Power and Gender: Film Feminism in Boquitas pintadas


Celia Esplugas

West Chester University


Muffled throughout their history, [women] have lived in dreams, in bodies (though muted), in silences, in aphonic revolts.

(Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa")


Argentine cinema has engaged in a protest against cultural and sociopolitical realities while going "beyond realism and imagistically [expressing] ...the characters' psychology and even the unconscious" (Konigsberg 269). In the seventies, Argentine cinema seemed to be producing good artistic films along the above guidelines; such is the case of Quebracho, La patagonia rebelde, and Boquitas pintadas, films that also became economic successes. The film critic Raúl Beceyro states that while Quebracho and La patagonia rebelde show historical events that threw the country into social and political confusion: "la Forestal" and the cruel repression of the rural workers in the Patagonia in the twenties, Boquitas pintadas emerges as social critique of patriarchal culture (29). (1)

Manuel Puig, author of the novel on which the film is based, affirms that his books are critiques of Argentine society (Christ 53) dealing with situations about people and values (Sosnowski 78-79). In fact, Puig himself declares that his novels denounce "Argentine life as a division of roles and hiding behind masks "of [machismo, aggression and dominance] (Bouman 11) and [that he] ridicules this society by writing parodies; such is the case of his novel Boquitas pintadas. However, in this novel, Puig goes beyond the ridiculing of social codes and subliterary genres (i.e., the folletín) to present an acid criticism of women's oppression. Boquitas pintadas, in fact, has been described as "a largely female-oriented novel" (Bacarisse 37).

Similarly, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson's film Boquitas pintadas, based on Puig's novel, becomes a parody of a "minor cinema genre": the soap-opera (Beceyro 36). (2) Like Puig, Nilsson reconstructs melodramatic themes and diverts from the one-dimensional text to present a subtext that denounces patriarchal power. Using mainly letters to structure and develop the narrative text, Torre Nilsson scathingly berates the power structures that thwarted women's subjectivity in the small Argentine town of the 1930s.

Occupying the "intermediate zone of language, between the self and other" (Henzy 2), "fictive" letters create multiple voices and advance the plot in both fiction and film. (3) While "the epistolary novel has a long tradition that reaches back to Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, ... there are few totally epistolary films (Letter from an Unkown Woman is [probably ] the best ) ... [In films,] the letter is a familiar means of setting the plot in motion ...or bridging the years.... When an exchange of letters is used to mark the passage of time, voice-over ...provides the information that... the audience require[s]" (Dick 63-64). In the film Boquitas pintadas, Nilsson uses voice-over to bridge spaces and time in flashbacks and flashforwards and three sets of letters to structure the narrative text. Each set introduces the spectator to the main actions of the plot, presenting a power structure conducive to lies and intrigues, a structure in which women are generally the oppressed/ the Other.

Boquitas pintadas takes the spectator from 1935 in the small town of Vallejos to 1973 in Buenos Aires. The interconnected stories of the characters are developed concurrently in episodic sequences, presented in a non-chronological order of flashbacks and flashforwards. When the movie begins, Nené, a married woman living in Buenos Aires, learns that Juan Carlos, the sweetheart of her youth, has died. Her letter of condolence to Mrs. Leonor, Juan Carlos's mother, leads to a series of flashbacks that presents the lives of the protagonists. Juan Carlos, a playboy and gambler, dates Nené while maintaining two secret relationships: one with Mabel, a bourgeois woman, and another with Elsa DiCarlo, a widow, who deeply loves him. Sick with tuberculosis, Juan Carlos goes to Cosquín, a town in the province of Córdoba, in a futile attempt to recover his health. Nené's letters of condolence to Mrs. Leonor are not answered by her, but by Celina, Juan Carlos's sister, who hates Nené and blames her for her brother's illness. Juan Carlos also disrupts the life of Raba, the servant, by prodding Pancho, a cruel and dishonest bricklayer whose ambition is to become a policeman, to seduce her.

