Cinema Scope 48 Preview: Nicolas Winding Refn and the Search for a Real Hero
“Hey, do you wanna see somethin’?”—Driver in Drive
In the middle of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film punctuated by extreme flourishes of violence and vengeance, there is a period of peace. It occurs when Driver (Ryan Gosling), a quietly contained guy who holds down three jobs—auto mechanic, movie stunt driver, and getaway driver-for-hire—is asked by his auto-shop boss (Bryan Cranston) to drive home customer and Driver’s neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy. En route, Driver takes a surprising detour from the street down to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, one of the city’s most iconic images, a grand public-works project born out of vast and tragic flooding the city endured generations ago. The river, choked into a narrow canal and surrounded by an elegantly paved canyon, has been used in too many movies and TV shows to possibly count, most recently by Bruce La Bruce for daytime sequences of L.A. Zombie (2010). Driver, true to character, uses it as a racetrack and as a bit of stunt track—mildly, as a kid’s in the car, and he’s a gentleman at heart—but also as a road to get somewhere.
The typical deployment of the Los Angeles River in cinema is as a symbol of dead ends, final stops, the place where the city dies, and people along with it. Not so for Refn, for whom Los Angeles is a new city, a place of discovery. Viewed from the majestic prospect of a high angle in long-shot widescreen, Driver stops at the place where the concrete river ends and gives way to the wild river, a startling image even for native Angelenos. He knows these kinds of places, having driven everywhere (so, in reality, does Gosling, who knows the city expertly and drove Refn around town as research, inspiration, and preparation). Refn understands those many places in Los Angeles that make it fairly unique, and reverses the usual clichéd knock on the place as one long paved sprawl. Constantly, the paved cityscape surrenders to the natural world, sidewalks dissolve into dirt trails, roads simply stop, buildings reach their limit when faced with cliffsides, massive chaparral, impregnable mountain ranges that cut through the metropolitan area. Driver leads mother and son to the wild river for a Tom Sawyer afternoon under the sun, a Southern California utopia—the ultimate getaway—an idyll that defines Drive and Driver in fundamental ways.
Superficially an action movie, Drive is actually a film in search of romance, zigzagging through an obstacle course of fairy tale and myth, and a hall of mirrors in which characters can be read as fantasy projections of others while being aware of themselves as figures inside a myth. Beloved in Cannes after days of disappointing films in the competition, Drive was perhaps welcomed by some for the wrong reason: as some kind of new read on Melville’s Le samourai (1967), with Gosling processing Alain Delon’s stoic killer. For once, the director has a sound interpretation that he’s willing to share with whomever cares to listen: Refn correctly argues that Drive’s foundation is in fairy tale, particularly its thematic of a character’s discovery of his own heroism, which Driver finds through the course of nurturing and protecting Irene, who’s made paradoxically more vulnerable when her convict husband returns home from prison. The necessary elimination of dragons—in the form of Albert Brooks’ ice-cold mobster Bernie Rose and Ron Perlman’s put-upon mobster Nino, to say nothing of a few nameless hitmen along the way—doesn’t so much make Driver into a killer, although he wreaks revenge with frighteningly intelligent brutality. Rather, it transforms him into a mythical figure who satisfies the imaginings of those around him, including Irene, who can nevertheless only marvel at him while knowing she can never have him. This is vastly different from Melville’s heightened existential world of professional killers who function by a code and live like lone wolves, apparently free of the need for genuine and reciprocal human contact. Delon’s Samourai is a corporeal killing machine; Gosling’s Driver is a young man in formation, whose work comprises (per his three jobs) repair, escape, and entertainment, and who finds his self during a gauntlet that perhaps only he can survive—an accidental knight who slays the beast.
