FILM / The Last Detail

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I WILLINGLY confess to being no less fascinated than that potential reader, 'the next man', by the startlingly candid sex scenes which punctuate the narrative of Vincente Aranda's Lovers, fascinated in particular by the conjuror's aplomb with which Victoria Abril pulls a frilly pink handkerchief from out of her lover's rectum. But there's another scene, occurring at the film's climax, which held me in a totally different kind of thrall: that in which a roll of banknotes is passed back and forth among the three principal characters.

Frankly, I couldn't take my eyes off those banknotes. This wasn't, I trust, because I happen to be of an especially mercenary cast of mind, or because the notes themselves represented some unimaginably fabulous hoard (30,000 pesetas at a mid-1950s rate of exchange). It was, rather, that, in an era like ours, the era of cheque books and credit cards, bank drafts and standing orders, of the invisible circulation of money, the cinema is perhaps the only place in the world where it's still possible to see what a lot of the stuff looks like.

In film, to be sure, just as in life, money has been devalued by inflation over the years: these days, for example, nothing short of a billion dollars will any longer satisfy the criminals in a heist movie. Yet nothing, in the same heist movie, can ever devalue the spectacle of that money - nothing can ever diminish the thrill, when the gang returns to its hideout to divvy up the haul, of those wads and wads of crisp, tight new notes crammed like fresh linen inside a metal suitcase. It scarcely matters whether the movie is good or not, or that we know the money (its top layer excepted) to be necessarily false - a frisson is all but guaranteed.

The fact is that cash, paper money, the raw materiality of currency, tends to make the same, unvarying impact on the filmgoer whatever the filmmaker's own intentions might have been. It defies stylisation, it defies direction; put simply, it always looks the same. And in this, curiously, it may be said to resemble, not sex itself, which can after all be stylised, but the sexual organs, which cannot.

For what difference can there possibly be between a penis filmed by Vincente Aranda and one filmed by Wenders, say? Or Greenaway? Or Fellini? The director's style and sensibilty, his compositions and camera angles, the whole set of techniques and practices that he deploys to sustain our interest in the imaginative world he has conjured up, abruptly forfeit their power of mediation between us and the screen - and all we see, all we cannot help staring at, is a penis.