Photo by Andrew Moore
Sol y Sombra

Bullfighting à la mode

Christopher North says French aficionados are more demanding than the Spanish

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The quarantining of travellers from France kicked in at four that morning, but your taurine correspondent is nothing if not committed.

Lockdowns have pretty much wiped out the 2020 season on both sides of the Pyrenees, with calamitous consequences which I’ll come back to in a future column. Only the Occitan town of Béziers was determined to go ahead with its August bullfights, in truncated form. French law allows outdoor gatherings of up to 5,000 people — so there we were, the facemasked 5,000, ready for feeding.

The afición of France’s Midi is an awesome thing. The French don’t have any damnfool notions about being born with bullfighting in their blood. They are happy to read, to study, to ask questions, to watch videos. As a result, they are more demanding spectators than the Spanish — which, in turn, means that they usually get to see finer performances.

No bullfighter will waste his purest art on an ignorant public. He will be tempted into crowd-pleasing tricks, albeit dropping theatrically to his knees when the bull has stopped, laying the flat of his blade between its eyes, thrusting his groin into its side after the horns have passed to smear himself with blood, stepping wide as he goes in to kill.

French crowds prefer tougher and more complicated castes of bull

You rarely see these things in the main French rings because locals expect, and generally get, slow, close, classical capework. Spaniards will tell you that French audiences are cold and bookish, but that is their national prejudice talking. French crowds prefer tougher and more complicated castes of bull, and expect matadors to create moments of clean plastic beauty with even the most difficult animals.

For all its connoisseurship, France had never produced a truly first-class bullfighter. Mexico had Arruza in the 1940s, Venezuela had Girón in the 1950s, Colombia had Rincón in the 1990s, Peru has Roca Rey now. But no French matador broke through to the top — until a young man from Béziers called Sébastien Castella astounded Spanish crowds at the beginning of this century. This was Castella’s twentieth anniversary as a matador, and there was no way that the Bitterois (as inhabitants of Béziers are called) were going to let a virus put them off.

What makes Castella special? French and Spanish taurine critics love generalities. They write of his mastery, his magic, his valour. But let me, in an Anglo-Saxon way, put it at its simplest. Castella is unbelievably good at keeping his feet still.

He incites charges from long distance, sometimes switching his cloth at the last minute, so that the animal, following it across the line of his body, almost catches him. Yet, from his demeanour, you’d think he was enjoying the view from the bank of the Midi Canal.

You might assume keeping your feet motionless is all about courage — and courage is certainly needed when every nerve in your body is screaming at you to get out of the way. More important, though, is intuiting the bull’s sense of terrain, knowing the precise distance at which a movement will provoke it.

Getting this right makes for a smooth, graceful performance and Castella gave us one. His people appreciated it, and he won the only ear of the night. But, somehow, he made things look too easy. The Bitterois, after all, had been watching his drill for 20 years. I wondered, as I left the ring, what madness had possessed me to condemn myself to two weeks of house arrest to watch a matador whom I must have seen three dozen times, and whose routine I could predict.

The following day, to close the attenuated feria, there was a festival corrida — a bullfight whose proceeds go to charity, in this case the local hospital. It was a diverse line-up. Lea Vicens from Nîmes, poised and beautiful, currently the world’s most popular rejoneadora (mounted bullfighter). Manuel Escribano, with his dazzling smile, infectious enthusiasm and cheerful tremendismo.

Miguel Ángel Perera of Badajoz, dour and brilliant. Paco Ureña, one of the most honest toreros you’ll see. Carlos Olsina, the young Bitterois hopeful. Plus, of course, Castella again.

This time, with bulls from different French breeds, there was what taurine critics call an apotheosis: nine ears cut and Perera’s animal granted the indulto. Appropriately, that bull was bred by Robert Margé, who was stepping down after 32 years as the manager of the Béziers ring, during which he made the ancient town a hub of excellence.

At the end, bullfighters and arena staff formed an honour guard for the retiring impresario while, from the stands, his townsmen cheered until their voices gave out. Such a performance was worth two months of self-isolation, never mind two weeks.

Still, the collective nature of these restrictions rankles. Béziers was where the Cathars made their stand in 1209. When it fell, soldiers asked the papal legate how to distinguish the heretics from the ordinary burghers. “Kill them all,” replied the legate, “God will know His own”. He’d have loved the lockdown.

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