The movie starts with a long sequence of shots which shows the dullness and unhappiness of Nené's married life. The daily routine and chores sap her energy and sour her temperament. Neither marriage nor motherhood affords her fulfillment. The camera shows a series of short shots which reveal her routine: the alarm clock going off in the morning, Nené getting up hurredly, taking her sons to school, shopping in the open-market, doing dishes, and above all, alienated from Massa, her husband, an uninteresting man who cannot meet her emotional needs. Such sequence becomes the repeated motif of the first part of the movie, a motif, which portrays the depth of Nene's emotional vacuum. The obituary of Juan Carlos's death in the paper awakens in Nené memories of their romantic involvement and her letter of condolence to Mrs. Leonor originates the first set of letters. Nené's letters set the plot in motion. Her voice-over, heard while she is writing her first piece of correspondence, becomes the epistolary voice that bridges her present life as wife and mother and her youth in Vallejos, her love for Juan Carlos, and the lives of the other protagonists. Nené's epistolary voice, heard while presenting further shots of her daily routine, presents one of the conflictive relationships of the film: Mrs. Leonor and, particularly, Celina's keen dislike of Nené. "I don't know...," writes Nené,... "if you still have a grudge against me, because even before I was married, you and your daughter were not on talking terms with me," a "grudge" that will become clear half way through the movie when, in a flashback, Celina accuses Nené of contributing to Juan Carlos's illness by keeping him out in the cold nights. Celina's hatred for Nené will originate the third set of letters, which are the answers to Nené's despondent letters about her marriage. The emotinally laden tone of Nené's letter, her melodramatic wording: ("Though you don't like me, let me pray with you," writes Nené to Mrs. Leonor), her obssessive memories, and her sentimental conduct establish the parodic tone of the film.

By presenting Nené's memories, Nilsson brings to the foreground "the personal archives of [her]... past..." (Turim 1-2), which the director uses to dramatize the contrast between her romanticized relationship with Juan Carlos and her disillusioned present life. In her memory, Juan Carlos still represents the beauty and hopes of her youth. In her present reality, her husband represents the ordinary and commonplace nature of daily coexistence. The tone and wording of her letters furnish a graphic contrast between the two men . She writes to Mrs. Leonor: "A man so handsome as he was ....What a lovely son you had, mam [sic]... " In contrast, Massa is shown asleep with a foot hanging out of the bed; comfortably reading the paper in his robe while Nené, her romantic fantasies thwarted, tiredly and despondently clears the table, washes the greasy dishes, and accepts sadly that she even finds her sons ugly. In a similar fashion, the elegance of the social club and the pretty gown she wore for the festival in Vallejos are just memories. Now, her unattractive kitchen and the un-appealing vegetable and fruit stands have become prime components of her existence. Her present unhappiness tricks Nené's selective memory (she seemingly forgets about Juan Carlos's gambling and his other women) and transforms him into the desired, idealized object. If assessed according to Freudian theory, Nené, in fact, lives a fantasy symptomatic of her neurosis. Such a fantasy has a two-fold purpose: to deemphasize Juan Carlos's womanizing conduct and to escape the dullness of her present reality. (4)

When Mrs.Leonor does not answer her letters, Nené'a neurotic behavior becomes more pathological and she loses her composure; for example, she speaks bitterly to her sons and spits in her husband's face. Such is Nené's state of mind and life when Torre Nilsson interrupts the shots of her current life, silences her epistolary voice, and presents the credits. To do so, Nilsson utilizes the pictures of a photo album which, in itself, constitutes a narrative text since it shows the main upcoming events in the movie: Pancho, proud in his much desired police uniform; Juan Carlos and Nené, at the plush festival in the social club; and Mabel and Juan Carlos, enjoying each other's company.

Subsequently, Nené's epistolary voice leads to a flashback which starts unveiling the power structure of Vallejos, a structure based on gender and class discrimination, and by logic, on domination as "the key to respect and admiration" (Bouman 11). Nene's next letters introduces the spectator to a series of patriarchal relationships in which men were the masters/the colonizers and women the subservient/ the colonized.

The first colonizer/colonized binary reveals the polarity male employer-female employee. Nené, who is studying to become a nurse under Dr. Asquero's supervision, falls prey to his machismo and his power as her employer. Puig emphasizes Dr. Asquero's disgusting personality through his name, which suggets the repulsive nature of its owner (Manuel Puig and Suzanne Levine 40). Because he is a medical doctor, he enjoys the benefits of his prestigious position by using Nené as a sexual object. In the flashback, Nené appears in her white nurse's uniform, symbol of her virginity, young, pretty, and inexperienced. Coming back from a farm where they have been attending to a patient, Asquero, taking advantage of Nené's fatigue makes love to her. When Mrs. Asquero learns about their relationship, Nené's nursing career is ended; she loses her position in Asquero's office and is "marked for ever." Symbolically, the narrative text compares Nené's fall to Eve's fall and the history of temptation and loss of paradise. The fall in Nené's life is symbolically recorded through changes in the narrative space. From a desired career in the prestigious doctor's office, Nené/Eve becomes a sales clerk in the low-class local store; and from a virgin, a necessary status for an unmarried woman in Vallejos, she becomes a stigmatized woman. Celina openly tells Juan Carlos that Nené is "a whore." Nené is, in fact, a victim of her own inexperience and naivete, promoted by cultural standards that teach women to obey and be submissive while empowering men to control the monolithic constructions of sexuality.

