Pregnant with so many allusions, the shot above from Victor Erice’s masterwork The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) that isn’t just the greatest one in this film, but one of the greatest shots in cinema I’ve ever seen.
In the early part of the film, little Ana (Ana Torrent, astounding) watches James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in the town hall, only to be obsessed by its images. Later in the film, as she wanders off into the woods after she comes to know that the partisan soldier has been killed, she has this vision of Frankenstein meeting her by the lake – the shot in consideration. Erice captures both of them in profile, composing with perfect symmetry. There are two trees resembling vertical lines that chop of margins from each side of the frame. By using these, Erice creates a frame within the frame – the double framing device – and presents a reference (and a tribute) to a similar shot from Whale’s Frankenstein that Ana watches earlier (screenshot below). The double framing also allows him to distance us from the film and to remind that we are watching only a movie and that we shouldn’t take what we see too seriously – the same message that we are given prior to the screening of the James Whale film. Erice achieves the first kind of reflection by making life (the horror of the Franco regime that Ana discovers) imitate art (the horror film within the film), employing an art form that tries to imitate life. The reflection of the moon on water replaces the projector beam and the darkness of the night replaces that of the cinema hall.
Many times throughout the film, Erice compares Ana to Frankenstein, for they are both marginal beings oblivious to the fascist laws of the beehive – the society – that do not tolerate any form of anomaly, opposition or subversion. By locating Ana and Frankenstein on either side of the frame’s median, Erice brings in one more element of reflection to compare (and contrast) Ana and Frankenstein. Furthermore, the director provides to the shot a third form of reflection by placing the audience in Ana’s shoes. When Ana watches Frankenstein, she asks her sister, during the movie, why Frankenstein kills the little girl and why is he killed by the people. Following this, Erice introduces another Frankenstein figure into the film – the wounded partisan soldier – only to have him killed by the police. With this shot, we are forced to recall why the soldier (whose murder, possibly, brings to life this Frankenstein that Ana sees) was killed and why this little girl is haunted by all these images that she sees – almost the same question that Ana asks her sister in the film. Don’t they say that life imitates art?