Working amnesia into the moving parts of a credible on-screen story can be tricky. In the right hands, such as those of Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch, the idea holds the potential for effective psychological suspense or explorations of one's identity and trauma; in others, memory loss can lead to contrived plotting and dramatics on about the level of a soap opera. The inability for someone to remember the truth about their past life -- whether by accident or intentional -- has become a common narrative device over the past two decades of mind-bending films, most of which typically find a niche audience whether it's a domestic or foreign film. While Julio Medem's The Red Squirrel (La ardilla roja) predates many of those abstract pieces of cinema, it didn't strike the same chord as others with similar tones and objectives did that came out just a few years later, perhaps because its dark mind games and resulting eroticism were ahead of their time. That's too bad, because while certain elements are hard to believe and others are too exaggerated for their own good, it's a clever and engrossing piece of work.
While standing along a metal rail overlooking the beach and ocean, ex-musician Jota (Nancho Novo) contemplates suicide. His musings are interrupted by a woman (Emma Suarez) on a motorcycle who collides with the rail, sending her flying to the lower level. He jumps into action while an ambulance comes to take her to the hospital, keeping her awake and talking with her about her state. He discovers that the fall has given her amnesia, leaving her unable to piece together who she is and how she got there. With little to lose, Jota uses this to his advantage, twisting the situation so that the woman, whom he's named Lisa, would believe him to be her boyfriend. Jota attempts to keep up the illusion as long as he can, eventually sending the couple off to a lakeside retreat where they attempts to relax and halfhearted rejuvenate her memory. The true details of the life of "Lisa", and how she handles suspicions that Jota may not be upfront with her, gradually come to the surface during their passionate, awkwardly social holiday.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the popularity of The Red Squirrel never took off stems from its absence of an identifiable main character, someone worth rooting for. Despite the charms of his handsome and smirking expressions at almost all times, Jota's manipulation of an amnesia sufferer makes him a deliberately unlikable protagonist, whose willingness to twist the truth seems to extend as far as his verbal reflexes will take him. Whether he's a hero or not isn't up for debate; whether he's a villain, however, ends up being a more complicated question that evolves the longer he spends with Lisa. There's a swiftness about his verbal response time that rings false, in that Jota has an answer for just about any inquiry that crops up about his false relationship with the girl, but there's also this stylized elaborateness to it all that makes his manipulation of the situation -- and what details he'll add next -- a source of interest. You don't want him to succeed, but you don't want him to stop, either.
Coupled with Emma Suarez's disarming presence, the mystique surrounding Lisa's life before her accident -- and how she's handling the lies being spun around her -- becomes the force that drives The Red Squirrel. The circumstances of her introduction, that she was likely running away from a bright red car while accelerating on her bike, suggests that the fabricated identity Jota's creating for her might be better than her prior life, further complicating the audience's impressions on his unscrupulous efforts. Suarez's glances and sultry body language shape her into this alluring, desirable enigma, whose willingness to go along with her mystery boyfriend deepens the intrigue, emphasizing the complexity of exactly how much she remembers from before her crash … and how much of a bohemian she might inherently be. How her mindset swirls together with her sensuality taps into the kind of psychological eroticism popularized by the likes of Abre Los Ojos and Sex and Lucia less than a decade later, showcasing how the two strangers haphazardly break through mental barriers to engage their passions for one another.
Embellished with hypnosis sessions and hallucinatory sequences involving expansive deserts and music videos, the psychology of The Red Squirrel is deliberately imperfect, causing one to reevaluate Lisa's approach to her situation as it progresses. Most of the film takes place in an around their vacation area, no-so-coincidentally called "La Ardilla Roja", in which the couple interacts with the residents of the campsite, notably a family of five -- a crass taxi driver (Karra Elejalde), his somewhat somber wife (Maria Barranco, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), and kids who roleplay as their own married couple -- that challenges the veracity of their stories with probing questions and social invitations. Jota and Lisa's exchanges with them are spirited and sincere enough, but not much substance gets added to the mystery with their interactions, which makes them come across as distractions while time passes at their location. Vague suggestions may be involved with how the taxi driver's verbal abuse of his wife represents what Lisa could be suffering through outside of Jota's lovingly dishonest stratagems, but that's a stretch you'd have to actively pursue in the dramatic padding.
The Red Squirrel eventually goes down some darker paths once the truth of Jota's manipulations and Lisa's prior life catch up to them, both figuratively and literally, though the developments orchestrated by Julio Medem also become more unreasonable as that time approaches. Flaws in the premise itself start to come out from the woodwork -- namely, their proximity to other people that can identify them -- but the main one circles back to the absence of a positive force around Lisa: whether her own concealed, deceitful issues as a person make it so she's earned the outcome that falls upon her, and whether she'd deserve to end up with someone who exploits her amnesia. While mildly absorbing as a thought-exercise, it leaves their story in an emotionally and tonally confused state, going beyond the boundaries of people who accept their "imperfect" circumstances of their relationship and into unhealthy territory. Amnesia turns out to be too big of an obstacle for The Red Squirrel to climb over, but watching it attempt to do so ends up being a uniquely provocative experience nonetheless.
Video and Audio:
For an obscure Spanish indie that's celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, The Red Squirrel looks exceptionally strong on Blu-ray from Olive Films, though its 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer isn't without a few curiosities and issues. For starters, the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio hasn't been preserved, and based off some research of clips and trailers, it looks like information has been trimmed from the top and bottom to accommodate for the framing; it's a negligible difference, though, as so much of the film operates on pulled-back shots that don't suffer with the adjustment. There's also some digital smoothness and compression issues throughout, which fluctuates the image's grasp on depth in many shots, and the grain structure shifts from natural to overly-heavy in a few instances. Taking those things into account, however, the vibrancy of colors and gradation of warm flesh tones yield a beautiful and fresh capturing of sequences around the campsite; details in skin surfaces and wilderness textures of steady close-ups can be surprisingly sharp (the shot of Lisa after she falls out of a tree is especially well-handled, revealing color dots in her eyes and dirt speckled on her skin); and black levels are remarkably adept at staying dark without overbearing details. Like the film's characters, imperfect but attractive.
The Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track fudges the original stereo intentions of the soundtrack to the rear channels, with blatant musical cues and very slight atmospheric touches traveling to the ends of the surround stage. For the most part, however, the track functions as if it's in its original front-loaded form, operating mostly around dialogue and music mixed alongside only a handful of sound effects throughout. The mixing of verbal and musical recordings with the rest of the track is razor-sharp, but also notably separated from the underlying natural sound atmosphere, seeming extra pronounced in this track. Sounds of slapping flesh, revving motorcycles, and splashing water possess some midrange punch, but they're mostly subdued and struggle to remain on the same buoyancy level as the other elements. The English subtitle translation is great, yielding a crisp and intelligible sonic pairing with the transfer.
The Red Squirrel uses the concept of memory loss by way of an accident as a compelling mechanism for psychological and sensual drama, depicting a beautiful amnesiac motorcyclist and the deceptive man who convinces her that they're in a relationship. Director Julio Medem might not know how to resolve the complicated, morally questionable creation and development of their romantic bond, but it's intriguing to watch how he attempts to do so, and the entrancing presence of Emma Suarez caught in the mix doesn't hurt. Ultimately, its flaws are buried in the premise and cannot be overlooked, but the provocative tones and mental playground between the two main characters still grows into an intriguing and lurid mystery. Mildly Recommended.