively invest a queer historicity into the lives of poets who expressed themselves—perhaps even liberated themselves—through language alone, generations before the advent of the rhetoric of modern queer liberation. Which is to say that part of Sodom's value, if not its seduction, lies in the suggestion that liberation is available to the individual who is true to himself, even apart from any collective or politicized effort at either oppression or liberation.
Sodom depicts the life of Spanish poet Jaime Gil de Biedma (as portrayed by Jordi Mollà), one of the founders—along with Carlos Barral and Jose Agustin Goytisolo—of the Barcelona Poetry School, which developed in the 1950s during the most oppressive years of Francisco Franco's fascist regime. Gil de Biedma was likewise one of the prominent members of the so-called gauche divine, which Spanish scholar Teresa Vilaros has pointed out represents one of the first manifestations of a playful and provocative avant-gardism in Spain. According to Vilaros (as translated by David Vilaseca in his March 2008 Hispanic Review essay "How does one escape one's own simulacrum?"): "[I]n their enthusiastic, indeed militant embrace of cosmopolitism, spectacle, publicity, and performance, the members of the gauche divine not only pioneered models of identity that started to became popular at a later stage, during the Transicion; they can also be seen as the precursors in Spain of the globalizing and corporative paradigm in which we are all immersed today."
Reams have been written on the hazards of literary biopics and The Consul of Sodom eschews none of them even while entertainingly maneuvering around several of them. As Evan Maloney has suggested in his survey of literary biopics published earlier this year for The Guardian, films fantasize the lives of writers—in this case a poet—and the usual catered fantasy is that "writers are drunk, mad, sex-obsessed geniuses inspired by the holy spirit (50% proof)." Maloney distinguishes that such writers "have reputations that relate to their lifestyles as much as their writing styles."
Let there be no doubt: it is the sexual excess of Gil de Biedma's life and the tension of keeping it in balance with Franco's oppressive regime—more than the few volumes of poetry he managed to publish within his lifetime—that Monleón glamorizes in The Consul of Sodom. "No one's interested in the private life of a poet," Gil de Biedma asserts at one point in Monleón's script; but, literary humility aside, when that private life is debauched and dissolute and textured with colonial self-loathing, prurience reigns supreme. Aren't we all mesmerized by the pure white flower of poetry that unfurls from dissolute roots? As Jonathan Holland insinuates at Variety, Sodom's "pleasingly offbeat treatment" is "rarely dull" for being so "sexually explicit."
It is the poet as invented persona that rings authentic in The Consul of Sodom (and in a deft programming counterstroke, Frameline presents the same theme in their closing night feature Howl). The poets of Gil de Biedma's generation invented lives about themselves in order to endure their dictatorship (and a similar impulse motivated Ginsberg's generation to escape the cultural stagnation coming out of World War II). Poetry seeks to exceed the prosaic; excess becomes the means to access the extraordinary; and—as fellow Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez has written—the achievement of poetry conveys the unreality of life.
As Monleón envisions it, the persona Gil de Biedman invents for himself flips a coin of pride and shame. Gil de Biedman is keenly aware that his family's financial position in Barcelona (upper Catalonian bourgeoisie) insulates him from the atrocities suffered by others: not only his oppressed countrymen, but the impoverished multitudes of Manila. But this doesn't mean Gil de Biedman is exempt from suffering. His suffering—as described by Trevor J. Dadson for The Modern Language Review—is a "sense of shame at belonging to a Barcelona bourgeoisie that had so completely aligned itself with Franco and the Nationalist forces during and after the Civil War." His class awareness—further inflected through his family's colonial interests in the Philippines (they own and operate a multinational tobacco company)—breeds a nearly tragic eroticism enthused by the power structures of class inequality. He is sexually driven to escape his station; to stage an equal playing field. At heart is a colonial impulse guised as sexual desire; a mistrust of his own class mollified by a drive "to have great fun in another world." Self-aware, Gil de Biedma describes himself as "a Sunday poet with a Monday conscience." He sets about to waste himself, endorsing waste as part of the legend of colonialism.
