1 Hr., 23 Mins.
Fuego November 7, 2019
rmando Bó and Isabel Sarli met in 1956 on a TV set. He was a director; she was an incipient 27-year-old actress. Taken with Sarli, who had distinctive, long black hair and a shapely figure, Bó offered her the leading role in his upcoming film Thunder Under the Leaves, an erotic drama set in Paraguay. Sarli accepted. The movie, released in 1958, became notorious in a couple of ways. It was the first film in
Argentinian movie history to feature full-frontal nudity (courtesy of Sarli, who initially was under the impression that she would be wearing a flesh-colored bodysuit and that she would be shot from afar). It also functioned as the start of a fertile director-star partnership. Bó and Sarli, who soon also started a long-lasting romantic relationship, ultimately made 27 movies together between 1956 and 1981.
Fuego (1969), one of their several collaborations of the 1960s, is their best-known film, mostly because transgressive cult director John Waters, who ventured out to see Sarli’s movies ravenously at the local Spanish theater with frequent muse Divine, has listed it as his favorite. It also, of all of Bó and Sarli’s features, is the one which had the vastest impact on him. “If you watch some of my films, you can see what a huge influence Fuego was,” he told the audience of his TV show John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You in 2006. “I forgot how much I stole.”
Waters isn’t an outright plagiarist, as Fuego shows. But you can see which of its seeds planted themselves in Waters’ legendarily brazen brain and untidily grew with the passing years: the melodramatic hedonism of its protagonist, the comic tawdriness of its storyline, the tasteful cheapness of the set design, the sexploitational seriousness. Most crucially, Bó and Waters share an obsession with exaggerating the femme fatale trope until it becomes a near unrecognizable splatter painting of a characterization. With Waters, we know not to take anything at face value. Everything, fundamentally, is a lampoon of a long-running cinematic cliché. But in Bó’s case, it can be sticky trying to distinguish how much of what we’re seeing is supposed to be laughed at or is meant to be taken seriously. Either way, the feature is extraordinarily entertaining. It's a mess of deranged, nonsensical pulp fiction.
In Fuego, Sarli is Laura, an upper-cruster known to most in her social circle as an unbridled nymphomaniac. Surprisingly, though, her much-talked-about sexual appetite — which turns out to be far more unappeasable than any rumor-trotting acquaintance realizes — hasn’t led her to pariah status. She is viewed, almost, as someone others might want to emulate. Her peers tend to commend her sexual freedom. “She uses her men like toys,” an outsider observes with props-to-her affect one evening at a party. But is her apparent sexual freedom all it's cracked up to be? “Should I admire her, or envy her?” the latter’s listening companion wonders aloud.
Laura, in contrast, considers her promiscuity something of a burden. She lets it be known, not long after we get to know her, that she wants to settle down, be “tamed” as if she were a wild mustang yearning to try out equestrianism. Her maid, whom Laura is having an affair with, voices her misgivings. “Laura, you’re insatiable,” she says. “Your desires can’t be quenched. You’re hardly an angel.” But when marriage is proposed to Laura barely into the first act by a wealthy middle-aged man named Carlos (Bó), she accepts. Maybe it could change things. Laura, ever-considerate, warns Carlos that there’s a good chance things could quickly go awry, given her sexual history. “It’s risky,” she cautions. “I could be unfaithful.” But Carlos writes off Laura’s exhortations. He’ll be a good-enough lover, he figures. With his money, her life will be too good to want to endanger.
But in Fuego, it’s proven that marriage and settling down cannot extinguish what appears to be a fantastically het-up sex addiction. In the film’s most memorable scene (and also the one that’s hardest to tonally decode — should we be reacting like we were sitting in a sitcom audience?), Laura, a little after getting married, files around town wearing just a mink coat while her husband's away. With marathon-like ambition, she'll walk up to a group of men, open up the furs, then leave the next step up to the opposite sex as she starts slowly walking away. Do they want to offer to take whatever she’s doing a step further? Do they merely want it to stand as the most bewildering part of their day? Or should they go to the police to report an on-the-loose sex offender? Laura inexorably gets someone — a swollen-bellied truck driver — to go with the first option. They drive to the countryside and have sex under a tree at the bottom of a hill. He takes off while she’s sleeping. The sequence is one of many that work to establish that Laura’s sexual voraciousness should be deemed on par with any terminal illness. When Carlos at one point goes to the doctor to explain the situation his wife’s in, the doctor shakes his head. “There’s nothing we can do,” he says with a shrug.
The movie gets progressively intense about how hopeless it is to “cure” Laura. The sex scenes, all artless, get increasingly artless. Laura reaches an unfathomable low eventually. So encumbered by her sexuality is she that she would rather end it all than go on. “Murder me, please!” she pleads while Carlos stands across from her in one scene. Toward the end of Fuego, he considers it while they’re standing on a hilltop but then puts the handgun away. (That doesn’t stop the film from reaching an antically tragic ending.)
To be sure, Fuego’s as ludicrous as a particularly asinine, propagandistic pro-abstinence ad. It’s offensive, too, trying to convince us that an unabashedly sexual woman should be (and will naturally be) punished for being unabashedly sexual. It also comes out and says that same-sex attraction doesn’t exist: Laura’s affair with her maid is in one moment explicitly chalked up to her being so erotically wolfish that her mind’s duped her into thinking that men aren’t efficient sexual partners.
But the kind of ludicrousness instilled in the objectively terrible Fuego is of the kind that makes a particularly memorable so-bad-it’s-good movie so good. Its logic and unsophisticated delivery inspire laughs and lines we’re happy to have experienced. You can see why Waters loved it so much: this is a collection of the nuttiest of soap-opera-slash-sexploitation-movie tropes packaged as a delectably neurotic melodrama. The best part is that you can picture someone like Divine really exceeding at playing this part. She sort of did, if you think about it, in 1974’s Female Trouble, which in many respects feels like a cousin of Fuego.
On the plus side, Sarli has genuine star power. In addition to impressively coming on to essentially every object she comes into contact with without a smidgen of discernible silliness, she also has a magnetic presence. Her investment in the material is noticeable — she treats this stuff the way Lana Turner would a Douglas Sirk movie. Sarli ranks among the most compelling actresses of her B-movie camp, from Tura Satana to Edwige Fenech. One wonders what might have become of her legacy had she taken up any of the parts Hollywood purportedly offered her. (In a late-in-life interview with Waters, she alleges that Robert Aldrich, the director of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, professionally pursued her around the time Fuego debuted.) Would her appeal have expanded, or stayed indebted to a small circle? B