Sunday, 17 June 2018

Body of evidence... The Exquisite Cadaver (1969)

The seemingly clumsy title for this Spanish mystery is drawn from the practice of assembling a collection of words or images from a number of people none of whom has the complete picture or knows what the other has done. Invented by the surrealist movement, leading light André Breton reported that the exquisite cadaver started in fun, but became eventually enriching: presumably by being either a mess or revelatory.

On balance I would have to say this unusual film succeeds very well in the latter even though it does have the disjointed approach defined by the rules of the game: both narratively and literally as parts of a corpse are detached and sent to provide clues to one of four main characters, all acting independently.

Vincente Aranda directs with discipline and establishes the mystery well before resolving most of his entanglements in a pacier closing half hour. It’s kind of a love story, part-giallo and horror but all based on the existential crisis triggered by one man’s indifference to his lover’s passionate frailties and her lover’s determination to right her wronging.

The few reviews there are online on IMBD et al are rather faint in their praises but I’d say this was one smart and engaging story and Aranda sets out the pieces of the puzzle carefully for them all to make sense later one, whether it’s the tranquilisers the young woman Esther (an excellent early performance from Judy Matheson, later Judy Jarvis) is playing with when she meets her man (Carlos Estrada) or even his throwing away of his children’s tortoise: he’s no time for sentiment and is as driven in his private life as he is in business.

There are two more sides to this bizarre love quadrangle and they are the man’s wife, Spanish actress Teresa Gimpera and Esther’s next lover, Lucia Fonte (the beyond glamorous Capucine). It is quite a line up and the four interact in unexpected ways throughout… there’s just a touch of Luis Buñuel about Aranda’s style: we think we know what’s happening, but nothing is necessarily as it seems and even at the end there are possibilities to consider.

The exquisite Judy Jarvis née Matheson
In the same way as the best horror films use mood and tonal signals to create audience anxiety so too does this film steer away from specific explanations until the very end. It creates a note of unresolved uncertainty that keeps you engaged throughout.

The set up is pure Giallo with a boorish publisher of horror fiction being interrupted by the delivery of a box containing a severed hand. We’ve already seen a young woman head down to place her head on an isolated railway track and assume that this belongs to her body.

The man buries the hand after initially thinking it was fake sent by one of his writers… his reaction makes us think the same. Another parcel arrives at home following a message read by his wife asking if he wants a forearm next time.

Carlos Estrada and Capucine
Too panicked to open the parcel he walks into town and leaves it on a bench hoping someone will steal it, but it ends up back at the house where his wife opens it to find a dress and a photograph of a woman, Lucia Fonte not, as we expected, Esther.

The man’s explanations do not convince his wife and she starts to follow him when she notices a glamorous woman in a chauffeur-driven Citroen following him as well…

The man gets driven by Lucia – calling herself Parker – to her mansion where she has the strangest of encounters with him. She has an artificial hand, did she cut it off to scare him?  She makes him take LSD and leads him deep into the house listening to recording of Esther’s voice before revealing her perfectly-preserved body in a fridge.

She knows... Teresa Gimpera and Carlos Estrada
The man wakes up at home on his couch, was it a dream – did anything actually happen?
Lucia had called his wife to her house after, she says, he turned up looking for her… neither wife nor watcher are now sure who or what to believe. There’s a neat Antonioni-esque moment at the park when the could fail to communicate whilst young men are flying a toy plane – it buzzes around like nagging doubt before the man breaks it.

Finally, we discover the relationship Esther had with the man… a brief fling according to him and years according to Lucia. Esther was full on and wanted truth in her life even at the extent of her own death… she was broken by the man.

But what happened and who stands to gain what… the twists and turns continue right to the end.

Dusty verdict: This is such a powerfully performed film and Judy Matheson is superb as the conflicted women who flutters between life and oblivion. Judy later went on to feature in a number of Hammer horrors as well as Peter Walker’s excellent Flesh and Blood Show which has something in common with this film: she is an actor with nuanced expression and here is indeed exquisite, creating a character we instantly connect with - perhaps the truest of any in the film.

 Around her Carlos Estrada is suitably broody and reminds me of an Antonioni male, lost in the subtext of life while all the while expecting that success and dominance will enable him to have his way. This affair is clearly not the first and Teresa Gimpera’s portrayal shows she has already reached a position of little trust, batting away his excuses and feeble explanations and following him to find out the truth.

Capucine is high intensity and as ever has intelligence and protean depths that convince you that her character is capable of anything. The film’s final twist is not something those other reviewers seem to have picked up and even then, we can only imagine what is going to happen…

The Exquisite Cadaver deserves to be less obscure and hard to find – there are currently no official home video releases and I got my copy from a US supplier of out of copyright schlock horror flicks a genre of which this most certainly is not! Seek it out if you can, hopefully it will get restored and re-released.


  1. Great review and critique of this film, and great understanding of the surrealist based title and Bunuel parallels.. Really enjoyed reading this as I have long appreciated this cinematic creation and Judy Matheson's talents also.
    I agree that it is long overdue for possible restoration and re-release.. but not remade please.. Like great works of art there can only be the original

    1. I watched it twice and still found new elements - it's a really smart film and I'd love to see it screened and digitally restored. They couldn't remake it - it's very much of it's time but packs a punch and is intelligent in the way it treats the narrative and the viewer!. Judy Matheson - now Jarvis - is great in it and the whole story revolves around her; must have been a great experience for a young actress. Thank you very much for reading! Best, Paul

  2. What a fantastic review of a forgotten gem! Well done Judy Matheson for the belated acknowledgment of such an outstanding performance and thanks for bringing this to the attention of your many fans! Thank you Paul Stockton for such a smart review..

    1. Thank you very much Carl! It must have been a great opportunity fro Judy to work in Europe and with such an experienced crew and she grabs the opportunity with both hands. A haunting performance in a film that deserves to be re-discovered in the digital age!! Best, Paul