Álex de la Iglesia’s My Big Night is an explosion of kitsch, an intensely formalized mixture of farce and tragedy in a tonal register clearly influenced, in part, by the later work of Pedro Almodóvar. The film is set almost entirely in a television studio over several hours, as producers scramble to stage a New Year’s Eve special in October. We learn that this program has been in production for a long time, evolving or devolving to resemble a privileged micro-society that exists above the hopeless, poverty-stricken proletariat, which is violently protesting recent layoffs outside the studio. De la Iglesia follows several narrative strands, alternating between the talent, producers, extras, and various conspiring parties as they drink, screw, and plot assorted revenges against a fake backdrop of unending revelry.
In certain respects, My Big Night coincidentally resembles Ben Wheatley’s forthcoming High-Rise, as both use singular sets as representations of a caste system pushed to a breaking point. De la Iglesia’s vision is more varied and surprising, as his brand of chaos has a joyful “lift” that only renders the violence more disturbing. For instance, when a pampered aging singer, Alphonso (Raphael), who’s clearly molded after Liberace and Tom Jones, brands his son Yuri’s (Carlos Areces) finger with a curling iron, it’s staged as a zany punchline. De la Iglesia has been riffing on historical cruelty and atrocity his entire career, and, at heart, he’s a moralist, but the sense of pleasure he takes in the craftsmanship of cinema, in the razzle dazzle that distracts us from the social miseries that he simultaneously parodies, trumps preaching. The result is a theater of cackling pain.
For de la Iglesia, a handful of characters rushing down a hallway trading exposition can be the stuff of an extravagant set piece, particularly in My Big Night, which features one of the filmmaker’s most incredible settings. The studio at the center of the film suggests a fusion of every possible element of camp, encompassing elements from the cultures of ancient Rome and Weimar Germany to those of the contemporary United States and Spain. A young singer’s dressing room is lit in red, with an aura of detached, druggy sexiness that suggests a 1970s-era porn film—or a film about a 1970s-era porn. Another dressing room is defined by sleek white shapes that bring to mind the aesthetics of science fiction, namely of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.
In any given background or passageway, one can discern feathers, armor, glitter, silver, a coterie of painted nude dancers, guns, booze, and on and on. Nazi fetishism is mixed into this stew at one point, played in the background of an intoxicating dance number that hitches Busby Berkley’s geometric choreography to the self-actualizing tackiness of something like American Idol. The spectacle is amazing and terrifying, but the characters have grown to take this freewheeling capitalism for granted; it’s a contagion that’s infected them as well as de la Iglesia and, of course, us. In his virtuosic mixing of camp and social parable with debauched objectivism, filtered through scrims of irony and innocence, de la Iglesia comes as close as any modern film director has to resuscitating Josef von Sternberg’s resonantly ornamental aesthetic.