A Dish Best Served Cold?

This is a recommendation to the Argentinian film Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), which we watched on DVD last weekend. It came out last year and has won prizes and awards at film festivals all over the world, although largely in South and Central America. It gained nominations for the Oscar and BAFTA awards (in the categories embarrassingly and chauvinistically called respectively “Foreign Language” and “Not in English”). It was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Somehow, though, perhaps because it was thought to be “foreign”, it did not gain a theatrical release in the UK, and opened on a paltry four screens in the USA. Traditionally, English-speaking audiences are assumed by distributors to loathe sub-titled films. (It is exactly this kind of unthinking chauvinism that is ultimately behind the current controversy about actors in this year’s Academy Awards.) Whatever the reason, Wild Tales can be fairly said to have slipped through the Anglophone net. More fool us.

Wild TalesIt is a wonderful film, one of the best made and most enjoyable I have seen in a long time. It is, though, difficult to describe and review, because of the form it takes. It is a portmanteau film, consisting of six individual short stories, without linking between them. In Wild Tales the stories have nothing in common beyond the theme: they are all about revenge.

The wish for revenge is an intriguing subject, and here it is treated with flourish. Each of the stories is original and unusual, each is well told and skilfully filmed. The cast consists of actors who are not instantly familiar to British and American audiences, but are obviously well known in Argentina – perhaps the most familiar of the actors is Ricardo Darin, who was the lead in such (Argentinian) films as Nine Queens and The Secret in Their Eyes. But the ensemble acting is terrific throughout.

Each of the episodes is imaginatively constructed: there is an ingenious plot as well as the story, and the characters are properly and convincingly drawn. There are memorable images galore: you will never forget the astonishing image with which the first story ends, but it’s not a film of cinematic trickery. The concluding story, for example, is based entirely on character and good writing, and leads up to a most satisfactory and surprising ending.

Wild Tales was produced by Pedro Almodóvar, and was written and directed by Damián Szifrón. I hope Szifrón has a long and successful career ahead of him. I can hardly wait to watch his film again, and I suspect others will enjoy it as much.


During the same weekend we saw a second film. This, oddly enough, had several features in common with Wild Tales. Much of it was filmed in Argentina, for instance. A lot of the dialogue has subtitles in English. It too is about revenge.

It was (perhaps not obviously from that brief summary) the recent blockbuster vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy: The Revenant.

Whereas Wild Tales glories in superlative writing and storytelling, The Revenant is minimally scripted, has hardly any story at all and no plot to speak of. It is no more than an anecdote, padded out for two and a half hours. You will know the anecdote before you go into the cinema: DiCaprio is savaged by a bear, left for dead by his colleague Tom Hardy, and after he recovers he goes off in search of Hardy to exact revenge. There is nothing more to the film than that: apart from a lot of hanging around in cold weather, fabulous photography of cold weather, a dip in a freezing river, endless violence in cold weather, a lot of cruelty in the snow … and a quest for revenge.

Wild Tales was budgeted at $3 millions. The Revenant spent $135 millions. Wild Tales, as I said, opened on a mere handful of American screens. The Revenant opened on more than three thousand.

Wild Tales is the better film.

MELANCHOLIA – directed by Lars von Trier (2011, 136 min., Cert: 15 – with Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling)

This is a film famously upstaged by the stupid comments made by director Lars von Trier at a press conference during the Cannes Film Festival, which had been mounted to celebrate Kirsten Dunst’s award for Best Actress. (Von Trier himself had also been nominated for Palme d’Or as Best Director.) As I am finding with this brief notice, it seems impossible to talk about the film without mentioning the stupid remarks. This is a shame, because that storm in an eggcup seems to have distracted most people from the unusual qualities of the film itself, which are many and great. It is a serious, beautiful and imaginative film, written to a perfect pitch, full of psychological verities, a brilliantly observed dysfunctional family of adults, a brooding atmosphere, sensational acting, and photography to kill for. The writer was Lars von Trier himself. The actors are all excellent, but the two leads, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are thrilling to watch. The photography is by Manuel Alberto Claro. The atmosphere – well, the atmosphere is created by a combination of all these elements.

The opening is a series of strange and evocative tableaux vivants, isolated moments in a world where a globally catastrophic event is about to occur: the music is the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with its undertones of impending doom. The main part of the film is set in two chapters. In the first, Justine, we witness the marriage celebrations of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) to the son of her boss – to say that everything goes wrong would be an understatement, but the mise en scène is classically and sumptuously mounted, with terrific ensemble acting, a script full of moving insights, venomous remarks and perverse actions, and a sense that everything is indeed going to hell. The second part is called Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Claire, Justine’s sister), and is set in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous wedding. A great depression afflicts the remaining family, but in particular the two sisters, who are forever separated by a gulf of misunderstandings and old resentments. Meanwhile, the wandering rogue planet Melancholia is set on a collision course with our own planet. It moves ever nearer, wreaking psychological damage on the characters and, in the final few seconds of the film, terminal physical damage to the world.

Melancholia is a masterpiece, one of the finest science fiction films ever made, and if the film and arthouse worlds were not obsessively distracted by the director’s mad remarks it would be recognized as a genuine paradigm changer. It is an amazing and refreshing antidote to the ever-predictable Hollywood take on filmed science fiction, with its dull and over-familiar emphasis on action, resolute heroes, terse dialogue, knee-jerk gloom, clever technology and cute robots, and visual and CGI effects. The point most Hollywood films miss is that when disaster occurs it affects ordinary people, not presidents and heroes and Bruce Willis.

Melancholia uses the dramatic technique of microcosm: an unhappy and squabbling family surrounded by useless wealth, unable to comprehend or even momentarily adapt to the catastrophe that is about to hit them. There is no hope of reprieve, no heroics, no pseudoscience, no more special effects than absolutely necessary. Ten years from now Melancholia will be recognized as a classic: of cinema as well of cinematic science fiction, a highpoint in von Trier’s maverick but endlessly intriguing career.

Lars von Trier’s moving and sincere retraction (together with a wonderful burst of supportive outrage from Stellan Skarsgård, denouncing von Trier’s high-handed treatment by the Festival organizers), can be viewed here.