The Hand in the Trap
English Title: The Hand in the Trap
Original Title: La mano en la trampa
Country of Origin: Argentina
Studio: Producciones Ángel, UNICINE
Director: Leopoldo Torre Nilsson
Cinematographer: Alberto Etchebehere
Art Director: Oscar Lagomarsino
Editor: Jacinto Cascales
Runtime: 90 minutes
Genre: Modern Families
Laura lives with her mother and Aunt Lisa, dressmakers descended from one of a provincial town’s grand families, now fallen on hard times. Up in the attic lives her late father’s bastard child, rumoured to be a mentally-challenged dwarf – and whom Laura has never seen. Laura enlists the aid of a local boy, Miguel, in an effort spy on him. What she discovers completely stuns her: the attic’s inhabitant is actually a woman, who she soon realises is her Aunt Inés. Supposedly happily married to an American and living in Alcatraz, Inés had suddenly disappeared following her break-up with Cristóbal Achával, scion of another of the area’s grand families, albeit not one fallen on hard times.
Laura turns to Cristóbal for help, confiding in him that her aunt – his ex-fiancée – has been living up in her attic for almost twenty years. Achával does not believe her, but he goes along with her plot. Laura stages her aunt’s ‘reunion’ with Cristóbal, but the shock proves so great that Inés collapses, whispering ‘murderer’ as she dies. Cristóbal takes Laura away, promising he will always take care of her. But as Laura looks around her new space, she realises that it is nothing more than Inés’s room in the attic.
An annihilating melodrama, The Hand in the Trap is the most perfect of the many Guido-Torre Nilsson collaborations, the one in which her hothouse Gothic sensibilities were most effectively captured by the director’s Orson Welles-flavoured baroque visual style. The film begins with the evocation of a dark family secret: at some point, Laura’s father had a bastard child that he brought home after the child’s mother died. Soon after the father himself dies, the child is theoretically packed off to the attic, where the only people who ever see him are Laura’s mother and Aunt Lisa.
The ‘dark family secret’ is a time-honoured plot device, but in the context of the film it takes on a special resonance. The fact that the child was born a dwarf and mentally challenged leads to a fear that there is something wrong, genetically perhaps, with the Lavigne family, despite their outward normality and trappings of success. As Cristóbal confides during the long flashback in the last part of the film, there are lots of weird things in the pasts of ‘grand families’ such as the Lavignes and Achavals. That ‘something wrong’ has finally caught up with them, and now that it has been revealed, the fear of it is enough to disrupt the wedding plans of Inés Lavigne and Cristóbal Achaval, the handsome son of the town’s other ‘founding family’. This fear drives the couple apart, and then is powerful enough to keep Inés locked up for twenty years, a kind of self-imposed punishment that she claims is actually a ‘victory’.
In 1939, Argentina had the fifth largest economy in the world, far bigger than Western European nations such as Italy or Spain, from which most of its inhabitants had originally come. When The Hand in the Trap was released in 1961, Argentina was just coming out of the shadow of the Perón regime, yet within a year a military junta would depose the elected President and reinstall its control. Moreover, the country’s economy had collapsed, and it was now at best in the middle-range of developing nations, when just twenty years earlier it had been seen by just about everyone as one of the countries of the future – much like the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) today. What had happened? Was Argentina’s collapse the result of neo-colonialist maneuvers, or the result of something darker, deeper about Argentina itself?
Part of the brilliance of The Hand in the Trap is to play on these inchoate, unarticulated yet very real feelings without addressing them specifically. Argentina in the film feels always at a crossroads: there is the country of Miguel and his friends, callow perhaps but nevertheless vibrant and contemporary, and the Argentina of the Achávals and Lavignes, a weird vestige of an unresolved past that continually threatens to overwhelm the present, as it does when it drags Laura into its vortex. The outward appearances could not be more reassuring, more civilised; yet it is precisely under the classical statue of Venus and the Tiger that all the bodies are buried.
One last thing to consider is the murky time line in the Lavigne-Achával saga. Soon after the bastard child is brought home, Laura’s father dies, meaning of course that she would have been either very small when he arrived, or that Laura’s mother would have been pregnant with her at that moment. Visually, the flashback does not help – Laura’s mother looks pretty much as she does in the rest of the film. But in a story so full of dark secrets, could it be that Laura is not really the offspring of her supposed mother and father but of… Inés and Cristóbal? After all, people remark constantly how much she looks like Inés, and her self-incarceration might make more sense if she had been pregnant. Indeed, that would have made for an even darker tale!
Author of this review: Richard Peña