A word of warning: if you are frightened by clowns, do not—I repeat, do not—see The Last Circus, a madcap, macabre fable from Spanish director Álex de la Iglesia, who has been compared to Guillermo del Toro but who, in this film at least, seems to be channeling some horror fanboy hybrid of Fellini and Almodóvar. Highly stylized and brutally dramatic, The Last Circus, which premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival, can be stunning, captivating and frightening—that is, until it loses its mind halfway through and becomes a bizarre and nightmarish telenovela.
In 1937, a circus is stormed by soldiers recruiting men to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A clown (Santiago Segura) is taken against his will, as his young son tearfully clings to him. He’s given a weapon and sent into battle in full costume (“A clown with a machete? You’ll scare the shit out of them!” his commander reasons), a role he takes to with surprising gusto. But after gutting an entire battalion, he’s captured by the rebels, and when they win the war he’s held in prison indefinitely. His now-teenage son, Javier, visits him. “Your lot in life is to play the sad clown,” father tells son. Soon after, Javier sneaks into the mine where his father is forced to labor, attempts to blow it up, attacks a colonel and watches his dad get trampled to death by a horse.
Fast-forward to 1973. Javier (taking the portly, somber adult form of Carlos Areces) is literally playing the sad clown, auditioning for a kooky circus troupe straight out of 8½. The “happy” clown, Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), is a sneering, abusive, alcoholic menace who tells Javier that he became a clown because, if he hadn’t, “I’d be a murderer.” Sergio enjoys telling dead-baby jokes and beating the daylights out of his beautiful girlfriend, Natalia (Carolina Bang), who also happens to be the troupe’s trapeze artist—and the new object of Javier’s affections, despite warnings from his fellow performers. At first Javier just wants to befriend Natalia, but, seemingly desperate to escape Sergio’s violent outbursts, she seduces him. It’s only a matter of time before Sergio comes around, and as soon as he does The Last Circus devolves into a horror farce.
First, Sergio beats Javier to within an inch of his life using a carnival mallet. Then, Javier escapes from the hospital and runs back to the circus tents bare-assed to maim Sergio with a meat hook. The carneys, who don’t want to report the crime to the police, carry Sergio’s body by elephant to a farm doctor who saves his life but leaves him horribly disfigured. Meanwhile, Javier escapes naked into the woods and lives off of raw deer meat until he’s discovered one day by—guess who?—the colonel he blinded as a teenager, who enslaves him and treats him (literally) like a dog. Instead of waiting patiently to be killed, Javier allows himself to free-fall into a complete psychotic breakdown in which he burns his face into a grotesque clown mask, dons a pope costume, procures two machine guns and goes on a killing spree.
With no end in sight despite the plot’s dive off the deep end, the movie heads into a plodding parade of camp carnage. Perhaps Mr. De la Iglesia intended to make a fatalistic farce, but even so, the loud three-ring circus he creates robs the film of any real meaning. It’s visually jarring—the film jumps back and forth between black and white, color, and some comic-book combination of the two—and the characters, who were, if not realistic, at least possible to relate to in the film’s first act, become garish monsters. After a certain point, there is nothing to feel except repulsion.
Sergio reemerges, his face a melted mess of stitches and teeth, and both he and Javier roam the streets trying to find Natalia and win her back—or to kill each other, whichever opportunity presents itself first (considering that the police are searching for Javier, and that his outfit and heavy artillery make him, let’s just say, conspicuous, he doesn’t seem to have any trouble walking around in broad daylight and terrorizing passersby). Eventually, the two clowns and their beloved acrobat end up atop a statue of a giant cross, battling to the death, but by the time the end finally comes, there’s no relief. You’re left with the vague recollection of an interesting movie you were watching before you got kidnapped and subjected to over an hour of torture porn starring a fat, sadistic clown.
Good luck sleeping tonight.
THE LAST CIRCUS
Running time 107 minutes
Written and directed by Álex de la Iglesia
Starring Carlos Areces, Antonio de la Torre, Carolina Bang