Sunday, October 02, 2022

Cinema Obscura: Carlos Saura's "Stress Is Three"

In a scene towards the end of Carlos Saura’s psychological chess match “Stress Is Three”, a man Antonio (Juan Luis Galiardo) is grounded, literally and figuratively, when he tries to drive away in his car on the beach and ends up only spinning its wheels in the sand. This comes after the frustration (and imagination?) of him seeing his wife (the luminous and blonde wigged Geraldine Chaplin) making out with their best friend Fernando (Fernado Cebrian) behind a jetee of rocks on the beach...... an act poor Antonio has internalized the entire film. It’s his breaking point, but in typical 1960’s ennui fashion, it's a violation of the human contract between husband and wife that may have only happened in his mind. If nothing else, Saura's film is about the disconsolate attitudes of the privileged and how they tear each other apart when left to their own devices.

Taking place over the course of just a couple of days, the trio embark on a road trip together. There’s no denying the flirtation between Teresa and Fernando from the very beginning. It’s enough that at one point, Antonio sneaks off the road ahead of them and spies on them through his binoculars. And because this paranoid act occurs towards the beginning of the film, it's a nervously implied sequence that sets the ominous tone that something is happening.

Eventually arriving at Antonio's farm home (and in typical ominous fashion, none of the family is there to meet them) the division between reality and fantasy gently rises in Antonio's head. But for all this talk about challenged masculine identity, "Stress Is Three" really belongs to Geraldine Chaplin. Starring in a handful of Saura's early films from 1967 until the mid 70's, her presence is as inseparable as that of Anna Karina was to the initial masterpieces of Jean Luc Godard. Here, it's easy to understand why Antonio would be selfishly jealous of his beautiful wife.

All of this frustration and ennui culminates in a trip to the beach where the stark black and white cinematography mutes all the beauty of the day and Antonio's spying seems to prove his buried suspicions. But then, Saura pulls a fantastic cinematic trick out of his bag, effectively rewiring the entire film and setting the template for a style of incisive satire and black psychological comedies that will dot his oeuvre for the next three decades. It's all there in just his second film, and "Stress Is Three"- gaining wider attention as a selection on the Criterion Channel- hopefully will bring more understanding to a filmmaker largely forgotten in 60's and 70's world cinema.

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