Madrid, the early 1970s: Alfredo works as an encyclopaedia salesman for Montoya publications. The Spanish public is less and less interested in the 3,000-plus page multi volume collection on the history of the Spanish Civil War, complete with complimentary scale bust of Franco’s head; he’s behind in his rent; his wife Carmen is desperate for them to have a baby, and has just lost her own job in a beauty parlour.
Fascist spectacle reduced to kitsch
A world drained of colour
Soon thereafter Alfredo’s boss Don Carlos summons him and the three other remaining salesmen to a hotel for a conference weekend. They’re given two choices: Start making educational documentary films with their respective partners for a Danish magazine and film series on sexual practices throughout the world or look for a new job. The other two couples present leave in disgust. Alfredo and Carmen stay behind, at least for the time being, along with the single Juan Luis. (We soon find out more about his sexual practices, probably only legal in the Danish market...)
The white coater
Alfredo proves a natural filmmaker and is soon offering the Danish director who has come to train him suggestions, leading to his being given a megaphone that was supposedly given the Dane by no less than Ingmar Bergman when he was his assistant. Whatever the truth of this, it only enhances Alfredo’s determination to do a good job.
With Carmen persuaded by virtue of the purportedly educational nature of the film, that it will only be screened in the Scandinavian territories and – above all – the money they can make, the money which will help pay for a baby, she consents to appearing with her husband.
The finished product is a bit raw and ready but Don Carlos and his Danish partners are nevertheless pleased and want more from Alfredo and Carmen. They oblige, purchasing a new car, television and various other consumer goods with the money that is now rolling in. The only thing that is still lacking in their lives is a child.
The erotic charge of the personal over the impersonal pornographic?
Alfredo seeks to turn their frustrations into art, scripting the Bergman inspired Torremolinos 73 for Carmen to appear opposite a respected actor. Don Carlos agrees to bankroll the project and even to pay for a professional – if small – Danish crew.
What Alfredo doesn’t realise, or doesn’t want to realise, is that he can have all the existential angst he wants, as long as there is still some sex...
70s discotheque, beautifully reproduced
Let’s get the negative out of the way first: Torremolinos 73’s central premise doesn’t seem completely plausible in itself nor quite worked through as dramatic license by writer-director Pablo Berger. To realise this, however, does probably require a bit more knowledge of the ins and outs (groan) of porn cinemas of the period than the typical viewer perhaps cares to acquire.
To explain: The white coater sub-genre of porn, in which an educational premise was used as a pretext for showing sex on screen, essentially belonged to a period when porn qua porn was not yet permitted. But in Denmark all pornography was legalised in the late 1960s, making a white coater premise seem unlikely for Danish films from 1972/73. Even if we grant that the white coater shown to the Spaniards serves to reassure/dupe them into believing that what they are doing is scientifically justified, there’s then the issue of believing that amateur Spanish productions was really what the market wanted. Alfredo’s films are shot on 8mm (yet somehow acquire sound) with him functioning as cameraman and director as well as male performer – an unlikely combination in a pre-gonzo/POV era. The amateur aspect is also undermined by the hint of formula emerging in some of the porn stereotypical scenarios, of the trades- or delivery man turning up at the housewife’s door. For what we don’t get here (unless we are meant to assume some meta-commentary on Alfredo and Carmen’s fantasies as conveniently mirroring those of professional pornographers and audiences, which is possible) is anything about emergent porn conventions. There is nothing about close ups of the action, for instance, while the money shot is only referred to in relation to Torremolinos 73 itself.
Product over process
Having said all this, it is true that the film is a comedy-drama and not a documentary. Moreover, comparable criticisms could be levelled at Boogie Nights. For instance, Dirk Diggler is basically John Holmes, yet Holmes’s Johnny Wadd films are also referenced diegetically as something Diggler wants to get away from in his rival Brock Landers series.
Torremolinos 73 is far stronger when it is on home soil, in representing and critiquing the final years of the Franco regime in Spain. Even before the encyclopaedia is introduced, we have Alfredo standing before a massive billboard for the Paradise Apartments, whose representation looks little like their reality, which he then has to trudge across a field to reach. And, once there, inevitably the lift is out of order. Or then there are the references to child-star Marisol and “Spanish weekends,” by which Spanish filmgoers would cross the border into France to watch forbidden films such as Last Tango in Paris. Or there is the top of the range colour TV Alfredo buys, only to find that programming is still in black and white.
In terms of look and feel the filmmakers get the early 70s look down beautifully, whether its cars, clothes, hairstyles, decors or music. It’s probably no exaggeration to suggest a disco/nightclub scene could be cut in into a Paul Naschy vehicle from the period without any but the most astute being able to notice the difference. (If this was an Italian film, there would be prominently displayed J&B bottles, Punt e mes and Fernet Branca somewhere.)
The performances are impressive, with leads Javier Cámara and Candela Peña proving equally adept at comedy and drama and beautifully channelling the hopes and frustrations of their parents’ generation; interestingly Peña has more recently appeared in the similar sounding Los años desnudos, about the Spanish ‘S’ film boom of a few years later.
By turns funny and touching, Torremolinos ’73 is a film that the cult film fan should enjoy, reservations notwithstanding; its treatment of the intersection between art and commerce in erotic and pornographic cinema may appeal particularly to the Jesus Franco or Lina Romay fan.