El Desencanto is something of a cult favorite in Spain but has not seen a release in the United States until this year. Its reputation is not unlike that of Grey Gardens, which came out the year before El Desencanto, treading similar ground in its portrait of an eccentric family of considerable but diminishing wealth. Viewed in that mindset, it certainly won’t disappoint; it’s early in the movie when two of the drunken brothers (they’re all drunk) get into a shouting match about, among other things, the film itself. Later, the eldest brother gives the viewer an inventory of the things he carries always with him: A pen, a book of poems by Borges, a switchblade (he claims it’s saved his life twice) and a collection of photos of famous people, like F. Scott Fitzgerald (“alcoholic, like myself, with a horrible wife, like myself”). It’s all very entertaining but the comparison to Grey Gardens is a facile one. Another thing that happened the year before the film’s release was the death of Francisco Franco. El Desencanto is as much a profile of one idiosyncratic family as it is of a class of people who went from entrenched to unmoored in Spain’s transition to democracy.
Leopoldo Panero was a poet from the city of Astorga. Well-connected, he was able (despite his youthful leftist activism) to work his way into the good graces of Franco’s government and eventually enjoyed great acclaim and appointments as a cultural ambassador. He was no lickspittle, though. He frustrated his government by continuing to associate with people such as exiled gay poet Luis Cernuda. When he died in 1962, he left behind a wife, Felicidad, who wrote short stories; two sons, Juan Luis and Leopoldo, celebrated poets in their own right; and another son, Michi, who would go on to be a newspaper and magazine columnist. Director Jaime Chávarri conducted a series of group and solo interviews with the family on the occasion of their patriarch’s statue being unveiled in Astorga. These raw and immediate conversations make up nearly the entirety of El Desencanto.
Made for an audience that would have been familiar with the elder Leopoldo, the movie does little to illuminate him. What impression we do get of him as a father and husband is not especially flattering. He seems to have controlled every aspect of Felicidad’s life. She reveals that her friendships with other women came to an end after her marriage and that she feels she regained her youth after her husband’s death. None of this, it should be noted, is said with any acrimony. She loved and loves him dearly. The viewer may not feel the same way, though, especially when his attitude toward puppies is explored.
In fact, be warned. That puppy story is truly upsetting. But it’s also a testament to the candor of the Panero family and of the magnetism and alchemy that seems to exist between them and Chávarri. On paper, El Desencanto sounds dry. It consists of little more than constant talking by four family members (who appear in different arrangements but, oddly, never all together) and practically no music save a bit of Schubert at the very end. Yet their stories, their forthrightness and their many grudges make them captivating to behold. Chávarri subtly provokes the drama with the occasional push-in on Felicidad or, stunningly, one exquisite pull out from Michi. His editing style adds layers, as well. He will, for example, cut from a heated confrontation between Felicidad and young Leopoldo to a one on one interview with the latter, conducted at an unspecified time, which makes it seems as if the man is drunkenly commenting on himself in the moment.
Not that Chávarri had to trick these folks into self-commentary. They possess the witty frankness that can only come with the unquestioned delusions of grandeur enjoyed by wealthy people. When Felicidad reminds young Leopoldo of a costume party which he attended “dressed as a harlequin,” he replies, “Yes, I was dressed as myself.” You could write that, of course, but who would buy it? Two of the sons may have made careers of poetry but they are all poets. Without their father or Franco, though, they are more like bards without patrons, ronin of the written word. As one son sees it, language is a religion and intellectuals the “priestly class.” He’s hammered when he says this, of course, but it’s a hell of thought either way.
It all culminates in an extended showdown between Felicidad and two of her sons that’s shocking in its honesty and in how no one ever raises their voices; the Paneros are too sophisticated to yell. It’s late in this section of the movie in which Michi invokes the word desencanto, which means disenchantment. He’s referring to his and his family’s lives in the wake of his father’s death but he’s also, perhaps, talking about the slow, sad end of the aristocratic way of life they’ve held for so long. El Desencanto opens and closes with shots of the yet to be unveiled statue. With a tarp wrapped and taped around it, it resembles a corpse prepped for disposal. We know the figure under there is a likeness of Leopoldo Panero but it could just as well be Franco himself.