This is a far stretch from James Sallis’ novel on which Hossein Amini’s screenplay is based, and, as Refn describes it, wildly different from Amini’s previous drafts written as a potential Universal franchise for Hugh Jackman. Sallis’ superb, laconic book, hardboiled to the core, as affectionate toward its city as it is cynical about the city’s most famous (show) business, could have been adapted pretty closely, even with its obsessive (and perhaps needless) jumps in chronology. But a knowledge of the book is helpful in appreciating the grand achievement in American cinema that Drive is. Hollywood has always been open to the invasive notions of outsiders, particularly European directors with strong points of view. Lubitsch, Lang, Boorman, Preminger, Wilder, von Sternberg, Herzog, Verhoeven, and von Stroheim all managed to import their native sensibilities with little compromise into the Hollywood system, and generally thrived intact. Refn’s ambition is clearly to make big movies for large audiences by his own sometimes-radical standards, which include mixing the hyper-violent ecstasies of the Pusher trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005), highly theatrical characters like Tom Hardy’s Bronson (2008), dreamlike dances of death as in Valhalla Rising (2009), and the romance of transformation in Drive. His new film is an act of will, pulling a fine but fairly standard piece of high-class pulp into something richer and more dynamic, modern in its self-consciousness as a work of art and entertainment, and Wellesian in its capacity to astonish, shock, and tease the mind’s perceptions. The fact that Refn is soon making a re-do of Logan’s Run with Gosling is a suggestion of a large-scaled cinema that’s aware of its kinetic powers, its artistic breadth, and its ability to kick it into the fifth gear.
Cinema Scope: Unlike your past films, Drive isn’t a project you originated. Wasn’t it already a fairly old project before you became involved with it through Ryan Gosling?
Nicolas Winding Refn: Yes. Hoss [screenwriter Hossein Amini] had been working on the film for six years at Universal. He was trying to attack the book. When I read his Universal version, it was much more in the vein of a $60 million Fast and Furious movie, and Hugh Jackman had been attached. So it was really different from what we came up with. What happened was that I met with Hoss, and quickly realized that he’s a fantastic writer. After tackling this script for so long, he was looking for a way to get back to the book. It’s a wonderful novel, but the way that James Sallis writes it, it’s way out of chronological order, jumping back and forth in time constantly, and not really ideal in its structure for a film. Hoss had worked out a very good, accessible structure as a baseline, minimalizing things, streamlining things, maybe most important of all not killing the girl. So the next phase of changes became a very easy process, like cutting fat off a piece of meat that’s really tender and tastes really good. And then we worked to build up Driver’s character so that he was at the centre of things.
Scope: There are many changes from Sallis’ novel, but many things are preserved, and one of them is that Ryan Gosling’s character is known only as Driver, which lends him a mythical identity in the vein of the Man With No Name. On the other hand, a huge change from the novel is that Driver hardly talks at all.
Refn: Ryan said that it made sense for Driver to talk as little as possible, that he would only verbalize when things mattered to him. By making him more silent, it also gave him more mystery. I like that silence, and the course of finding one’s way into a character who talks as little as possible in interesting. It also lets us play with the notion that the most silent character is the most dangerous. So I began to remove lines. Through the course of the film, Driver begins to envision what he means to those around him. So does Irene: Is she in love with the idea of Driver or is she in love with the man? It’s like he’s a figment of her imagination. Is it her dream or not? Look at Tourneur’s films, and there’s a lot of this tension between a character’s sense of imagining and reality, in a way, between heaven and hell. He represents her needs, emotionally, spiritually, sexually. He’s the human being she needs to connect with, and then her husband comes home from prison and she needs a hero to protect her. He may be real, but he’s also doing part of what she needs in her own imagination. That’s why I think of Drive as a fairy tale. I’ve been reading the Grimms’ fairy tales with my daughter recently, so the fairy tale form has been very prominent in my mind. The movie is constructed in the nature of a fairy tale, and this is why I think it makes the movie feel dreamlike. Yet it’s set in real time, and situated in a real, contemporary world, so things feel a bit off, even though everything is happening in front of you on screen. Look at a movie like Pretty Woman (1990), which in theory has a dark, even morbid heart, but is able to convert itself into a champagne movie by incorporating the fairy tale. On the surface, it’s one thing, but underneath, it’s completely different.
Scope: It’s striking when watching Drive that if a viewer didn’t know about Sallis’ novel or Amini’s long history with adapting it, and only came to it because you’re the director, they might wrongly conclude that it came almost entirely out of your head. Drive sometimes feels like a American extension of the Pusher trilogy, and like Mads Mikkelsen’s One Eye in Valhalla Rising, Driver is silent but deadly. The latest film also extends your fascination with criminals. Do you see Drive, despite its origins, as part of your artistic continuity?
