Real Sex in Cinema
In a world of receding taboos, actual sex in mainstream cinema is still one, though a number of notable French imports — including the incendiary Baise Moi and Catherine Breillat’s Romance and Anatomy of Hell — have over the last half dozen years made erosive inroads here, alongside Vincent Gallo’s divisive The Brown Bunny. The latest film to draw attention for such content is maverick director Carlos Reygadas’ challenging, elliptical Battle in Heaven, arriving on DVD fresh from an arthouse theatrical run last year, and I took some time to speak with star Ana Mushkadiz on occasion of its release.
As with The Brown Bunny, the frank depiction of sexual fellatio
in Battle in Heaven is decidedly at odds with a stylistic mode that might
charitably be described as meditative. Those looking for cheap, streamlined
thrills would for several reasons be advised to look elsewhere — not the least
of which is because Reygadas (Japón) likes to work with
non-professionals. Ergo, there’s no offshoot titillation of familiarity here, as
there might be for American indie fans with Chloe Sevigny in The Brown Bunny.
An intimate dual character study (for which the colloquial expression “two-hander” might be appropriate under other circumstances), Battle in Heaven tells the story of Marcos (Marcos Hernandez), the middle-aged chauffeur of Ana (Mushkadiz), the adult daughter of a Mexican general. Although a child of privilege, Ana leads a double life as a prostitute in a high-end brothel, as much to amuse herself and stave off boredom as anything else. Marcos is the only one to know her secret, but when he picks Ana up one day he too is burdened by a terrible secret that he eventually confesses to her — the fact that he and his obese wife (Berta Ruiz) kidnapped a baby for ransom, a baby that has subsequently died in their custody. From here pity, fanciful crush and fleeting affection commingle in expressionless, straightforward fashion, building to a shocking climax book-ended by sexual whimsy.
If Battle in Heaven is an unlikely blend of elements — locating intimate, and sometimes even charged, but non-traditional erotic angles and holding firm on them, as well as panning outside and around a courtyard during one sexual encounter — erstwhile freelance art designer Mushkadiz is an equally unlikely star. Neither a professional actress nor someone even necessarily looking for a break in film, she says a mutual female friend gave Reygadas her phone number, and she went and met with the director not knowing in advance why. “We just talked about life, that’s it,” she says matter-of-factly. “He told me about the story and the sex scenes. He described it in about two sentences. I saw his other movie, Japón, and so I got a sense of where he wanted to take it. But he talked about it with so much confidence and in a really natural way, so it never seemed obscene or like porn or anything.”
“It’s so natural to him that he didn’t even really need to explain it,” she continues of the film’s explicitness. “We talked a lot about sex in real life and sex in movies, and we share many ideas about this — how taboo it is to show sex in movies, and about how simply he wanted to show this, with no sheets or covers.”
Battle in Heaven was filmed with a spare, 10-person crew, and when it came time for exterior shots, of which there are a decent number of extremely long takes, Mushkadiz recalls affectionately how everyone “just (told) people we’re shooting a film, don’t look at the camera.”
A young woman of finely balanced contrasts and contradictions — she one moment says she doesn’t consider herself a big film fan, but later declares a love of cinema — Mushkadiz has a bit of the dreamer’s disease. “I went to circus school when I was younger,” she says. “I was really into performance, and clowns — juggling and the rope and trapeze.” Later she says, “I studied photography in Mexico, a bit of painting and drawing, and then (writing) and poetry at Massachusetts Art Institute. And then I studied philosophy. I like mixed technique very much.”
She doesn’t necessarily think analytical application or parsing study yields singular insights into Battle in Heaven, though. “When you do painting… it’s a feeling, an instinct,” says Mushkadiz in accented English. “It’s hard to change or (translate) the creative process into a fully intellectual process. When a movie is finished (and) people start asking questions, you (arrive at an) idea to give lots of explanations, but in a real sense art is a creative process that one goes through without thinking — just doing and being sensible about one’s way of believing and feeling.”
For Mushkadiz, Ana is a bit of a place-holding cipher. “I think one of the beautiful parts of Ana is that she’s a really open character. For some can be a real bitch, for others very tender, and for others very manipulating. But she’s really just the feminine side of the movie, she represents a woman,” Mushkadiz stresses. “The reason there’s not much background on her is because it’s not important if she’s there because her father is a bastard. What’s most important is what you get from the idea of, ‘Why not?’ Why not a girl who is rich and of good social position — why wouldn’t she prostitute herself? Why does having money and coming from a high class family mean that life should be perfect? So she represents that; she’s just a girl, any girl.”
Having already completed one other film, Alex Infascelli’s yet-to-be-released Hate 2 O, Mushkadiz seems somewhat conflicted about a career in front of the camera, and in fact charmingly emits a big, unselfconscious yawn when discussing such a proposition. “Yeah, I think so,” she says when asked if she wants to continue as an actress. “I’m really into doing what I do also. I think art is a really demanding career, in that it requires time and energy and patience to one day finally become a real artist for yourself, where you consider your work valuable and prestigious. But I still think acting is quite an amazing experience. So if I keep having the opportunity, I’ll be very happy.”