Sundance: Time Share
In Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, the director coops up a gaggle of wealthy dinner guests who, for some inexplicable reason, cannot leave. The party moves from room to room, and characters make plans to walk out the door but can’t quite do it, all the while being tortured by the slow avalanche of inanity. In Mexican director Sebastian Hofmann’s new film, Time Share, he imagines a middle-class telling of this story, set at an Acapulco vacation resort, where families get deals on rooms as long as they sit through incessant sales pitches for time shares. No matter how ludicrous or tense the situation grows for one unlucky family, they can never leave.
This comedy of manners is not the typical Mexican export to America these days; Hofmann concedes that the “drug lord thing is in vogue in film, and also very much a reflection of reality” in certain areas of Mexico. But the director set out to make Time Share a universal story. “The middle class is exactly the same everywhere. You strive for the same things. You want the secure job, the house with the picket fence,” he says.
It’s not that Mexican filmmakers aren’t showing this side of life in their films. Semana Santa, from Alejandra Márquez Abella, mines similar territory as Time Share, depicting a small family drifting apart at another Acapulco resort. American filmgoers, though, seem primed for the types of stories about Mexico that reinforce our narrow idea of the country, ever boosted into our consciousness whether we like it or not by political rhetoric. Think of how filmmakers, like Steven Soderbergh, depict barren Mexican landscapes with a sickly yellow filter and how this has quite literally colored Americans’ perceptions. Hofmann’s film attempts to wipe clean the slate.
“The sense of humor [of the film] is Buñuel, but I grew up loving horror films, directors like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, David Lynch,” Hofmann says. “They use the language of dreams, the grotesque, in the way that your dreams can turn from funny to really frightening.”
Another recent film set in Mexico, Amat Escalante’s The Untamed, also deals with the ordinary morphing into the extraordinary. In that film, a seemingly normal middle-class woman, a doctor, and a mother become embroiled in an affair with a tentacled sex monster that rivals the nightmarish beast in Żuławski’s Possession. Mexican filmmaking is awash with magical realism like this—Guillermo del Toro often says that the concept of magic is woven through Mexicans’ everyday lives. But in Hofmann’s world—i.e., ours—ordinary humans are the monsters and the manipulative smooth talk of hucksters is the magic.
In Time Share, a bourgeois man and his family become the victim of a hotel’s flagrant double-booking. The management’s response? Share the villa with the salt-of-the-earth family already assigned to their villa. When he attempts to explain that he has a reservation, the manager and his pliable assistant reiterate that it is indeed a bad situation but offer no solutions. “Yes,” they say. “I understand.” Hofmann transforms this annoying meeting with hotel flaks into an excruciating encounter, the bureaucratic non-answers reminiscent of Welles’ The Trial.
Hofmann also cites Punch-Drunk Love as inspiration for his embattled man vexed by red tape. It was, in fact, Paul Thomas Anderson’s choice to cast a populist comic actor like Adam Sandler in the role of Barry Egan that led Hofmann to seek out Mexico’s “Sandlers.” Lead actors Luis Gerardo Méndez and Miguel Rodarte, who play Pedro and Andrés respectively, are well-known in Mexico for both television and movies but are rarely cast in the type of film that would see a festival premiere or theatrical distribution in the United States. These are the kings of middle-class media in Mexico.
“I’d seen them do dramatic theater before and knew I wanted them for the movie,” Hofmann says. He wanted them to be funny, of course, but only in the context of their reactions to a surreal situation. “I explained to the actors that their characters’ lives are not at risk. They want to leave the hotel, but they’re trapped somehow” — just like Barry Egan attending a party at his sister’s house, which isn’t technically dangerous but is altogether suffocating.
The film’s cinematography, by Matias Penachino, drives home this feeling of being pent up; even though the resort where they filmed looked out onto a gorgeous ocean view, Hofmann refused to shoot it. “I decided not to point the camera at the ocean, and my DP is, like, ‘Are you crazy? We’re not going to take advantage of this beauty?’” Hofmann laughs. “It’s the claustrophobia of never seeing an exit. To me, the sea was an exit.”
Hofmann’s story is really that of the Everyman, the workaday dads coasting on a Mobius strip of consumerism, ingesting the corporate idea that where you shop or stay is integral to your identity. It’s no wonder Hofmann researched videos of Wal-Mart employees doing pep-talk chants before store openings, the employees proclaiming that they’re all members of the Wal-Mart family—“scary” as Hofmann describes them. Time Share reinforces the idea that there are no boundaries between countries when it comes to family, work, and living in the age of capitalist globalization.
Buñuel once said, “God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.” He could add to that list dinner parties and vacation resorts.
Time Share premieres January 20 at the Prospector Square Theatre and screens again January 21, 22, 26, and 27.
April Wolfe is a film critic, reporter and filmmaker. She was formerly the lead critic for LA Weekly.