The most extreme example of female subordination is seen in Raba, the victimized servant of a machista society. Her oppression, due to the economic and social ideologies of the 1930s, reflects the hardships of the working-class women since upper class women as well as men exploit the underclass. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, being a female servant in Argentina was a particularly inferior and wretched occupation. Servants had few or no rights. The danger of being laid off and the possibility of not obtaining a job in a market overstocked with servants kept them from complaining (Newton 212). Moreover, they had no legal protection (Recalde I, 14). The Spanish philosopher Julián Marías states in this respect:

[una sirvienta] tenía una dimensión de quasi-esclavitud...tenía otra dimensión de explotación... (41) [(a servant) had a dimension of semislavery...had another dimension of exploitation...].

Such is the case of Raba.

In the flashback, Nilsson presents through Raba the sexual exploitation of the working class by a machista society. In the binary powerful master/weak employee, she also becomes the target of Dr. Asquero, her lascivious master, who treats her as a sexual object. Raba thus becomes another victim of the "gaze." The physician disturbs her by constantly looking at her legs. He makes her feel nervous and afraid, so much so that she avoids going near him. Being a woman and a servant, Raba suffers both gender and class discrimination; and language, which constitutes people as subjects (Belsey 595), cannot help Raba. Her voice is muffled by a society that deprives servants of their human rights. Finally, she prefers to take up a job at Mabel's house to avoid Asquero, whose lack of respect for Raba represents the insensitive attitude of his phalologocentric society towards women's bodies and feelings.

Like Asquero, Juan Carlos's womanizing qualities are foregrounded when he manipulates simultaneously the lives of four women: Nené, Mabel, Raba, and Elsa DiCarlo. His masculinity, characterized by his indulgence in gambling and sex, revolves around his self-centeredness and insensitivity. For him, women are sexual objects to be inhabited, possessed, and used at his whim. His interest in Nené, for example, is purely sexual. When they meet at night at the entrance of her house, his words and moves show fundamentally his demands for sex, while Nené, dominated by culturally-constructed fears reluctantly resists his advances. Being single, she is supposed to suppress her sexuality, and the loss of her virginity could make Juan Carlos reject her. Close-up shots of Juan Carlos's hand touching her breast, her red painted lips trembling with excitement, another tight close-up shot of his hand leading hers towards his fly, and finally, his hand dropping showing his disappointment at her resistance accentuate the parodic element of the movie. Although, by emphasizing the excessive sentimentality of the romantic encounter, these close-up shots ridicule the inhibiting codes that men and women supposedly observed when dating, Nilsson, in fact, denounces the moral standards which deny women their sexual subjectivity.

Nené's epistolary voice is heard again. This time after stating that Juan Carlos with her "acted like a gentleman," Nené poses the question: "Where did he go after kissing me at the door [at night]?" Her question leads to another flashback which expands on the power structure of Vallejos. After leaving Nené, Juan Carlos goes to Mabel's bedroom.

Undoubtedly, Mabel is Juan Carlos's most suitable match, both in terms of sexual enjoyment and self-centeredness. She, in fact, subverts the binary women weak/colonized-man strong/colonizer and establishes the polarity women/sexual colonizer - men /sexual colonizer. Theirs is a give-and-take relationship from which they both derive enjoyment and benefits. Defying patriarchal codes, Mabel indulges in her sexuality with "masculine" aggressiveness. She becomes the sexual Subject and while in secret, she satisfies her sexual desires with Juan Carlos, in public, she accepts the wealthy rancher Cecil as her suitor, for he can provide for her materialistic nature. On the other hand, Juan Carlos enjoys Mabel sexually and he also wants her to obtain for him the position of manager on Cecil's ranch. In fact, Mabel and Juan Carlos are the right match for each other since both want and enjoy their sexual relationship and share material ambitions. Nevertheless, when Juan Carlos leaves for Cosquín because of his illness, Mabel promptly replaces him with his friend Pancho. Through Mabel, Nilsson deconstructs phallocentric ideology and (re)constructs female sexuality, motivating the spectator to adopt a critical view of a kind of masculinity which derives its wholeness from women's lack of sexual expression.

