Juan José Bigas Luna, 1946-2013

The Spanish director pushed boundaries and helped launch the careers of Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem.

Paul Julian Smith

from our June 2013 issue

Complicity: Bigas Luna on the set of Golden Balls (1993)

Complicity: Bigas Luna on the set of Golden Balls (1993)

Juan José Bigas Luna, who died on 6 April at the age of 67, was best known as the filmmaker of Iberian passion. Obsessed with eroticism and gastronomy, he was described in one Spanish obituary as “a being of pleasure”. In his 16 features he sought generously to share that hedonism with his audience.

Having trained as a graphic artist, he began his movie career immediately after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. An early provocation was Bilbao (1978), a torrid tale of a man obsessed with a prostitute, which boasted a notorious scene of genital shaving. Anguish (1987) was a curiosity: an English-language project in which members of the audience are terrorised in the cinema where they’re watching a horror movie. The Ages of Lulu (1990), a huge hit in Spain, recounted the erotic odyssey of a young woman, culminating in S&M and drawing allegations of sexism.

But it was with his next films that he hit his stride, attracting an international audience. Jamón, Jamón (1992) was the first of Luna’s Iberian trilogy, introducing Penélope Cruz as the young (very young) lover of über-macho Javier Bardem, who compares the taste of her breasts to the most typical of Spanish foods.

Golden Balls (1993) charted the continuing career of Bardem’s strutting stud, as he attempts to erect the tallest tower in Marbella and share his bed with as many luscious girls as his dirty money can buy. The Tit and the Moon (1994), set for once in Luna’s native Catalonia, was both a ferocious satire of Catalan nationalism and a queasily Oedipal account of heterosexual development: the young hero, ousted from maternal favour by his new brother, transfers his affections to the breasts of a French woman who (in his fantasy at least) freely offers him her milk.

While none of Luna’s subsequent films had the same impact as the trilogy, The Chambermaid on the Titanic (1997) and Volavérunt (1999) were handsomely mounted period pictures.

One Spanish producer wrote that Luna was a “creator of complicities”. While not everyone could share Luna’s libidinal preferences, he surely came, in new and uncertain times, not to praise Spanish machismo but to bury it: his films often end with their hero symbolically castrated. A quintessential maverick, Luna will perhaps be best remembered as the discoverer of gifted actors like Cruz and Bardem, who respectfully recalled their debt to him on his death.

  • Sight & Sound: the June 2013 issue

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