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Tam Tam (1976)
A Musical Comedy Without Songs
Director Adolfo Arrietta (whose name appears differently in each film he makes) describes the film as a musical comedy... "or maybe a fairytale". It is easy to see why he uses this description. There is very little plot and the setting serves for a series of character studies, which feel almost like songs. One can imagine this film being very effectively staged with an original score, in fact, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Tam Tam (or Tom Tom) is entirely set in the house of transvestite and artist/ performer Cynthia- a rather horrifying character with few likable traits. Cynthia is throwing a party for the author Pedro, who has written a book called Tom Tom, which seems to feature many fantastical elements including love potions and tom tom drums being capable of bringing about a cataclysm. The author never arrives, supplying a series of rather flimsy excuses, but his "identical twin brother" is present already.
The house is populated by likable eccentrics: an ageing actress, several young artists and many trans women and transvestites. All eagerly await the arrival of the belated Pedro, tensions arising due to his absence. All of the characters have seemingly known each other in some way outside of this environment, sometimes in very destructive ways, but are trying to put on a brave face for when the famous author arrives. Of course, their character trajectories are set to meet at several times, often with highly amusing, though sometimes heartbreaking consequences.
There are times when the characters suspect the superstitions in the book may be manifesting themselves- the sound of Tom Toms incessantly interrupts the soundtrack, often before some moment of tension or a character having some kind of emotional meltdown. Is this indicative of a wider cataclysm beyond the house? Who knows. Cynthia also seeks a love potion mentioned in the book, seemingly convinced that she cannot find true love without it, adding a more human and tragic dimension to this difficult character. Occasionally we see some rather frightening masks, which are described in the book. These seem to cause unrest in the room, but are they present, or figments of the characters' imagination?
Most characters seem doomed to experience some disappointment in the course of the evening, not least by a guest of honour failing to materialise. In the end, it seems unclear if the identical twin of the author might in fact be the author (a playful trick by Arrietta given characters are constantly remarking on their similarities) played by Xavier Grandes, who appears in all of the director's films. In any case, we seem to be left, in an almost Beckett- like sense, with a highly entertaining film without a plot about people simply waiting. The caricatures are softened by Arrietta's sensitive directorial touch- he seems to be very good at surrounding unlikeable/ ambivalent main characters with immensely likable secondary characters- and presents his character study with charm and wit.
The question remains- as in all of the director's work- to what extent is the film fantasy or reality. Some viewers may also quibble with the visual aspects of this film, made essentially on amateur equipment, but with a professional's eye. The wonderful thing about Arrietta is that he uniquely transcends the boundaries between amateur and professional and reality and fantasy. The effect may leave one scratching one's head, but, usually entertained and amused. Jean Cocteau once quipped that "Film will only be an art form when it becomes as easy to make a film as it is to pick up a pen". If this is the case, then Arrietta is the definition of Cocteau's film artist.
A Real "Why Isn't Everyone Talking About This Film?!" Moment
Flammes is widely considered to be the masterpiece of Madrid-born, but long time Paris- Resident filmmaker Adolfo Arrietta (A spelling which changes in each film he makes seemingly!). Of course when I say widely, it is with the caveat that Arrietta's films are nowhere near as well known as they should be. Hopefully the recent release by Re:Voir of his complete works to date will go some way to rectifying this.
Several articles on Arrietta (mostly focusing on this film, truth be told) have suggested the neglect that the filmmaker suffers is due to his best works being produced at times when the attention-grabbing French New Wave of Godard and Truffaut was taking hold. Arrietta's work does not belong to the French New Wave style, nor does it belong to the sister- movement from the Rive Gauche movement of Resnais, Demy or Varda (although it would be easy to liken some of his films to those of Demy). This reason surely holds some validity, but it may also be due to Arrietta's incredible lack of discernible "genre" of the films and the filmmaker. Is the film drama, comedy, fantasy, cinema verité? It seems as if the film is a fantasy work filmed in a verité style- something unique to Arrietta's films. And the filmmaker himself: is he an amateur or auteur? Perhaps he is an amateur auteur! He has made films, often while penniless and living out of bags, whilst doing menial jobs and hoping for the film's investors to pay out. The paradoxes abound and make these films unique and wonderfully so.
The film begins with the young girl Barbara having a nightmare in which she is terrified by the figure of a fireman who appears at the foot of her bed: the vision which proves key to the film's later events.
Flash forward several years and we meet Barbara the broody young woman, still seemingly haunted by the opening image of the film. What follows appears on the surface to be a bit of a bedroom farce. Doors open, close, flap, are listened through and puzzled over, partners come and go and are swapped, but at the centre is Barbara's wish to live out a certain fantasy. Along the way, we are introduced to a host of intriguing, but thoroughly likable characters. These include Barbara's home-teacher/ best friend Claire (who seems at times "infected" by Barbara's flights of fancy, her half-brother Paul (a young gay man, who seems to have some fantasies of his own) and her father- an exceptional performance by Dionys Mascolo portraying her father's deep affection and simultaneous worry for his daughter with perceptive beauty.
The central theme of the film is Barbara's fantasy. At times, dangerous, at others, innocent, these are the catalyst for most of the on screen action. However, the film works so unpredictably that it raises innumerable questions from the viewer. Chiefly: is Barbara- isolated and yearning for experience beyond her home- making her fantasy into reality, or is she losing her mind and making her reality less than a fantasy? A somewhat banal assessment of a complex film, I know, but it is extremely hard to describe without giving too much away.
Most of the film takes place in the manor house- at once spacious and claustrophobic- which nobody seems truly able to leave permanently. Perhaps one person does in the end- or perhaps it is just a bit too perfect? Too much of a fairytale? As you can probably tell, this is anyone's guess.
It is high time to reappraise Arrietta's work and there are few better places to start than this lovely film. We can only hope that more retrospectives of this fine transgressive filmmaker are held around the world. A must see for those interested in art-house (if not experimental) cinema.