Oriol Paulo’s seventh feature film is based on the eponymous novel by Torcuato Luca de Tena. The book was written in 1979, a time when lunatic asylums still existed in Spain (as well as in much of Europe). It was not unusual for greedy families to lock up perfectly sane relatives in in order to seize their wealth and assets. This was normally the case with the elderly and vulnerable. In God’s Crooked Lines, a husband commits his young, beautiful, stylish and intelligent wife Alice Gould de Almenara (Bárbara Lennie) to a mental hospital with her consent under the premise that she should investigate the alleged murder of a patient that took place roughly a year earlier. She indeed believes that she is an undercover detective. She then gradually realises that the director and staff treat her no different than other patients.
Our protagonist falls down the rabbit hole. This wonderland is inhabited by a broad range of flamboyant “loonies”. Some patients are kind and welcoming, such as the scholarly-looking Ignacio (who has an irrational fear of water, known as hydrophobia) and the twins Romulus and Remus (one of them is silent, while the other one is constantly mimicking others). On the other hands, two patients are menacing and evil: a dwarf repeatedly sexually harasses our protagonist, while the towering “elephant man” controls her every step.
Various psychiatrists interview Alice. She demonstrates that she is both articulate and persuasive. The medics dismiss her eloquence as “paranoia”. These inventive dialogues expose the troublesome relationship between heart and reason, psychiatry and wit. The lady is far more clever than those “treating” her. There is also an element of misogyny. How is it that a woman could trick so many experts? She can’t. She must be simply delirious. Alice, however, remains adamant that she is indeed a qualified detective, and begins to suspect that her husband set up a trap so that he could empty her bank account and move abroad. She demands an investigation. Two sympathetic medics begin to trust her and lend a helping hand. Audiences are left to determine whether Alice is indeed telling the truth or just has a highly sophisticated imagination. There are subtle clues that point in both directions. It is impossible to put all the pieces of this complex psychological puzzle together. But it’s fun to try!
Audiences are invited to sympathise with our glamorous protagonist, regardless of her sanity. Alice is irresistible, her eyes bursting with kindness and determination. Despite her blonde hair, she does not fit the profile of the femme female. She’s just too kind for that. Unless she is indeed tricking every single person around her, audiences included. That too is a possibility. This enrapturing thriller has so many twists and turns that it will keep your head vertiginously spinning up until the very last one of its 150 minutes.
The production values of Gods Crooked Lines are impeccable. The sombre cinematography successfully conveys a feel of claustrophobia, with repeated establishing shots creating a sense of isolation. Recurring torrential rain creates a sense of confusion, a pseudo-cathartic narrative device that serves many purposes within the narrative: it both liberates and imprisons the sad and lonely inmates. The costumes are tasteful and sophisticated. Fernando Velázquez’s suspenseful score has a touch of Bernard Herrmann. The music often evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), as does the ambiguous blonde protagonist.
God’s Crooked Lines premiered at the 70th edition of the San Sebastian International Film Festival/ Donostia Zinemaldia, when this piece was originally written. The director and the top cast attended the screening, with a heavily pregnant and very emotional Bárbara Lennie hardly able to voice her gratitude to the enthusiastic audiences. She won the Goya Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 2014 neo-noir drama Magical Girl (Carlos Vermut). I have little doubt that her new performance gather many prizes as well as widespread critical acclaim.
On Netflix on Friday, December 9th.