Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano

Removed from his home country and deposited in a dusty backwater a man might be expected to drift. Removed from his job, reduced in social standing and abandoned by his wife that same man might drift further still, perhaps into isolation, introversion and morose self pity. This is certainly the path Geoffrey Fermin, former British Consul to the Mexican town of Cuernavaca is taking in Under the Volcano, a late entry in the great John Huston’s canon. We’re never told whether the exit from the diplomatic corps was forced or voluntary, but it hardly seems to matter.

We meet the former consul on the eve of Mexico’s Day of the Dead. He is immaculately turned out in tuxedo and shades and is being heralded through the town’s graveyards by a wild dog. He has been drinking. He arrives at a local bar and continues to drink. Then he manoeuvres a friend into a nightclub and proceeds to drink more, a lot more. He also disgraces himself so repairs to a local chapel where he says a prayer to the virgin Mary that estranged wife return to him.

The next day, in the dying hours of his all-night bender she returns to him. A hallucination? Some Mexican magical realism? Or has Yvonne, embodied by the fragrant Jacqueline Bisset really decided to return to the arms of her dipsomaniac ex-husband? The rest of the film follows the pair – later joined by Geoffrey’s half brother, who may or may not have had an affair with Yvonne – as they debate politics, philosophy and the future, all the while surrounded by the ongoing celebrations of death.

Does this sound like boring film-making? A self indulgent experiment by Huston? Well from a certain point of view it might appear that way and certainly the original book by Malcolm Lowry is so deeply insular as to render it almost unfilmable but I think Huston pulls it off, stripping out some of the subtext while retaining the lyricism of the original text. He also chose his lead actor perfectly. Albert Finney plays Geoffrey and delivers an absolute knockout performance as a perennial drunk, a man so enraptured of booze he can ‘drink himself sober’. The director never relies on cinematic tricks to bring this to life. No six foot rabbits, no blurred lenses or tilted frames here, just the charisma of a naturally gifted actor at the very top of his game.

Alongside Finney and Bisset there are a number of terrific cameos, the sort that only happen when someone as venerable as Huston calls in favours from old friends. James Villers appears as a posh, braying Englishman who nearly runs Geoffrey over and offers generous slugs of whiskey in recompense; Katy Jurado pops up as a wistful fortune teller and the legendary director Emilio Fernandez – complete with rooster sidekick – does a turn as a denizen of the notorious whorehouse bar Firmin cannot keep himself away from.

Settle in and give Under the Volcano a watch, though please don’t try any drinking games that match the lead character drink-for-drink or you may end up in one of the many graveyards that populate the movie.

Under the Volcano – directed by John Huston (1984)

In Short
A day in the life of a self destructive drunk over the course of The Day of the Dead in a searing Mexican town.

Trailer here