On the surface, Ricardo (José Luis López Vázquez) seems to have a rather pleasant life in late Franco Spain: he’s the owner of successful art restoration business, his wife Eva (Lucia Bosé) is stinking rich, and he keeps his young and pretty employee Maria (May Heatherly) as a really rather emotionally loving mistress on the side.
However, the cracks in Ricardo’s ordered life of quotidian hypocrisy deepen when his wife buys him a new luxury car (oh, the glories of Volvo, master of cardom) as a wedding anniversary gift. On his first drive home with his new toy, Ricardo passes the scene of a car accident by the side of an otherwise empty road. A man and his little son are trapped in the flipped car and beg Ricardo for help, but out of fear of getting involved – and what of his brand new car!? – he drives on again, only to see the car explode in his rear view mirror.
Afterwards, things really go downhill for Ricardo. He begins to see blood stains nobody else can see on the backseat of his car, something that disturbs his already very guilty conscience even more. Ricardo is becoming unable to drive his car himself. It seems driving is now something the women in his life must do for him (holy metaphor, Batman!). He also begins – not for the first time it seems – to doubt the basics of his life. Is having a convenient, rich existence with a woman who won’t sleep with him (and who reacts to his tale about leaving people behind to die with pure cynicism), clearly doesn’t love him, and never wants kids, and a job that makes him rich yet also hides a minor criminal enterprise (Ricardo’s in the art forging business too, we learn late in the movie), truly all he wanted from life? Then there’s the fact that Eva has been sent yellow roses these last few days and seems even less inclined to loving companionship of any kind than usual, awakening an unexpected amount of jealousy in Ricardo, given the actual relationship between his wife and him that I’d explain more through hurt machismo than anything else.
Despite Maria’s reaction to the whole situation being quite more humane towards Ricardo – the dead people are ironically not important to anyone but Ricardo himself – than Eva’s, and a hopeless attempt to cure him of car related anxiety through good old car related intercourse, it’s clear that Ricardo is going to crack soon.
Antonio Mercero’s Manchas de Sangre is a minor, yet very interesting psychological thriller that suffers a bit from how on the nose its metaphorical and symbolical language is. As it often goes for me with this sort of thing, it’s all a bit much, and I’d like to take the director to the side to tell him: “Yes, Senor Mercero, we get it already. All his symbols of masculinity can’t absolve Ricardo from the guilt he suffers for a misdeed I can only read as a metaphor for the sins of looking away the upper bourgeoisie in Franco’s Spain committed again and again. But did you really have to hammer his emasculation home by giving his wife a lesbian affair? And while we’re at it, why does it sometimes look as if Ricardo’s feeling of emasculation seems more important to you and not just to Ricardo than his being a murderer by inaction?” But then I have a rather low tolerance for this sort of thing, so your mileage may vary.
Mercero does make some rather interesting decisions, though, namely turning Ricardo – quite perfectly embodied by Vázquez, who is the kind of guy you never see playing the lead in a genre movie – into a surprisingly sympathetic figure despite of all the perfectly horrible things he does, even if you’re like me and do not care about anyone’s lack or possession of any degree of masculinity, and generally don’t have very much empathy for people who care about this sort of thing. Still, the respectful and deeply human way Mercero and Vázquez portray Ricardo makes empathising really rather natural.
Ricardo is a man whose central problem in life seems to be that he has always played by the rather perverse rules the society he lives in has established, yet has never quite been able to stomach these rules, nor believe in them as the way the world should be. He is consequently plagued by a guilty conscience, but at the same time, and despite all his emphasis on overt masculinity, never courageous enough to stop and lead a life he needn’t be secretly ashamed of. It is the central irony of the film’s plot that he’s either too cynical, or not cynical enough, not moral enough, or too moral, to live in this movie’s Spain, a place where only cynical monsters like his wife can be happy. Of course, I could have lived quite well without the film treating Eva’s lesbian sex life as a sign of her complete lack of morals; her “just take a valium” reaction to Ricardo’s guilty conscience is rather more poignant and less bigoted, and would have been more than enough to make the point. Which leads us back to the point that Mercero likes to lay things on a little too thickly.
Formally, Mercero clothes these themes and ideas into a well-done, if not overtly spectacular psychological thriller (the only kind of thriller that doesn’t need an actual bad guy in its plot because people are able to destroy themselves well enough without more direct intervention) with a more subtle hand for the visual than the writing side of things, that perhaps suffers a bit from showing little interest in being exciting on its surface because it is much more interested in other things.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?