For whatever reason, several of the films I’ve seen so far at the LFF press screenings have had a fairy-tale element. At some point, I suppose I’ll re-enter reality. Meanwhile, here’s something about the Italian film Indivisible.
In a small town near Naples, a family is supported by its two beautiful 18 year-old daughters, who sing at local events – particularly religious celebrations. Apart from the quality of their performances and their attractiveness, their appeal lies in the fact that they are conjoined twins.
Broken-down houses and dirt roads with scrubby, unkempt verges. To say that the landscape of Indivisible echoes Fellini’s La strada or Pasolini’s The Passion of St Matthew might seem like critical grandstanding, but there is a point to it. All these films view places that have lost their glory or been by-passed, and examines how the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised survive, and what moral compromises they are forced to make. But this isn’t a celebration of nobly struggling proletarians in a romantically brutal landscape. The father is a tyrannical manipulator, with the mother as his accomplice and there are two hanger-on uncles, all supported by the girls.
But the family is facing a problem (and at this point I should probably add a SPOILER NOTICE).
The girls are now of an age to make their own decisions and a visiting doctor has told them that it would be relatively easy to separate them. In fact, we see the slender link between them right at the start of the film and it did make me think: “Why weren’t they separated? Wouldn’t it have been better to hide that for a while.” Whatever, the diagnosis is no surprise to us, even if it is to the girls. But of course, neither is it really a surprise to their parents who clearly took the rather murky decision to keep them together to groom them as some sort of novelty act. The doctor offers to perform the operation for free, though there will be hospital costs of 20,000 Euros. But their wastrel father has gambled away all the money they have earned. Dasy, who itches to sing Janis Joplin songs, wants to leave, to join a flashy agent who has expressed an interest, and get married; Viola, not so much. But she goes along more (or less) willingly, in part because there seems so little to go back to. Having sung so often in church, they turn to the local priest for help but are rebuffed, and the agent’s yacht turns out to be something of a freak show – like Browning’s Freaks, it turns on its head the old idea of deformity being an outside sign of moral failure. They escape but are recaptured, leading to an end which, depending on your outlook, is bitterly tragic or redemptive.
It set me thinking on cinematic conjoined twins – maybe I’ll think about it some more after the Festival. So if you’re more interested in Indivisible than these thoughts you can skip the text that I’ve set range right and italic.
One of their roles is to represent the uncanny, making them irresistible to directors like Tim Burton (Ping and Jing in The Big Fish, 2003) and Caro and Jeunet (The Octopus in City of Lost Children – La cité des enfants perdus, 1995). Flora and Fauna in The Addams Family (1991) also fit that bill. Perversity also lies not too far away: Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men, (Про уродов и людей [Pro urodov i lyudey, 1998), about early 20th-century soft-porn, finds room for a pair of singing Siamese twins – as they call them. And while Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) are not conjoined, they might as well be: he/they do actually have a nightmare about it.
Of course, the daddy of these films is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) where they are portrayed, for once, by real conjoined twins – Daisy and Violet Hilton, who also appeared in the exploitationer Chained for Life (1951). The documentary Bound by Flesh tells their story.
Twins are usually set up in linked opposition, physically embodying our own divided natures. Often dominant and passive, they share feelings but have different desires, forcing them to face practical difficulties revolving around individuality and self-determination, and intimacy. Yin and yang, if you like. Think of the scene in Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) where one twin calls for Robert Cumming to be handed to the police and the other’s silence marks her disagreement. The trash apogee (as with so many other genres) is provided by Brian De Palma with Sisters (1973), in which Margot Kidder portrays nice and nasty. Those shared feelings mean that even when they’re separated, conjoined twins remain, in a way, linked, as in Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers (Les Frères corses), adapted numerous times for stage and screen, Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) or, more, gorily Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case.
I should also mention the Farelly Brothers’ Stuck on You (2003) whose heroes disagree about whether to go to Hollywood. Which brings us back to Indivisible.
Some of the characters are grotesques, but they are never portrayed grotesquely – they’re always believable. Seeing a way out of the grinding situation, they’ve grabbed it – but too firmly But it’s the central performances by sisters Angela and Marianna Fontana in their first roles that keep us watching. They hold a beautiful balance between accepting the normality of being conjoined, and resenting the limitations it brings – not only career choices, but privacy (they sit on the toilet together), marriage and of course sex. There’s an ease of a lifetimes of shared movement interrupted by occasional stumbles as the two brains aim in two different directions.
In fact it’s a gentle balancing act all-round: a fairy-tale in neo-realist style (set and filmed around Caserta and Castel Volturna, 30 or so km north-west of Naples). The girls’ ‘hit’ songs mock Euro-teen-pop, but indulgently, catchy but somehow intangible.
It’s also shot through with cinephilia: the twins’ names, Dasy and Viola, remind us of Freaks, and the big-shot agent shares a name with the director Marco Ferreri. His film The Ape Woman (La donna scimmia, 1964), the story of a bearded lady, which was shot in Naples, also lies in the background of Indivisible. And when they are abandoned Christ leaves as he did Rome in La dolce vita.
But you don’t need to recognise any of that the enjoy the film.
Here’s the trailer
Buy tickets here
Director: Edoardo De Angelis
Writers: Nicola Guaglianone, Barbara Petronio, Edoardo De Angelis
With Angela Fontana, Marianna Fontana, Antonia Truppo