In the same flashback, Juan Carlos reverts to the binary man/subject - woman/object in his manipulation of Raba. Unlike Asquero, he does not molest her himself, but he does so through his advice to Pancho, whom he tells to "lay her." The likelihood that Raba will work for Mabel motivates Juan Carlos's advice. He plans to have this servant watch Mabel and report her findings to Pancho, who subsequently will relay them to Juan Carlos. Thus Juan Carlos wreaks havoc in Raba's life since his advice results in her pregnancy and her murdering Pancho. Raba is manipulated not only by Juan Carlos and Pancho but also by Mabel. When Raba learns about the relationship between Mabel and Pancho, Raba murders him. To save her reputation, Mabel has Raba make a false statement to the police. Symbolically, Raba metamorphoses into the scapegoat on which both men and women purge their sins. Ironically, shots of Raba at the end of the movie show she has formed a harmonious family that provides for her emotional and material needs. Pancho's death does not indict Raba; rather, it criticizes a legal system that by overlooking the mistakes in Mabel's statement empowers money over justice and berates a patriarchal system that discriminates according to class and gender. (5)

While the first set of letters, written by Nené, leads to the intrigues and conflicts caused by the power structure of Vallejos, the second set of letters, written by Juan Carlos, expands on his phallocentric nature and introduces the theme of his imminent death. The spectator hears his epistolary voice and sees shots of him in the hospital in Cosquín, where he is receiving medical treatment for his tuberculosis. Although he denies that he is terminally ill, the shots in the flashback prepare the spectator for his death. While he writes amorous letters to Nené, he has not forgotten his macho guile. Trying to escape reality, he pursues affairs with women in the hospital. Ironically, his attempts backfire: women confront him with his own mortality. On being rejected by Juan Carlos, the nurse with whom he is having an affair, blurts out: "You should be dead." The nice-looking young woman patient who caught his eye in the dining-room dies; and, in a daze, he finds himself walking through the room where patients are sent when close to death.

The shots that show him back in Vallejos not only reaffirm his pending death but also reveal his powerlessness and alienation. Ironically, the man whose machismo and class put him at the top of the power structure now occupies the bottom. Because of his illness, he experiences the pain of rejection and manipulation. Realizing that Juan Carlos is still ill, Nené's father does not want him to see his daughter; Mabel declines to see him, and his boss denies his application for a leave-of-absence and asks him to resign.

Back in Cosquín, his life does not improve. His illness is getting worse; because his family lacks the money for the expensive hospital, he stays at a pensión; and the relief he finds in gambling dwindles when he loses the rent money. However, he is still manipulative and self-centered, "...the expert strategist who consciously manipulates others in order to get what he wants" (Kerr 105). Therefore, his next letters are addressed to the widow Elsa DiCarlo, who loves him and with whom he had an affair in Vallejos. Bridging space, Juan Carlos's over-voice is heard: "Dearest honey: you must be surprised to get news from me...I often think it'd be great to have you here with me." His lies reap the desired harvest: Elsa not only moves to Cosquín, where she establishes a pension, but also provides free room, nursing care, and gambling money until his death. Blinded by her emotions, Elsa fails to realize Juan Carlos's self-centeredness. Clearly, the subtext alerts the spectator to the danger of love in a phallocentric society which manipulates, deceives and seduces the Other to preserve monolithic male power.

Dramatic shots of Juan Carlos dying from suffocation, breaking the window glass for air, bleeding and gasping reveal Nilsson's exercise of poetic justice: at his death, Juan Carlos pays his dues for his evils in life. Using asynchronous sound, the director presents simultaneously the sound of Juan Carlos's heavy breathing with images of the activities the other protagonists are performing. While Nené is doing dishes and Mabel is seducing a sales clerk, Celina, in prayer blaming Nené for Juan Carlos's illness, addresses God: "That's why I ask you my Lord, to never let me see her [Nené] again...because I won't be able to control myself." The shot of her praying leads to the third set of letters.