Then along comes Bel (Bimba Bosé), who becomes Gil de Biedma's partner in crime, his fellow "sense offender" if you will. Bosé's portrayal of Bel hardly stands a chance, however, nearly upstaged in her introductory scene by a pair of spectacular triangular earrings and then later by a pair of fully-erect military men hungry for whores. Dangling things are always distracting. Variety's Jonathan Holland claims she is "sometimes out of her depth." Nonetheless, she carries off a credible affection with Mollá's incorrigible Gil de Biedma, enough so that his attempted suicide after her death and his convalescence in Morocco justifies the maudlin concerns and insightful regrets of his middle years.
As a middle-aged poet, Gil de Biedma becomes painfully aware of the passage of time, his misspent youth, and the death that patiently awaits him. This is, of course, one of the poetic conceits of aging gay males (if not their female counterparts in the plays of Tennessee Williams). What becomes apparent is that—because of a tender insecurity—Gil de Biedma never becomes fully jaded, poetry doesn't allow it, even though now and again he achieves perfectly poised bitchery. When told to "Fuck off", he counters: "Don't give me advice; give me addresses."
"What do you want now, youth, you impudent delight of life?," Gil de Biedma queries in one of his hypnotic narrative voiceovers. "What brings you to the beach? We old ones were content until you came along to wound us by reviving the most fearful of impossible dreams. You come to rummage through our imaginations."
"The fact that life was to be taken seriously we understand only later," he narrates later in the film. "Like all young people, I was going to change the world. I wanted to make my mark and withdraw to applause. Growing old, dying, it was all a question of the size of the theater. But time has passed and I see the unpleasant truth. Growing old, dying, is the play's only plot."
Then again: "Life is sometimes so short and complete that a minute, when I let it and you let it, runs faster and lasts a long time. Life is sometimes richer and during the week invites us both to go together into its palace or on Sundays to jerk and jolt. It's then that life can be counted in units of your love so small that they are forgotten amid the happiness, amid the confusion. Life sometimes is so little and so intense, if that's your pleasure. Even the pain you cause me brings another meaning to being of this world. Life, then, is us to the most evil extreme. For loving each other is a punishment and living together an abyss."
The passage of time is further accentuated by Joan Valent's plaintive score and an interesting and eclectic mix of songs ranging from Juliette Gréco's rendition of "Les feuilles mortes" ("The Autumn Leaves") to the Pet Shop Boys version of "You Were Always On My Mind", edging us through the relentless decades.
Despite its multiple nominations at the Spanish Goya Awards, The Consul of Sodom didn't do well at the box office and came under virulent criticism by some of the real-life literary talents on whom its characters are based, specifically revered author Juan Marsé (in a performance by Àlex Brendemühl that Variety praised as "refreshingly down-to-earth"). As reported by Andre Soares at Alt Film Guide, Marsé reportedly referred to The Consul of Sodom as "grotesque, ridiculous, phony, absurd, dirty, pedantic, directed by an incompetent and ignorant fool, badly acted, with deplorable dialogue. It's a shameless film, with an infamous title and produced by unscrupulous people."
Perhaps the main achievement of The Consul of Sodom is its long-overdue exposure to a Spanish poet relatively unfamiliar in the U.S. whose life and work—as Rod Armstrong suggests in Frameline's program capsule—"we are unlikely to forget." Surprisingly, I have found little information on Gil de Biedma, even though there are several volumes of Spanish poetry in my library. I can, however, strongly recommend Andrew P. Debicki's essay on Jaime Gil de Biedma entitled "The Theme of Illusion"—taken from his 1982 study Poetry of Discovery: The Spanish Generation of 1956-71—available in its entirety at Google Books. Debicki's essay provides an insightful analysis of the role of illusion in surviving realistic events or—as Stephen Sondheim has lyricized— how "one must accomodate the times as one lives them."
Disclaimer: This entry was written based upon watching the film on screener; but, I'm delighted that it's being shown in 35mm at the festival and plan to catch its Sunday, June 20, 9:30PM screening at the Castro, where director Sigfrid Monleón's attendance is expected for a post-film Q&A. The film is quite gorgeous to look at, stunning in its period detail, costuming, and the overall golden tone ascribed to its nostalgic leanings. This should be a real treat to watch.
Cross-published on Twitch.