Clown enthusiasts seem to hold American clowns in far lower regard than their European counterparts, and The Last Circus has helped me to crystallize just why this is the case. Take your typical American clown, with a typically stupid name like, say, Bongo the Putz. The guy playing Bongo probably hates kids and hates his job and hates his wife and thinks his dog is a freeloader, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it watching Bongo in action. He seems to only convey empty cheer and bludgeoning neon, as if that is enough to distract children from the horrors of existence. Now, I know what you’re thinking folks; that’s probably the pessimistic view, and I should just congratulate Bongo for entertaining children and move on with my jaded, hopeless life. However, as far as I can tell, little kids are easily amused by bright colors and general foolishness, so big fucking deal. Even the smile on a kid who’s a bit older seems plastered on, as if they want to appear to be entertained in order to fit in with the social situation (at best), or they are desperately attempting to hide their suspicion that this clown will eventually rape and murder them, dumping their body in a cold empty ravine (that would probably be the worst case scenario).
My point is: where is the pathos? A guy slipping on a banana peel just because he sees a banana peel and decides to slip on it in order to land on his arse and thereby entertain the stupid simply isn’t funny. However, take a serious businessman who’s had a terrible day and his life is quickly falling apart. He tries to smother this pain and frustration by stiffening his upper lip and determinedly move on from task to task. On his way to the Xerox machine, he suddenly slips on a banana peel inexplicably left in the middle of the office hallway. This second scenario describes the European clown, the comedic ally broad schmuck anchored by suffering that is uniquely human. After all, if comedy and tragedy are indeed bedfellows, watching an American clown is like watching a performer repeatedly attempting to kick tragedy out of bed.
In The Last Circus, this dynamic between pathos and foolishness is made explicit. There’s a happy clown (“Sergio” without the makeup) and a sad clown (Javier), and the sad clown’s job is to stand there stone faced, a ravine of pain and frustration underneath, while the happy clown subjects him to comedic humiliation. Javier is new to the circus, but quickly and adeptly fills the role of a sad clown. His boss is impressed after a particular performance, and tells him “you didn’t even flinch when he set fire to your butt!” We quickly figure out that Javier plays the role of a sad clown so well because it is merely a comedically abstract version of his actual self. When he’s out of makeup, he is a sweet, chubby-cheeked innocent who doesn’t fit in with the jaded and hard living circus workers, as evidenced by his child-like inability to comprehend a tasteless joke that Sergio tells during an after-performance celebration.
On the other hand, the “happy” clown Sergio is actually a sociopathic alpha male, a genial goofball to children but a spiteful bully without the makeup and dumbass wig. He is controlling and jealous towards his beautiful girlfriend, the trapeze artist Natalia. Folks, he’s the kind of guy that, when he suspects that Natalia is cheating on him, punches her in the face so hard she goes sliding across the floor and collides with a trash can. Javier quickly falls in love with Natalia, but he also wants to “save” her from uber-douche Sergio. However, Natalia has become completely accepting of Sergio’s violent and controlling ways, but Javier only sees a beautiful angel being held captive by an egomaniacal beast. Of course, Natalia starts hanging out with Javier, as she feels safe around him since he isn’t a sexual threat. She essentially tells him as much, and Javier’s face drops as if his heart has been broken and can never be put back together again. This awkward triangle plot could’ve come straight out of an 80’s comedy, where the nerd befriends the hot girl with the evil boyfriend named Chet, who wears a Members Only jacket over a Lacoste polo and jealously slaps his girlfriend when she merely asks some guy if he knows where she can score some Duran Duran tickets. Scoff at this cliché if you must, but when humanly rendered (as it is here), it just reminds us that this kind of dynamic often crops up in real life.
The sad clown Javier doesn’t simply suffer from generic shyness, his innocent heart fluttering in a jaded and cynical breeze. His pain is laid out in the prologue, where Javier’s father, a happy clown, is performing with his sad asshole sidekick, when, suddenly, a token rebel fighter (complete with Che beret and facial scar) forces them to join the resistance, along with the other freaks of the circus. They almost enlist the bearded lady before realizing that, despite the beard, she indeed rocks a vagina. Dad is soon dismembering soldiers with a machete, quite a sight with his makeup and dress and a goldilocks wig, while little Javier is left alone back at the circus, with only a lion to keep him company. Several years later, when Javier is a teenager, he visits his father, now imprisoned in a camp. His father suggests that he should become a sad clown because he has “suffered too much”, but he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and entertain children because “if I can’t make people laugh, no will love me”. Such is the catch-22 for the saddest of clowns.
Javier eventually snaps and bashes Sergio’s face in for desecrating his angel one final time, and this sends him down a path of dehumanization, where he ends up becoming a hunting dog for a violent aristocracy (shit happens I guess), a further entrenched version of the rich society his father fought against. Javier eventually transforms into a rebel clown, no longer sad, but instead laughing maniacally while shooting two machine guns (a GIF worthy sight indeed). He has become a distorted freedom fighter of sorts, fighting for Natalia’s love instead of some political revolution. Meanwhile, Sergio has become a pathetic monster with a grotesque face instead of a happy one, but also more human and less douchey and sociopathic on the inside. Javier’s past mirrors his future, and everything is mirrored in duality, vaguely like a low art version of Black Swan. In both cases, psychological trauma is rendered as a yin yang fairy tale, roughly tactile (like the blisters on the feet of the ballerinas, or the acne and stubble poking through the clown makeup) instead of being presented in clean broad strokes.
However, The Last Circus employs garish comedy instead of oppressive psychodrama, falling somewhere between Terry Gilliam and Sami Raimi, with the dry surreal satire of a Luis Bunuel amped up to cartoonish levels. The movie often makes clear the political and historical context of the story, linking a circus fable to the real world in order to take satirical jabs. The film is a bit reminiscent of Accion Mutante, an earlier de la Iglesia film about a future society where the world is ruled by the beautiful. The ugly therefore become outcasts, and some of these outcasts create a terrorist group and kidnap the beautiful daughter of a powerful businessman. Both Accion Mutante and The Last Circus are comedies of rampaging grotesques and biting satire and bad taste slapstick with a beautiful angel caught in the crosshairs, but The Last Circus manages to maintain a tragic love story at its core, despite the foot stomping absurdity that surrounds it. Then again, when you look askew at tragedy, it can sometimes seem pretty absurd.