The figure of the double haunts and sculpts Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Street. This black-and-white drama about the misery of the marginalized—pimps, criminals, beggars, and sex workers—features a roster of uncanny partners. There are the inseparable, aging prostitutes with a penchant for roofing their clients’ drinks, a set of perennially masked twin midgets working as shadows for wrestlers named Death and AK-47, a cross-dressing husband shadowing his wife, and a mother who, upon learning of the death of her children, reaches for the wardrobe mirror, banging her head against it, distraught for not being able to enter it. It’s impossible to watch the film and not think of Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet or Bergman’s Persona.
More interesting than Bleak Street’s narrative is the way Ripstein uses light to pierce his characters, to assault them, to cut them up. If the camera moves around the titular street like a diligent drone, surveying wretchedness as it would a landscape, the lighting turns everything it hits into a volcano of allegories, wounding them necessarily. Or rather, turning their wounds into visible evidence. The background sounds are so abstracted that there’s no claim of realism here. Redolent of Dogville, it’s as if this were a theatrical dimension, or a trip around the creases and folds of a sound stage. This is a strange, if not ghostly, stylization of the most human of all realities: agony.
In one specially striking scene, the camera watches a prostitute give her cross-dressing husband a handjob from behind, both staring into a mirror, his lightly made-up face and her semi-naked back the only lit elements in the pitch-blackness of their bedroom. His head could almost be floating out of his body toward hers, Méliès-style. Yet, like the desperate mother failing to enter the mirror, Bleak Street’s characters are cursed with the inability to become one, forced to witness a just-as-nasty version of themselves at all times.
This game of barely lit faces, of faces injured by light, percolates from the homes into the street, there being little distinction between inside and outside states. The street appears as the extrapolation of one’s bedroom, a type of living room for all folk, private enough for dirty dealings, sufficiently public for a work economy to take place. Bleakness, the film implies, demands different kinds of labor from a man than from a woman.
While everyone is forced to make do with the inapt materiality of their bodies (too small, too old, too male) and the duality of their semblances, it’s women’s faces that become valueless through time. It’s women’s faces that are exposed with no cessation. Women must open their legs “like plumbing,” as one sex worker puts it, while men duke it out in the rink, wearing their badges of honor—their masks—all day long (even to have sex and to shower), but never truly performing. Their immunity to the ravages of time, and so much else, remain untested, frozen in the form of latency. The wrestlers in the film always look ready for battle, but not once do we watch them fight, their very smallness a reminder of the fictitiousness of any phallic promise. As one twin says to his brother, “reflection is a serious business.”