Refn: Sure, it reflects virtually all of my interests and concerns with cinema. Driver is exactly my kind of movie character, with the sort of dilemma that I think is inherently cinematic. His dilemma is that he doesn’t belong to the day or the night. He’s caught between two worlds, he doesn’t know which one to belong to, and he ends up transforming himself into what he was meant to be, which is a hero, which he wasn’t aware of. All of my films are about transformations—that’s what connects Drive, Valhalla Rising, Bronson, and the Pusher trilogy. Bronson transforms himself into his own fantasy. Driver transforms himself from a human being into a real hero.
Scope: Just like the lyrics of the song, “A Real Hero” by College, that you use in the film and over the closing.
Refn: It was amazing that I found that song.
Scope: Yes, but were you at all concerned that the lyrics were too on-the-nose?
Refn: Some thought I went too far and was too on-the-nose, yes, but being on-the-nose in Drive isn’t a bad thing, because so much of Driver’s past is an enigma. All of his prior life in the novel was deliberately eliminated for the movie. I think this increases his sense of being a fairy-tale creature. He’s much more fairy tale in nature than film noir, but because the film’s tone touches on film noir, that may be confusing for some. Leone and Melville also set many of their movies in a heightened reality, in an artificial world. They were concerned with heroes in the real world who have struggles because they’re not meant to be here. This really comes from the European tradition of translating crime films.
Scope: One of the pleasant surprises of the film is to ponder that as a younger European filmmaker who had never worked inside the Hollywood system before, you managed to make the film you intended. Did you expect this to happen?
Refn: It turns out that the making of Drive was quite similar to the making of Point Blank (1967), and also Bullitt (1968), even as the films themselves share several things in common. Lee Marvin insisted that John Boorman direct Point Blank—Marvin had that kind of clout by then. So did Steve McQueen, who demanded that Peter Yates direct Bullitt. Ryan insisted on me, same situation. What was good in my situation, like Boorman’s, is that we worked under our own terms, because we were under the complete protection of the star. Without that protection, the film wouldn’t have even resembled the one we made. I had a great, first-class experience in Hollywood. I arrived with the mindset ready to fight all the battles, because I had heard all of the horror stories. Maybe not every one of the producers always got what I was saying, but there was always support in the end. And then, once we were done, suddenly there was Cannes.
Scope: Since you are new to Los Angeles, I was amazed—as a native Angeleno—at the film’s extraordinarily lived-in perception of the city. In that way, it also recalls Point Blank. How did you manage that?
Refn: I don’t have a car, so Ryan drove me around, mostly at night, and showed me all of the locations in the book. Based on these night drives, I basically decided where I wanted to shoot. I didn’t have the option of using a lot of locations, and we had six-and-a-half weeks to shoot the movie, so I had to be very specific. I used my low-budget formula, which is to choose three main locations. In this case, it was Downtown, the Valley, and Echo Park. I didn’t know any of these places, but I came to know them very well before shooting. We would go back to them again and again. We made a point of living near them as well: I had a house on—get this—Bronson Avenue, in Beachwood Canyon. It was near the Hollywood sign and close to the 101 Freeway, so we’d eat at The 101 Coffee Shop. In a real way, we were living the life of the film as we were making it.
We also lived together, and worked together. It was one of the conditions of my contract. So part of that meant that I cut the movie at my house. Carey was living in my house, my editor Matt Noonan was living there, my kids and my mom and stepfather were there too. It was very collaborative, a real family atmosphere. I also made sure that Hoss was living there. Once we got the money for production, I had a lot of script changes to make, and Hoss lived in the attic and would write in the morning. We then worked together in the afternoon on the script. I would then ride with Ryan at night.
Scope: There’s an argument if Drive is really film noir or not, and I tend to lean toward the “not” camp. But one thing it definitely shares with classic noir is its compact running time. Do you prefer short to long? I ask because so many filmmakers today tend to go long.
Refn: The script is 80 pages. It’s all about getting to the point; 90 minutes is our dream cycle. It’s a great pulp length, a great length for noir and classical Hollywood. I don’t know why the 90-minute length interests me, but all of my films are around that running time. I also like short novels and fast songs. On the other hand, I don’t have a short attention span. To the contrary: I used to play with Lego a lot, and I still do, so I can spend a long time looking at something. I actually want to exercise as much control as I can over my material, and my calculation is that the shorter and more compact the material is, the better I can control it. It then becomes more about it, and less about me.
