‘The monster is not what society has repressed, but what society adheres to.’
(Peter Evans, 1982)
Reading gender in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive.
Haunting and ethereal, Victor Erice’s debut El Espiritu de la Colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) is considered a canonical work in postwar Spanish cinema. Symbolic and elliptical, the film offers a veiled critique of the cultural monotony of the fascist era, as well as the constraints induced by gender socialisation. Released in 1973 as the Franco regime was waning, El Espiritu de la Colmena reflects the tendency of oppositional cinema from this era to rely on obliqueness and allegory to circumvent the fascist censor.
The film follows a young girl Ana (Ana Torrent) as she and her older sister Isabel become entranced by the figure of Frankenstein’s monster after a village screening of the 1931 Hollywood classic Frankenstein. The Frankenstein monster occupies the thoughts of Ana obsessively in a blending of lurid imagination and quotidian banality. The fantastical visions offer a respite from the trauma of Franco fascism and a startling break from the monotony of its desire to implement ordered life. Shrouded by a ‘significant silence’ (Paul Julian Smith, 1993), Ana moves in a world in which empathy with the monstrous outcast is the only antidote to society’s fetters. The film contains little dialogue, leaving the viewer reliant on the visual associations created by Erice’s use of camera angle and construction of gaze.
Ana’s family lives in bourgeois comfort, their warm-hued house mirroring the order and stability of the beehives that Fernando, Ana’s father cultivates. The bees assiduously labouring under the shadow of Fernando’s omnipotent gloved hands evoke the looming overreach of patriarchal authority, and compliance with fascism. In the opening scene, Teresa the mother and wife, is shown writing a letter to an unnamed man, apparently an escaped Republican soldier in France. On an obvious level, Teresa appears to represent the repressed woman under fascist patriarchy.
The film draws on paradigms established in the gothic horror genre and on gothic visual associations. The Castilian landscape is stark, monotonous, dominated by a road that stretches onwards, its end point ambiguous. In one of the opening scenes, there is a close-up of Fernando in his beekeeper protector helmet resembling this monster. Whether this is to suggest in Ana a Freudian desire for connection with her father (as the monster of her imagination), or whether it would suggest the Monster cannot be Other because on the contrary, it is embedded firmly within the family as one of society’s fundamental institutions. Ambiguously however, Fernando is often presented more as benevolent teacher to Ana than authoritarian patriarch. It is in this opaque characterization that Erice depicts the complexity of family life as it intersects with the repressive Francoist political apparatus.
For example, in a scene laden with allegory, Ana and Isabel go mushroom picking with their father. Fernando is teaching the children the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms, declaring a latter variety “un autentico demonio’’ (a real devil) in words which evoke visions of the supernatural. The mushrooms are rigidly either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, determined by the knowledge passed down to Fernando from his grandfather. He tells the children ‘’hago siempre lo que me decia mi abuelo’’ (I always do what my grandfather told me). Knowledge and its exercise are the preserve and product of patriarchal lineage. In a close up Fernando grimly crushes the poisonous mushroom (‘’the most dangerous of all’’) underneath his shoe; Ana’s troubled face as she stares downwards here implies dissent from her father’s vision and intellectual hegemony.
Fernando also points to the misty mountain, declaring that this is where the best mushrooms can be found. He makes the two girls promise to never tell their mother Teresa about the plan to go to the mountain, reinforcing secrecy, deception and silence within the family unit, denying his wife inclusion of this special knowledge. Jaime Pena advances an interesting interpretation of the political significance of the mountain, arguing that many maquis (Spanish guerrillas exiled in France after the Civil War) also known as ‘hombres del monte’ (men of the mountain) hid in the mountains to continue the fight against fascism. The good mushrooms to which Fernando refers would appear to symbolize these anti-fascist fighters.
If female submission and sexual acquiescence is at the heart of gothic horror in its mainstream forms, Spirit of the Beehive largely subverts this reading of the genre. The monster has of course, traditionally had profound gender connotations and feeds into a number of deep-rooted cultural preoccupations around sexuality and gender. One the one hand, the link between women and monster has been established because as Linda Williams argues, the female ‘recognises the sense in which this freakishness [of the monster] is similar to her own difference’. Women are compelled to identify with the ‘monster’ because both are Othered by patriarchy. Yet on the other hand, the supernatural Monster arises as mythic representation of male sexual dominance and violence against women. In El Espiritu de la Colmena, Ana’s fixation with the monster arises out of her own nascent sense of difference, both from family and society.
The figure of Frankenstein’s monster is reified in the form of the escaped Republican soldier who is subsequently murdered by the authorities. Ana forms a friendship with this fugitive, finding him in an abandoned shed in the similar way to how the girl in the Hollywood film befriends Frankenstein’s monster. In the fascist regime the Republican soldier represents the Other, as with Frankenstein, and indeed Ana herself.
Because through being mesmerized by the spectre of the monster, Ana comes to disassociate herself from her family and thereby to undercut the implacable hierarchy of the patriarchal family. She flees into the countryside overnight, swallowed up by the telluric hues of the Castilian fields in a torrid escape attempt. A village search party retrieves her and the doctor declares her alive, (as Frankenstein too injects life into his monstrous creation) but Ana’s paralysis and her sudden alienation from her family and community comes as a moment of crisis in the film. A girl unable to endure the restrictive binds of reality, it evokes notions of female breakdown often found in literature and cinematic representations of gothic horror.
Gender socialization is also probed poignantly in the relationship between Ana and Isabel which rests on a problematic good versus evil female dichotomy. In a mystical scene where Isobel and other children leap through a bonfire, Erice consolidates the sense of other-worldliness and witchcraft around both children. Yet the audience is encouraged to identify with Ana as the pensive observer. Ana stares languidly into the flames, but it is Isobel who leaps through them, lithe ad impish.
Both girls embody different aspects of the gothic horror trope; where Ana is trusting and sensitive, with eyes wide like dark and gentle oceans, Isobel is manipulative and even deviant. In an arresting and startling scene with the family’s black cat, (another motif of the gothic genre) Isabel begins by fondling and stroking the cat, sensually rubbing her face against it, but then begins squeezing the cat’s neck until its eyes begin to bulge hideously and it shrieks and scratches her finger. In the background a grubby baby doll and cherub statue is visible in shadow, perversely evoking childhood innocence. The scene opens with the camera angle at the cat’s level, encouraging the audience to identify with the cat in contradistinction to Isabel. Transfixed in front of a mirror, Isabel wipes the blood on her lips, like lipstick. There are many possible readings of this; in one, it represents the child’s burgeoning self-consciousness and subconscious awareness that entering the state of womanhood is accompanied by the spectre of blood (through menstruation) but also the attendant violence of patriarchy. Equally, it could be a statement about silence within the Francoist fascist regime, the blood on lips highlighting how societal silence hides the bloodshed left by torture and disappearance.
Throughout Espiritu de la Colmena, Erice draws upon themes and motifs of Frankenstein themed horror, but subverts the genre altogether by vindicating the agency of Ana the protagonist. It is ultimately a film about the struggle of a young girl to assert her independence from father and society; to break beyond the constraints of the beehive. She is not a passive victim of a monster either real or imagined, but ultimately its arbiter, embodying its spirit of outcast and rebel. In this way, El Espiritu de la Colmena conveys a subtle and enigmatic critique of patriarchal power structures in the context of fascism. It is a triumph of understatement and cinematic silence.