These letters, supposedly written by Mrs. Leonor in answer to Nené's letters, are, in fact, written by Celina, who switches identities with her mother without her knowing it. Therefore, the spectator sees shots of Celina receiving Nené's letters but hears Mrs. Leonor's epistolary voice answering them. These letters complete the circular structure of the movie. By answering Nené's letters, Celina, jealous of her, finds an opportunity to plot her vengeance. Her jealousy, which stems from not having Juan Carlos's attention when she and her mother asked for his company (he preferred to go out to see Nené ) and from not being married like Nené (Celina remains single and acquires ill repute for dating traveling salesmen), finds full vent in her revenge. Mrs. Leonor's voice-over is heard saying the words written by Celina: "Dear Nené: ...trust me...why you are so unhappy with your husband..." An angry and Machiavelian Celina underlines Nené's confidences in her letters and sends them to Nené's husband. However, Celina's revenge does not reap the desired profit: Massa leaves Nené, but later they reconcile. Vengeance seemingly gives Celina temporary power and relief for her pent-up feelings. Yet, at the end of the movie, her emotional life has not changed: she remains not only unmarried and unhappy but also alienated in the solitude of her aging in Vallejos, the small town of thwarted love and unfulfilled dreams.

The closing shots of Boquitas pintadas show Nené on her deathbed asking her husband to burn the letters that Juan Carlos and she exchanged. (6) Shots of his scattered letters falling into the flames and Juan Carlos's epistolary voice declaring his love for Nené end the movie. (7) The ambiguous symbology leaves unresolved Nené's emotional conflict. Is it the fire of purification redeeming Nené's unfulfilled feelings and Juan Carlos's sins or is it the fire of hell punishing their misdeeds? Her decision to have the letters burned seems to show Nené's need to finally discover peace by bringing her memories to closure; his epistolary voice closing the narrative text seems to remind the spectator of the resilient power of patriarchal codes and their obstruction of the development of women's subjectivity.




1- Translations into Spanish are mine.

2- Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, one of the best-known and most productive Argentine directors, brought national cinema to the international cinematographic scene. He received the award for the Best Director in the XXI International Cinematographic Festival of Taormina, Italy (June 1976) as well as other international prizes in Cannes, Río de Janeiro, Venice, and Berlin. Nilsson himself declares that he "has placed Argentine cinema within the panorama of world culture." Most of his work reflects the social and political development of Argentina. His most relevant productions include La casa del ángel (1956), Martín Fierro (1968), Los siete locos (1972), La guerra del cerdo (1975), and Piedra libre (1975). For more information on this topic, see Fernando Ferreira, Luz, cámara, memoria: una historia social del cine argentino.

3- Opposing the New Critics and their belief in literary works as consistent organic forms, contemporary theorists, for example Derrida, Foucault, and Bakhtin, analyze postmodern literary works as decentered and open-ended, characteristics which generate multiple meanings. When such poststructuralist theory is applied to a series of letters, "meanings emerges from the flow of letters...and give way to newer meanings" (Henzy 2-5). Such is the case in the film Boquitas pintadas. The seemingly simple and one-dimensional texts of Nené's, Juan Carlos's, and Celina's letters introduce the spectator to multiple themes, narrative times and spaces, which decenter the text and produce a paradigm of meanings.

4- In his seduction theory, Freud explains the purpose of fantasies: "to embellish the facts, reliving them, and to defend against them, [facts that] refer to real events" (Izenberg 37-38).

5- Nené also manipulates Raba when she takes up a job in Buenos Aires to improve her economic position. Nené and Raba's friendship fails in a society where the individual's worth depends on material wealth. Instead of supporting Raba during her hard time in the big city, Nené, who has recently married and is living in Buenos Aires, refuses Raba's visit. Loneliness urges Raba to phone Nené repeatedly, but fear of showing a poorly furnished apartment makes Nené turn Raba away. Were the truth known about Nen'e's living conditions, she would become the laughing stock of Vallejos. Self-conscious and bound by the small town's distorted values, Nené remains unmoved by Raba's needs. Like Mabel's, Nené's selfcenteredness unveils a society which teaches women the wrong moral and spiritual values. When her father falls sick with cancer, Nené, instead of sending her mother the money for his treatment in the private hospital, buys a living-room suite.

6- For an interpretation of the ambiguous ending in the novel, see Lucille Kerr (100-101).

7- The blue ribbon that holds them together shows that these are Juan Carlos's letters. Nené writes Mrs. Leonor at the beginning of the movie: "When we broke up, we gave our letters back. I sent them to him [Juan Carlos] tied with a blue ribbon because they were letters from a boy."


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