Amelia Lópes O’Neill

(aka Amelia López O’Neill, Valeria Sarmiento, Chile/Switzerland/France/Spain, 1990)


Vacillating constantly between pathos-ridden dramatic tension and ironic parody of convention, Amelia Lópes O’Neill is a film that presents itself as both pleasurably and parodically excessive”. (1) This evocation offered by art & film critic Coco Fusco is a little at odds with the director’s self-description of her film melodramas as “contained”, even sober.


In Amelia Lópes O’Neill, high melodramatic themes are indeed delivered in a relatively placid, deliberately unhysterical style: the bond of two sisters, the invitation to death which returns as a last loving embrace, suggested incest of the father-daughter bond (as in Sarmiento’s terrific Notre mariage, 1984) … The intrigue involving two sisters (the lover of one marries the other), played by Laura Del Sol and Laura Benson, particularly recalls Bette Davis vehicles such as The Old Maid (1939).


The exoticism of the Valparaíso setting is seemingly filtered via the images of Buenos Aires conjured in the classic film noir Gilda (1946): the wind blows and brings ghosts, lovers leap from rocks, and the smoky bars recall Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) by Raúl Ruiz (i.e., Mr Sarmiento, who co-wrote the script of this one, as well as several other of her narrative features). There is heady, Hollywood-style work with alleyways, stairs, a back door: these function as the compulsively repeated sites of a desire that must be obeyed, as in a tragic trance.


Sarmiento recounts in her interview with Fusco how the project grew from the ashes of a previous, finally abandoned one, a “melodrama filled with the exuberant craziness of the tropics” that was co-written with Cuban playwright Pepe (aka José) Triana [1931-2018] and slated to star Raúl Julia [some of this flavour returned in Rosa la china in 2002, which reunited Sarmiento with Triana]. Subsequently, “I went to Spain, bought two hundred Corin Tellado romance novels, and read them all … All of her novels have a transgressive sexual theme at the centre”. Despite this inspiration, Amelia Lópes O’Neill is not adapted directly from Tellado, but a Chilean novel of the same name by Joaquín Edwards Bello (1887-1968).


The film carries the almost Buñuelian theme of a woman who remains true to her first love (Franco Nero as Fernando), even though she continues to be loved by him only as a prostitute. This is a true “schizo system” (Deleuze-Guattari style) of wayward morality, based (like Buñuel’s Viridiana, 1961) on the denial and repression of sexuality combined with the corresponding inflation of the myth of sublime romance – recall another Buñuel heroine, Tristana (and there’s an artificial leg under a piano here, too).


In Sarmiento’s cinematic universe, it’s always the men who return as ghosts to haunt and enslave the women: always the spectre of Daddy, and the dashing Grim Reaper in a suit at Lover’s Leap, and an always (curiously) much older man … For Françoise Audé (1938-2005) of Positif, author of an important book of feminist cinema criticism and history, the film “spells out the consequences of machismo”. (2)


Sarmiento uses a framing device (ending with the torn photo portrait of the two sisters) of an observer telling his tale to a disbelieving journalist. This is, effectively, an impossible narration, far removed from the character’s possible or imaginable point-of-view. Ultimately, the complete fantasy aspect of this narration is (literally) entered into: what he cannot say, perhaps what he didn’t even see, can be glimpsed deep in his eyes (it is the taboo moment of union in death, the lovers laid out in the mansion’s flames).


A recurring motif is the role of children as the not-innocent, as with the girl who burns her doll’s faces; note the Maurizio Nichetti-type, off-centre moment of comedy where this girl smashes her dolls hysterically (but with very controlled, post-sync sound!), as the camera follows the central characters off to another part of the bar.


There are some good jokes about this magician narrator and his “academy of thieves”, where he is respected. Not forgetting the arresting opening scene, where the man’s mirror image combs his hair a bit differently; and also when (during the credits) he rides a bicycle with folded arms.


In general, however, there’s not a great deal of ostentation on the stylistic plane; instead, there are extremely posed, controlled framings; precise transition-edits on sudden moments of stasis (something I hypothesise that Sarmiento brings, as editor, to Ruiz’s films); and the distinctive, slightly-off-kilter POV structures of looking and being looked at. It’s a continuation of that drive Bill Krohn once described in the resurgence of fiction in late 1970s modernist film, a will to “display the erotic paradoxes of classical cinema (…) and reflect its extinguished brilliance at quirky angles, and with a lunar pallor” (3) – a neat way to encapsulate the cinema of Valeria Sarmiento.



Coco Fusco, “Dreaming Melodramas: An Interview with Valeria Sarmiento”, Afterimage (December 1991), pp. 10-11. back


2. Françoise Audé, Cinéma d’elles, 1981-2001: situation des cinéastes femmes dans le cinéma français (Lausanne: L’âge d’homme, 2002), p. 105. back


3. Bill Krohn, “Translator’s Note”, Film Reader no. 4 (1979), p. 119. back

© Adrian Martin February 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search