Scope: One way in which the film departs from noir is its own self-consciousness, which comes through pretty overtly in the joke that Albert Brooks’ mob character Bernie Rose tells about how a critic termed the action movies he used to produce as “European.” But this is much more than an easy joke, though, isn’t it?
Refn: That joke is based on the idea that exactly what you’re watching is the kind of film that Bernie would have been producing in the ‘80s. But then, the joke turns into something else, because it reflects on Bernie’s own self-consciousness, even more than, as you say, the film’s own self-consciousness. It points to his imaginings, which is the case with every character surrounding Driver. Bernie is up against a stunt driver, which is what we see on screen, but this face-off is also a part of Bernie’s illusions and fantasies, just as Driver is a projection of Irene’s fantasies.
Scope: It creates a hall of mirrors effect, in which the film is both conscious of itself, and its characters, while the characters project their own fantasies onto others, have their own illusions, which then circles back into the film. More than Melville, which a good number of critics out of Cannes were bringing up as a reference to Drive, I was thinking of Orson Welles.
Refn: I agree. If you look closely at Drive, it’s very tied into, or maybe affected by, Touch of Evil (1958) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). I was thinking about these two films a lot while making it.
Scope: There are mirrors, but there’s also the frame—the widescreen frame in which we see the film. Because you display an extremely acute sensitivity to the capacities of widescreen, it would be interesting to know how you compose for it.
Refn: The first thing I look for is the bottom of the frame, which then makes it easier to look at the centre of frame and the top of frame. How can the shot work if it doesn’t work at bottom of the frame? With this in hand, I have the sides and top and bottom, and then it gives me a symmetrical sense that makes the image most powerful. It’s such a wide image that you must be careful with it. Look at Leone or Ray, and you’ll see that they were also interested in the bottom of the frame. They cared so much about framing and they sought out those details.
Scope: Since Cannes, the scene that people tend to retain the most, the one that stands out in the highest relief, is the encounter in the elevator with Driver and the hit man after he kisses Irene. It’s notably not in Sallis’ novel, and suggests a fusion of operatic violence and high romance.
Refn: A week before shooting, I came up with the elevator scene. I always have one scene that’s the heart of the film. It came from a conversation with Matt. We work very intensely together; he’s very good at understanding my brain better than I do. I had this idea that if Driver and Irene could kiss and he could head-smash a guy right after that, it describes the entire film. It shows the dilemma that Driver can’t have Irene and can’t live with her, and he does whatever he needs to do by any means necessary.
The Head and the Body: Bertrand Bonello on L’Apollonide
Bertrand Bonello’s fifth and most elaborate feature to date, L’Apollonide – Souvenirs de la maison close, set in a Belle Epoque Parisian brothel and featuring an ensemble cast of about a dozen fresh-faced starlets as kept women, is the Côte d’Azur-raised writer-director’s second film to compete in Cannes, following 2003’s Tiresia. The characters that emerge significantly in L’Apollonide are pointedly different from each other, even if they’re sharing a similar predicament. Among them, Madeline (Alice Barnole), violently disfigured by a client and becoming known as “the Woman Who Laughs”; Clotilde (Céline Sallette), the most seasoned of the bunch and one who longs to be made an honourable woman; and Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), a newbie who grows savvier with each waking moment. Such details cover familiar enough ground, and Bonello is clearly an everything-but-the kitchen-sink kind of guy in his affectionate reshuffling of whorehouse drama tropes. But the evolving character dynamics, bold stylistic flourishes—the recurring image of a live panther brought in by one of the brothel’s johns stands out—and an elliptical narrative are the elements that yield L’Apollonide’s chief cinematic pleasures. Even in its most confidently descriptive moments, L’Apollonide resists any affinity to realistic drama. The investment in period detail pays off as part of a larger design that doesn’t exclude an investigation into history as rendered by art (Courbet) and literature (Bataille). In addition, casting filmmakers like Jacques Nolot and Xavier Beauvois as brothel clients, and Pascale Ferran (who’s heard in voiceover), may be a way of asking viewers to connect the dots with contemporary examples.
