Sunday 17 February 2013

1,001 Films: "The Young One/La Joven" (1960)

Luis Buñuel entered the 1960s - the decade that was to produce his most acclaimed works - with the very strange Mexican B-pic The Young One, this filmmaker's only English-language feature. From the opening burst of the song "Sinner Man", it's clear this is meant as a parable of sorts, with paradise and innocence tested, lost and regained, though I'm not sure the talky final act has the clarity of purpose required to drive the message of this particular sermon home. 

A fugitive (Bernie Hamilton) washes up on a private island where the gamekeeper (Zachary Scott) is shacked up with a teenage girl (Kay Meersman, who rather resembles a young Carole Bouquet) who he abuses verbally, physically and - it's implied - sexually. While the gamekeeper is away tying up some business on the mainland, the newcomer - a dark-skinned hipster who converses in a similar street lingo to that deployed by Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, or the leads in later blaxsploitation movies - strikes up a playful, even protective bond with the girl ("see you at the top, gumdrop"). When the keeper returns, and learns this newcomer has made off with one of his shotguns - phallic symbol alert! - he's not best pleased.

As these three circle one another, the conflict between natural and unnatural urges is none too subtly pointed up: there are almost as many inserts of buzzing insects as there were in Buñuel's early Surrealist ventures, while a soundtrack of chirruping cicadas making play in the fields of the Lord gets cranked to the max at moments of high tension. For once, the director appears busy rather than merely amused, enlivening this already perverse material with clarinets and hand grenades, baptisms and rabbit traps, and seeking out inventive ways of circumventing the heightened censorship that followed from working in America, lowering his camera to the girl's feet while she takes a shower, and playing one early dialogue scene between the gamekeeper and his charge behind a closed window so we can't hear what, precisely, is being said - and consequently leading us to imagine the worst.

There's very little to overturn my suspicion that Buñuel was more interested in casting types than in the specifics of directing actors. These characters have descriptions (fugitive, girl, corrupt authority figure, priest) rather than names, and tend to interact as such, eventually pushing the film into the realms of the waffly abstract, though you could argue the remote setting excuses it from having to appear entirely realistic, and Scott attempts something brave (and potentially career-ending) in fleshing out a type - put bluntly, a pederast - that the movies, even at the start of the Swinging Sixties, still hadn't fully acknowledged.

The Young One is currently unavailable on DVD.

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