Sir Cliffton Reynolds (or maybe Reynold Cliffton according to the subtitles I had, but either way he’s played by Eduardo Fajardo) is a London judge plagued with intense headaches of late. Dr. Chalmers (Frank Wolff) tells Cliff that he has about six months left to live, but the good doctor also has a possible solution. Chalmers suggests that what Cliff needs is a new brain, comparing his proposed procedure to the transplanting of primate hearts into humans. Cue Ginetto Lamberti (Simón Andreu), a working man who currently lies dying in the street, but whose brain is in perfect (this is subjective) working order. But will this transplant prove to be a transmigration of Ginetto’s soul, or just an excuse for Cliff to go insane?
Juan Logar’s Crystalbrain (aka L’uomo Dal Cervello Di Cristallo aka Trasplante De Un Cerebro) is an amalgamation of genres. It owes as much to gialli as it does to science fiction, as it does to psychothrillers, as it does to horror. What it harks back specifically to, however, is the classic The Hands of Orlac and its profligate progeny. The earlier story concerns a pianist who has the hands of a murderer grafted onto his arms, and the “influence” the hands begin to exert on his psyche. This conceit, that a foreign body part introduced onto/into a “normal” person having a deleterious effect, is an intriguing one. It plays both as a straight horror paradigm and as an investigation of pure human nature. Most people like to think that they are, at heart, good. But what if you were given an excuse to unleash your id, to behave in a way antithetical to your public personality? Characters in these types of stories believe so deeply that their transplants have power, they allow their personae to transform, and rarely for the better. Their darkest aspects rise to the forefront. Many times, they become obsessed with discovering why their transplant died or with taking revenge on those who killed them. Who, then, is the true personality? The one who existed before the operation or the one who was created afterward? Was one just masking the other? Cliff appears to be a decent person before his procedure. He believes that “justice balances right and wrong.” He loves his wife Susan (Nuria Torray) and his brother Peter (Angel del Pozo). While he doesn’t turn evil after the transplant, Cliff certainly becomes more than a little unhinged. One way to look at the ensuing events in his life is that his sense of morality intensifies and drives him to find closure in the name of Ginetto by appropriating the Italian fisherman’s psyche.
In this same way, there is the notion that transplants actually do have power over the transplantee. In these cases, the fantastic element raises issues of identity and loss of same, perhaps even more than looking at it through a purely psychological lens. The introduction of organs not our own suggests an invasion of our body (in fact, that’s exactly what it is), an attack on who we are. The invader is usually malignant in nature and more powerful than the host body. The transplant typically proceeds in wreaking havoc on the transplantee’s life and loved ones, and there is nothing the weaker of the two can do because, through the process of the transplant, they are, by definition, no longer wholly themselves. Their identity is no longer their own because their bodies are no longer their own, strictly speaking. In Crystalbrain, this idea is a bit easier to believe because the human brain is the whole of our conscious being. Our hands may be adept at a certain skill, but that’s because our mind has trained them to be so. Naturally, this trope also implies in some way that muscle memory goes further than being the unconscious ability to perform constantly repeated tasks. Here, pieces of the donor contain the active personality (or aspects of the personality) of the donor. The transplantee, being in a weakened state, is possessed through these parts. It’s a bit like The Thing in that every piece of a donor contains the whole of him/herself.
We, as an audience, may or may not buy any of this under normal circumstances. A hand or a kidney is truly nothing more than a machine (or a part of a machine) without a power source. Nonetheless, the big question that comes up in this film is how does Chalmers not consider that Cliff’s personality would be completely changed by his operation? When questioned about this (“Do you think it’s morally responsible to destroy a soul to heal a body?”), he simply states that doctors have to stave off death whenever they can. But he’s not saving Cliff’s life. If anything, he’s saving Ginetto’s life by giving him Cliff’s body. What the hell kind of medical professional do you have to be to not understand that? The only way to explain it is that Chalmers believes that our psyche (or here, our “soul”) resides in our whole body, not just in our skulls (and he’s supposedly a man of science). Frankly, he never should have been given a medical license, but what can you do?
Logar and company deal with the disparate personalities of Cliff and Ginetto in a stylistically interesting way. During Cliff’s surgery, he flashes back to the many people on whom he has passed judgment, and they each appear in double exposure alongside Cliff as he pronounces sentence. They are voiceless; Cliff is in power, and his sense of justice is secure. Later, when Cliff visits the cemetery where Ginetto’s body is buried, he envisions a series of people who are directly in his and Ginetto’s lives (Chalmers, Susan, Ginetto himself, et cetera), again in double exposure, and they all call out to him. They are now tormenting Cliff. He is no longer in control of his life or his being, but justice must still be served. The duality of Cliff and Ginetto is tied together in this simple way, and I felt it was fairly successful.
The editing of the film is also fragmented. Time and space change in a heartbeat with little to no establishment of what’s going on or when these events take place. Like the Crystalbrain of the title, not only is Cliff’s mind fragile, ready to be shattered, but the cinematic world these characters inhabit is equally splintered. It’s an off-kilter approach, and it reflects what Cliff is going through. He’s uncertain of who he is (right up until he’s certain, yet even then…). His mind is unreliable, and the film’s construction is equally untrustworthy (although, as with so many foreign films of this ilk and time period, we can’t be completely certain how many editors’ hands this passed through), forcing us to fill in blanks and play catch up; essentially placing us in the protagonist’s shoes to some small degree or another. Admittedly, the film is headscratching in its logic, and Cliff acts in a manner easy to disbelieve, even with all that’s happening to him. It treats its supporting characters like props more than people, and I think this robs the film of the impact it may have had. Even at eighty-five minutes, the story is not particularly well-paced, either. And yet, it stands out among its peers, even if only as a curiosity rather than a revelation.
MVT: The approach to the narrative is distinctive and interesting, and I would guess that the filmmakers at least tried to tell their story in a unique fashion.
Make or Break: The scene in the cemetery, where Cliff (or Ginetto, depending on your perspective) hallucinates (or does he?).