Ecstacy and Death - tough acts to follow

Carmen waiting for her lover, Jacinto - Movie still from The Devil's Backbone

We watched Guillermo del Toro's * El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone)  last weekend (Del Toro also directed Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies).  Two of the repeating elements del Toro focused on were the acts of ecstasy and death.   In one, the couple is finishing there tryst, in three other scenes, three main characters die in drawn out sequences that make you feel part of each moment.  The acting in these pivotal, emotional and powerful scenes was some of the best I've seen.  Each conveyed their message whether it be love, lust, regret, loss, coming fate, or all of the these.   I wonder, how hard it is to act out these two moments?

I've only had one credible acting experience, as Francis Nurse in Arthur Miller's The Crucible in a high school production.  My part was small, but important.  It didn't really push my acting abilities though.  Even though I am not a thespian, I appreciate good acting.  What I saw from all the actors in The Devil's Backbone, I have to stand up and applaud.  In my opinion, two of the toughest performances to pull off were the long death scenes and the sex scene.

SPOILER ALERT - I am going to go into details about who dies... and orgasms in this movie.

The sex scene is between the middle-aged teacher/headmistress Carmen and her former student (and antagonist) Jacinto.  The scene opens with them at the climax of their intimacy, him on top her.  Both of their faces show they are in different places, yet still physically bound together at the hips.  Her expression shows the pleasures of the moment, yet the loneliness that she is with a sexual surrogate that she does not love.  Her love is for the much older Dr. Casares who recites his love poetry to her through the wall in the mornings.  Her regret and ecstasy combine into a moment of acting that tells more stories than a heart can bear.  

Jacinto's orgasm shows his temporary pleasure and his thoughts on how he is doing this to gain access to a key Carmen holds that unlocks the orphanage's safe containing what little money and gold it holds.  He is using sex as a means to an end.  Once again, the moment is complex for both characters.

Carmen's death - Movie still from The Devil's Backbone

There are three long death scenes showing the transition from living to death, the act of dieing.  The first is of Carmen dieing in Dr. Casares' arms from her wounds sustained from the explosion of Jacinto's bomb he used to remove the safe from the wall.  You can tell from Dr. Casares' initial reaction that he knows her wounds are fatal, yet he tries to mend her with delicate and loving ministrations.  She tries to tell him she loves him, but he tells her to listen to one more poem.  He shares his last poem for her, telling of how through death, their love pulls them closer together.  You can see her life slowly leaving her through each line he recites as he lovingly caresses her head.  Carmen fights to stay alive to hear the poem, but dies before the last line is finished. 

In the second major death scene, Dr. Casares sits in a chair overlooking the orphanage's entrance holding a shot gun.  He is there to defend the children from Jacinto's return to  steal the safe and kill all the boys.  Dr. Casares is bleeding from his wounds inflicted from the same explosion that took Carmen.  He is now deaf in one ear and is wearing out.  One of the boys, Jaime,  is in the room with him keeping an eye out.  You see the boy doing things to prepare as Casares looks out the window.  At one point you see Jaime notice the sound of flies buzzing about and looks at the doctor.  A fly flits about Carsares' open mouth as another lands on a cut on his head.  At that moment, Jaime knows the gentle doctor died.  It is a quiet death, but so well acted as the life quietly bled out of him.

In the third notable death scene, Conchita, a young beautiful woman who helps out at the school and was Jacinto's lover and fiance, is walking toward the distant neighboring town to get help after the explosion.  She runs into Jacinto who is returning to the school to get the safe and kill the rest of the boys.  Jacinto gets out of his truck and walks to her as his two thugs watch on.  He puts his hand on her shoulder and tells her to apologize and join him.  She tells him she is not afraid of him anymore.  He offers one more time and she responds the same.  He holds her close as they stand in the road.  You don't see anything more than his arm move, but you know he has just stabbed her in her side by her flinch and reaction in her eyes.  In the next half minute, you see all the emotion, pain, and sorrow of life in her eyes and face.  No words are said as he holds her and her life slowly fades out.  Jacinto is hurt by his killing her.  

All three of the deaths show so well that transition to death.  Each actor lets you know when the "lights out" moment occurs.  Each death moved me in different ways, as did the sex scene. 

Enough has been written on the connection between sex and death.  There is a French term for the orgasm, le petit mort.
According to wikipedia, la petit mort is...

La petite mort, French for "the little death", is a metaphor for orgasm.
More widely, it can refer to the spiritual release that comes with orgasm, or a short period of melancholy or transcendence, as a result of the expenditure of the "life force".

What I ask again is, how do actors prepare to act out these two moments and convey the reality of it?  I know that method actors may emphasize the point of making it feel like it has never happened before to make it feel real.  Other actors may look at references from literature, art, and music to reenact the death and orgasm. 

Dee's suicide - Battlestar Galactica
I recently watched the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica for a second time.   In one episode of the final season, Dee commits suicide by shooting herself in the head.  There was almost no lead up to the moment.  She is standing by her locker, putting away her stuff, looks in the mirror and shoots herself.  The whole moment lasted five seconds, at most.  So much of death portrayed in tv and movies shows the suddenness (and often violence) of the event, yet rarely shows the emotions and depth of what each character and the victim(s) experience.  Maybe this is due to challenge of conveying such a deep moment.  

The ability to act out sexual ecstasy and death so vividly and emotionally has to be two of the greatest acting challenges.  These challenges not only comes from the emotional/mental demands of the moment, but also the deeply personal and unique experience we all have during ecstasy and death.  I admire film makers willing to show the power of these moments and the actors creating them.

*Note: I highly recommend this period piece that tells of a orphaned boys school set during the Spanish civil war.

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