One of the unique elements of the film-festival experience is that unlike mainstream theatrical distribution, where studios carefully segment their release schedule to bombard all quadrants and strategically cordon off their wares to prevent cannibalizing their market share, film festivals revel in the overlap. They love it when multiple films investigate the same territory and refract it through a panoply of different visions and voices. AFI Fest 2011 is no exception; Extraterrestrial, With Every Heartbeat, and Bonsái are films that all revolve around the messiness of romances new and old. But it’s intriguing to see how they use some of the same building blocks—the fluttering electricity of grazing fingertips, the configuration of bodies on a bed, the way we use mementos and images to structure our understanding of a relationship—and use them to set off in completely different directions.
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo introduced his film Extraterrestrial at the festival by saying that “It’s all bullshit.” He was probably referring to the fact that his debut feature, Timecrimes, deeply embedded its science-fiction conceits into the heart of its plot, while this film is only sci-fi inasmuch as it depicts (to crib from Roger Ebert) an alien armada coming to Earth to launch an invasion against a love triangle. But if the film is bullshit, it’s bullshit in all the right ways.
We open with Julio (Julián Villagrán) waking up from a drunken one-night stand with Julia (Michelle Jenner); their simple parting of ways is complicated when they realize that Julia’s Madrid apartment has no phone reception, no TV signal, no Internet; oh, and out the window they can see a massive flying saucer hovering over the city. Though the area has been mostly evacuated, they soon have company, first in the form of nosy neighbor Ángel (Carlos Areces), and then with the return of Julia’s absent boyfriend Carlos (Raúl Cimas), who quickly takes the mantle of leadership and keeps the group together in their apartment turned fortress.
The real tension, however, comes not from alien attacks, but from intrusions of a far more human kind. Julia spins one set of lies to hide her indiscretions from Carlos while Julio hopes to repeat those indiscretions with lies of his own. The premise is frothy, but Vigalondo maintains a deft touch with the material, keeping a madcap, slightly absurd feel to the details of the world: One of the most threatening weapons in the film is a jar of peaches. The film cleverly skewers the thriller cliché of the revelatory “facts all come together” montage, and the obviousness of Chekhov’s gun is ditched in favor of the far more delightful Chekhov’s teacup. But the film isn’t parody; Vigalondo charges forward while keeping faith that the chemistry between Julio and Julia will ground the film and make everything hang together.
The gambit pays off. Villagrán and Jenner are magnetic on screen, often captured in two-shots where we can read the quizzical expression on one of their faces while the other is spouting fabrications to Carlos, and in inquisitive close-ups where they’re trying to suss out what the other one is thinking. The alien arrival may be nothing more than a pretext for a romance to play out in a tension-filled vacuum, but it plays out like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead if those two were secret lovers: We know there may be a bigger story out there in the city, but the more interesting one is happening right in front of us.
Kyss Mig’s English title, With Every Heartbeat, holds to the pattern started by Fucking Åmål , retitled Show Me Love for English distribution, that Swedish films about lesbians apparently must be titled with the names of Robyn songs; also like that film, With Every Hearbeat’s writer-director Alexandra-Therese Keining explores sexual confusion and sexual awakening. But instead of the liminal milieu of high school angst, Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez) and Frida (Liv Mjönes) are professional adults with seemingly stable lives thrown for a loop by the thunderbolt of attraction. They meet at the engagement party for Frida’s mother, Elisabeth (Lena Endre), and Mia’s father, Lasse (Krister Henriksson), and there’s a spark between the two soon-to-be-stepsisters that blossoms into forbidden love with all the attendant complications. Mia is not only conflicted about her sexuality, but about betraying her fiancé, Tim (Joakim Nätterqvist); Frida may already be out, but she has other issues of her own.
It would certainly be easy enough to capture this stutter-step courtship by filming its gorgeous leads against gorgeous Swedish backdrops and calling it a day, but Keining goes further and invests the proceedings with real psychological weight. An early scene captures Mia as she’s watching what appears to be a flirtatious moment between Tim and Frida; the frame lingers on Mia’s pang of jealousy. Keining traces the momentary glances between the two women, and it’s a testament to characterization that we can look back on that beat and sense Mia’s misrecognition of her own feelings. Frida and Mia are often captured in painterly compositions with a geometric precision that draws us to the contemplation of their internal psychology; it’s a visual counterpoint to the film’s refusal to find easy villains in this scenario. Instead, the romance comes across as a mess of roiling passions in a complex web of interconnections and unspoken obligations.
Unfortunately, that stance that is seemingly abandoned by a third act that throws nuance to the wind; we take a whiplash-level turn toward transparent theatrics and a finale that not only tries to tie up the plot in a neat little bow, but also depends on characters conveniently forgetting that they have access to cellphones. It’s a shame considering the rest of the film is so psychologically and visually sharp.
The narrator of Cristián Jiménez’s Bonsái announces right from the beginning that “in the end Emilia dies, and Julio is alone”—and so the Chilean film immediately throws out suspense as one of its tools with a flourish that makes it obvious it has far more at its disposal. Adapted from the award-winning Alejandro Zambra novel, the film is certainly a literary one, organized into chapters and drenched with references; Julio (Diego Noguera) and Emilia (Natalia Galgani) have their meet-cute at a party where they lie to each other about having read Proust. Two storylines intertwine: the doomed college romance between these two literature students, and an older Julio using that first love as the subject matter of his novel, a work-in-progress.
Bonsái is fascinated with the blurred lines between fiction and life, but other than a few moments such as in the opening narration, Jiménez doesn’t rely on formal novelties or tricks to drive that point home, instead deploying a grounded style that mirrors Julio and Emilia’s deadpan affect. In contrast to the fervent apocalyptic passion of With Every Heartbeat or the screwball stratagems of Extraterrestrial, this film lingers on the mundane details of connection and memory: the titles of the novels scattered across Emilia’s bedroom floor, the specific choice of notebook and ink when Julio starts to write, the way a Ramones shirt survives the passage of time. Yet even with its focus on remembrance and the finality of its opening narration, the film never plunges into dourness or despair; Noguera embodies Julio with a lanky, endearing goofiness that helps justify why we’d care about his past love.
While the film actively eschews drama or confrontation (those always seem to lie just outside the frame, right ahead in the next scene which we never see), there’s a meticulous, lived-in texture to the narrative where the accretion of detail builds up into something quite powerful. It may come as no surprise that the titular tree is used as a metaphor for Julio’s writing; he’s told that the goal of bonsai is to “reproduce the effects of nature on the tree,” a process which aptly describes what the film accomplishes as well.
AFI Fest runs from November 3—10. For more information, click here.