Film of the Week: Wild Tales
I admire Pedro Almodóvar all the more after watching the Argentinian portmanteau movie Wild Tales—you have to applaud his generosity in supporting a filmmaker who can do in-flight farce so much better than he does. Seeing the credit for Almodóvar’s production company El Deseo at the front of Damián Szifrón’s film, then realizing that its first sequence is set on an airplane, I suffered a flashback to the Spanish director’s dreadful 2013 airline farce I’m So Excited!, which nosedived before it could get off the ground.
But Szifrón’s in-air skit is a lot funnier and sharper. It starts with a woman boarding a flight, then getting into conversation with the man in the next seat. She’s a model, he’s a music critic, and it turns out they have something in common. Then someone else joins in, and… never mind what else. Suffice to say that the situation accelerates with breathless pace, leading up to a punch line roughly eight minutes in, and boom—we’re hooked. By the time the opening titles start—a glossy montage of wild animals, set to Gustavo Santoalalla’s slinky lounge theme—Wild Tales has you on its side.
Hence the palpable good cheer that greeted the film’s press screening Cannes last May. Maybe it was partly relief that we were getting a chance to let off steam with some comedy; that doesn’t happen very often in the Cannes competition, and given that (if I remember rightly) we’d endured the rigors of Winter Sleep just previously, Szifrón’s offering felt very welcome indeed.
There are plenty of pleasures to be had in this very sleek collection—one of this weekend’s Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film—although the airplane gag is by far the punchiest and most economical. Other stories involve a diner waitress getting even with a loathsome customer; two motorists fighting a battle to the death; a wedding party that goes terribly wrong… The old Human Condition, don’t you know. These vignettes, scripted by the director, have the sort of single-mindedness that you traditionally expect from portmanteau sketches, especially comic ones; this is pretty much the stuff of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, except that not all these stories have a twist ending. They don’t all even have punchy endings—in fact, one of them ends with an act of sudden violence, yet given such throwaway treatment that you almost miss it, then find yourself appreciating the perversity of Szifrón’s offhandedness. On the whole, though, you could say that Szifrón is great at thinking up stories but doesn’t always know the best way to tell them.
Take story three, which ought to be the pithiest and most concise—and very nearly is. It’s about mortal combat on the road—Duel, basically, except we get to see the ugly face behind the other wheel. A city slicker is whizzing along a desert highway in his shiny new Audi, until some guy in a beat-up Peugeot (Walter Donado) refuses to let him pass, apparently from sheer malice. Iturralde, the Audi guy (Leonardo Sbaraglia), shouts some yokelophobic abuse from his window, and immediately we know where we are: on the wrong side of the line with a yuppie who’s transgressed on backwoods etiquette, and is now a certified yuppie-in-peril. The story does little to subvert this generic template, but efficiently delivers Iturralde to the spot where the showdown will take place, then efficiently squeezes the situation for the maximum venomous hostility between the two. It finally delivers a macabre verbal and visual punch line that pays off nicely, but a little too late. This story would have been a lot pithier if Szifrón had given us a little less of the car-ad glossiness at the start, with desert tarmac zooming away under our feet. Beautifully photographed (the whole film is shot by Javier Juliá), this episode suggests a live-action Road Runner cartoon, or parts of the Coens’ Raising Arizona (which is essentially the same thing), and if only Szifrón had cut to the chase, I’d have been a lot happier.
OK, I recognize the paradox here—it’s always lovers of Slow Cinema, we who like nothing better than a nice languorous eight hours of Lav Diaz, who are forever complaining that commercial entertainments drag their heels. But it’s true—and maybe prolonged exposure to the lento mode ends up sharpening your appreciation of how films ought to work in the allegro to prestissimo range. If Szifrón had managed to lose, say, 15 minutes from his two-hour film, Wild Tales would have been that bit wilder and more deadly.
The point is, I suppose, that we’re all wild beasts at heart, although some of us are like the opening credits’ sharks and tigers, others like their zebra and giraffe (Szifrón himself cheekily places his credit over a fox). Wild Tales is a direct translation of the film’s Spanish title Relatos Salvajes, but in France the film is known as Les Nouveaux Sauvages—The New Savages, referring to its characters, but also by way of echoing the Italian portmanteau comedy I Nuovi Mostri (The New Monsters, 1971; Dino Risi, Ettore Scola, Mario Monicelli). How very French to play the film-historical card.
In a way, though, the French title is more accurate. These stories aren’t all wild in themselves; one, about a wealthy family trying to cover up their son’s hit-and-run crime, is altogether somber and downbeat (and again, extended beyond its optimum length). But the tales all show people’s worst instincts emerging when the civilized veneer cracks. No news there, but when the formula works, it works very nicely. The closing sequence looks all too familiar—an opulent wedding takes a nasty turn when the bride (Erica Rivas) realizes that the groom (Diego Gentile) has had an affair with a guest. She has her own fling, venomously lets rip at the assembled company, and things look set for an apocalyptic ending. It’s all elegantly handled, though, Szifrón neatly catching the suspicious looks that flash to and fro across the venue. And the most eloquent moment is wordless, as the groom glimpses a little cluster of people conferring through an open doorway, and you suddenly can feel his stomach dropping, because he knows that they’re talking about him. Finally, just as you think this episode has nowhere left to go, Szifrón delivers a gentle tweak, a low-key ending that finishes it all off with rather benign mischief. It lets you leave the cinema with a smile of gentle satisfaction, thinking that maybe the savagery is what makes being human fun after all.
Where the film most engagingly straddles the line between farce and the ordinary comedy of everyday life is in the story of an arrogant explosives expert (Ricardo Darín, probably the most widely known Argentinian actor, from Nine Queens, The Secret in Their Eyes, et al). Having just demolished a power plant, he stops off to buy his daughter a birthday cake, but has his car towed away; the film’s most acute comic insight is into the humiliation of this man, a would-be omnipotent god of destruction, now reduced to the level of us ordinary mortals as he queues to plead with a callous city official behind a Hygiaphone.
I’m only guessing, but I suspect that this story would particularly tickle an Argentinian audience. Simon’s plight is pretty much universal, as anyone’s who ever had an unjust parking ticket anywhere will recognize—but it may be that the particular stresses he suffers have the unique mark of the Buenos Aires Traffic Department. Two other elements in Wild Tales may have specific local resonances, given Argentina’s recent beleaguered economic history: one is the story about the rich family, bribing their impoverished gardener to take the rap for a crime (echoes of Ceylan’s 3 Monkeys). Then there’s the story of the diner waitress, urged by her cook to murder the evil loan shark who’s now standing for mayor: “That’s our country,” says the cook. “Everyone wants these guys to get what they deserve but no one is willing to lift a finger.”
None of that, of course, makes Wild Tales anything but cannily universal. And that’s the trick that makes a movie work as world cinema—an Argentinian (or Greek, or Taiwanese) audience will watch a film and know that the situations on screen are specifically its own. But international audiences will recognize that “our country” is their country too, that we all suffer from our own rich families and loan sharks and traffic departments. The only danger is that a filmmaker ends up making a “globally local” or “locally global” product that, in appealing to everyone everywhere, fully belongs to, or speaks from, nowhere in particular. It’s a risk that the globally sleek, eminently exportable Wild Tales just about avoids—for the most part with a reasonable degree of wild style.