From Mexico, the thrilling and tantalizing world of burlesque and showgirls comes to life in the documentary Beauties of the Night, the feature debut of María José Cuevas. Showcasing the careers and lives of the Mexican disco era’s biggest stars, the movie brings to life a brilliant moment in the country’s entertainment past, while focusing on the candid moments of the subjects’ lives over the past few years. Vibrant and self-reflexive, Cuevas’ film evolves into a collage portrait, featuring a rich, artistic moment when it seemed as though women ruled the earth.
Focusing on the meeting of art and life, Beauties of the Night provides an intimate portrayal of the ageing women, most of whom are now in their 60s. Still eager to perform, they represent the last of the Mexican vedettes, superstar women who were as famous for their talents as their beauty. Blending sensuality and melancholy, the film blurs the line between artist and art, showcasing an often neglected cabaret artistry. As the line between performance and life becomes obscured, the women embody a lifelong artistic ideal that most of us only dream of.
At the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, director María José Cuevas and subject/star Olga Breeskin were in attendance for the Canadian premiere. They spoke to Justine A. Smith of Vague Visages over Skype.
Justine: Olga, when did you start performing?
Olga: I was eight years old when my father, who was a great Russian violinist, started training me — a very difficult instrument for a child. But I loved it, so my goal was to become a classical musician and play classical music all over the world.
Justine: How did that transition into becoming a vedette?
Olga: That was an accident. A famous composer from a Sunday TV show saw me playing classical music in a restaurant, so he made a proposal that I couldn’t refuse. My economic life was a disaster: my father had passed away, and we didn’t have a way to survive financially. My mother — who was a great, great person — was praying every day for food for my brother and myself. So, when this guy Raoul offered me a spot on his TV show — but only by myself — it was a difficult decision.
I was scared to be on stage without my brother. Why? Because I was already 16, and I was experiencing a lot of sexual harassment related to my appearance. I was not ready to handle that. So, I didn’t want to split with my brother because of that. But, I thought, “I don’t like poverty, and I don’t like misery,” so I said yes.
This TV show on Sundays changed my goal! I turned, little by little, into a sex symbol. And when I was 20, I was “Super Olga.” Oh, wow — what a woman! To be honest, I felt good being admired. I felt great being paid very well, and all the men in the country wanted to invite me for a date.
Justine: Maria, how did you start this project?
Maria: It’s about my childhood memories. I grew up knowing who those women were and watched Olga on TV. Also, my father was an artist, so he took me to see some shows when I was a little girl. So, 10 years ago I met Yamal, one of the subjects, and that’s when I started wanting to make this film.
Justine: The film feels very candid and very open.There seems to be a lot of trust between you and the subjects. Did that come naturally?
Maria: That was magic. We spent eight years shooting the film, so of course there was also more trust and more complicity between us. We are very close now.
Olga: When Maria invited me to be in the film, I was already a Christian. And she offered to put me in the film and show my past life when I was promiscuous, when I was not exactly what I wanted to be. So, I prayed to see if it was correct, what I was going to do, or not. I remember all those years of luxury and mansions and how that dream had already disappeared. When she invited me to the first meeting, I didn’t even have a house or a car, and I was a little embarrassed to say “What will I share?” Being a woman gave me the confidence to do it, and Maria, as a woman, understood my mistakes, my problems and my broken dreams.
Justine: Wh did the period of the vedettes end in Mexico?
Maria: In 1985, we had this big earthquake in Mexico, so most of the cabarets and nightclubs fell down. So after the earthquake, the nightlife changed completely. That’s the end of the era. They are the last generation of vedettes in Mexico, that’s why they’re so important. This big earthquake, for me, is a metaphorical event: everything fell down. Then in the 1990s, well, they were not young anymore. They were turning 40 — they were still young but not for the world of vedettes. It was the end of an era.
They are still vedettes, but they are also human beings and they are always having this conversation between what they were and who they are now. And that’s real! I mean, I know them and they are just like how you see them. They are just like that. They are acting, they are singing — it was like living in a musical. I love musicals, and I also grew up with Fred Astaire and those kinds of films, so the experience of being close to them was fantastic. We were in the car and, all of a sudden, they start singing, or Rosie was dancing mambo in the kitchen.
Justine: I’m interested in how you portray the body as we grow older and it changes. Was that intentional?
Maria: We all grow old, not just the vedettes. And there are a lot of prejudices about ageing and not having the spotlight and losing that youth. Olga is the one in the film who explains that so well, saying youth doesn’t last forever — youth is gone and now you have to understand how to live and how to re-invent yourself. I think that’s the main theme of the film: how you reinvent yourself and how you’re still a strong woman; you’re still beautiful and you still want to do plenty of things in life.
Justine: At what point did you realize this was not just going to be a testimonial about the era?
Maria: In the beginning, when they let me have access to their lives in an intimate way. When I played back what I shot, it was something else. It was not testimonials, I was discovering them as human beings. Princess Yamal and I, we were friends since 2006, so we were already very close. Princess Yamal went to jail, so, as you can guess, the access with her was different than the others in the beginning. Then, I think it was just like that, except in the beginning, they didn’t want to be filmed without makeup. But then they didn’t care, because I was discovering their soul — not just what was on the outside. I think I was falling in love with them, really admiring who they are now, not who they were. I admire who they are today.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.