Coulrophobics, rejoice: Álex de la Iglesia has made your Citizen Kane. The Last Circus marks the scary clown film to end all scary clown films, a high-volume nightmare factory for those who suffer from a crippling fear of tumblers, jesters, jokers, and harlequins with painted faces and outrageous costumes. In theory, it’s also a bit of social commentary about war, violence, sex, and how they all intertwine with one another, but de la Iglesia leads something of a sensory assault on his audience to the effect of partially muting the film’s underlying messages. They’re there all right– but you’re going to have to dig for them, so long as you have the stomach and the sanity for it.
Make no mistake, The Last Circus is absolutely bananas, a thoroughly violent and depraved romp through the circus and the psyches of two dueling clowns vying for the affections of a beautiful acrobat. There’s a snag, of course, in that Natalia (Carolina Bang) is married to one of said clowns, the abusive and violent Sergio (Antonio de la Torre); the other, Javier (Carlos Areces), earns her attention by virtue of existing as the brutish Sergio’s polar opposite. Upon Javier’s recruitment into the circus they serve, the two men develop a quick dislike for each other that turns rather messy rather quickly and culminates in a brutal confrontation atop the Valle de los Caídos.
The journey to that point isn’t a walk in the park, either. The Last Circus drops us in the middle of the Spanish Civil War (in which Javier’s father, also a clown, massacres an entire platoon of soldiers with naught but a machete after being forcibly recruited to arms) and guides us through Francoist Spain while shedding pails of blood along the way. Everything about this film is ugly (excepting Ms. Bang)– the sex, the sets, the costumes, the action, the setting– which is meant as a high compliment, since the film’s worn-down, grimy, and stylized aesthetic looks great regardless. That it ends with laughter and tears underscores its inherent schizophrenia, but then again, what else could anyone do after experiencing events such as these firsthand?
What better illustrates the film’s madness, though, are its clashing ideas and plots, two elements which de la Iglesia marries with the same touch Frankenstein stitched together his infamous monster. The Last Circus is very much a story of vengeance and of two men competing with one another, but it’s also a love story, albeit a love story afflicted by mental instability. “Crazy love” describes Natalia’s connections with both Sergio and Javier perfectly; even the latter man, much more mild-mannered, has his tipping point, which should come as no surprise considering that wartime robbed him of a childhood and his father (also a clown, and the reason Javier wants to be one himself) left him with parting words stating that the only way to be happy is to seek revenge. If a history with the profession of clowns and a much too intimate relationship with war doesn’t make for a disastrous recipe in a human being, I don’t know what does.
Yet with all of these characteristics out in the open, I still cannot easily say if The Last Circus is a good film or a bad one. Certainly, it’s an impressive-looking one, shot and staged with a great deal of care and forethought; de la Iglesia clearly knows his craft inside and out, as he’s made a technically superior film. The question then becomes one of taste, and The Last Circus is a movie that’s designed to push palates and force people to confront their morals and their boundaries as viewers. Beneath its more shocking attributes, though, there beats a very human heart. Whether that pulse resonates with audiences depends on the audience members. Anyone willing to observe the film’s grotesque face may find themselves rewarded by excellent filmmaking and a romance that becomes surprisingly moving, but there’s no doubt that The Last Circus speaks to specific preferences.
The film does run into problems, though, in conveying its intent. Is de la Iglesia making a movie about the relationship between sex and violence, a narrative woven into the war for Natalia’s heart waged by Javier and Sergio? Is he making a statement about fascism in depicting Francoist Spain and Javier’s grudge against the regime that ultimately took his father’s life? The Last Circus speaks loudly and boldly but sometimes the more vocal a film is, the less it has to say. I don’t think de la Iglesia’s merely made a shock film here, but a little focus could have gone a long way toward giving the film a bit more dramatic weight. Just as Javier literally gets lost in the woods at one point, so too does The Last Circus.
But regardless, the film resembles a future genre classic, the sort of picture that could easily develop a cult following with time. De la Iglesia doesn’t have much of a State-side following, strange considering his excellent 800 Balas speaks to cowboy pictures which are so inherently American, but The Last Circus could be the movie that garners him more of a global presence. If Japanese shock auteur Takashi Miike can develop a worldwide fan-base, so can de la Iglesia; in fact, The Last Circus feels in many ways like a distant cousin to Miike’s splattery exploitative classic Ichi the Killer, another film about a troubled young man discovering and learning to embrace his inner freakish killer. But with machine gun-toting clowns, graphic and disturbing sexuality, surrealist imagery, and ultraviolence, The Last Circus stands on its own two baroque and gruesome feet in the realm of high-concept genre filmmaking.