The film’s robust playfulness is evidenced not only in its commentary on cinema, but also in the freely time-shifting montage, split-screen action, and provocative use of anachronistic music (garage, psychedelia, soul) at crucial moments. When L’Apollonide reaches its dramatic apex, Bonello’s turn-of-the-century babes sway to the Moody Blues’ proto-prog-rock anthem “Nights in White Satin,” which we hear diegetically as if it were coming from a boombox in another room. Never missing an opportunity, the film eventually makes a literal leap into the future, with a DV-grade image of one of L’Apollonide’s paramours hustling on a modern-day Parisian underpass.
Surveying a few quasi-dismissals in the trades, one is left with the impression that, while Bonello obviously displays mastery, he lacks the moralizing touch that would win over the self-righteously progressive Cannes crowd that heartily championed admirable but ultimately safe entries from the Dardennes and Kaurismäki. Writing on Roger Ebert’s blog, Barbara Scharres went so far as to suggest that Bonello has something to say about female oppression, but that it’s “undercut by the evident nostalgia he also demonstrates for the brothel system.” This misguided view of the film seems to imply that the filmmaker actually believes his comely putains are hopelessly trapped. The dense historical tapestry of L’Apollonide makes unambiguous even to those unfamiliar with the social milieu that these women were presented with a handful of (albeit unglamorous) vocational directions. Yet the scrutiny demanded of the film by viewers hoping for a more cut-and-dried assessment all but eviscerates the intricate psychology that Bonello affords the prostitutes, their madame (played with uncommon restraint by the usually gregarious Noémie Lvovsky), and last but not least the patrons, a generous assortment who, the film reminds us, didn’t always visit brothels for sex but for companionship of all sorts. Not to mention that panther: in a couple of brief shots, L’Apollonide’s guest panther is seen staring head on into the camera—its majestic gaze meets the audience, embodying both the violence and sensual delicacy of Bonello’s achievement.
Cinema Scope: Can you talk about what it means to create a body of work?
Bertrand Bonello: When you start to make a new film you want to do something different from your other films, but then you realize you can’t. When I watch L’Apollonide, I understand that it could be seen as a mix of all my other films. It’s scary, and at the same time you can’t do anything about it. It’s just the way you see the world and your faith in a certain way of making films. It’s not theoretical. You don’t think so much about how you’re going to do it. It’s this way, not this way…This comes, of course, from films that you’ve seen before that you like, you’re thinking what can be made, what can’t be made…
Scope: What are some films that were conscious influences on L’Apollonide?
Bonello: Well, let’s see: Death Proof (2007), for the vengeance; The Godfather (1972), for the operatic qualities; Casino (1995), for the rhythm that never stops…and Flowers of Shanghai (1998). It’s a film I haven’t seen recently, but when it came out I saw it so many times that it influenced me deeply. One of my uncertainties was the atmosphere of the brothel in my film. I didn’t want that French, 1900s [makes a fanfare noise]… Moulin Rouge, etc. etc. So I went directly to that opium den mood in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film, because it keeps the sensuality but is not hysterical. There’s an explicit homage in my film to Flowers of Shanghai: the Chinese violin.
Scope: Where does the name of the brothel come from?
Bonello: L’Apollonide is the name of the house in Nice that I lived in when I was a kid. It was a big house, with lots of rooms. There was a lot of space and a lot of people came all the time, to write, paint. Some people would come for ten years, others for three days…It was a fascinating atmosphere for a kid. And the outside of the brothel that you see in the film is actually the house where I live in Paris. I always like to put some intimate stuff in my films, it’s a way of putting myself in them. But it’s also more practical: I don’t have to ask permission to shoot my own building.
Scope: This is your most ambitious film to date in terms of certain elements in the mise en scène: CGI effects, a live panther…
Bonello: What I do, and it’s a big mistake, is that I’m totally free when I write. When the script is finished, I look at it and say, “How the fuck am I going to do that? How am I going to do some tears of sperm and a panther?” It’s just a nightmare. But you take problems one by one and you try to solve them. When I write I feel very generous to the spectator; I say, “I’m going to give them this, I’m going to give them that…” For a film set in 1900, with a lot of characters, it remains a small-budget film—around three million—but it’s my most expensive. I don’t think too much about money. If I did, I would just make a simple love story in an apartment.
Scope: You keep going back to certain images, certain events. It becomes the dominant structure of the film.
Bonello: I like repetition, I use it in all of my films. Brian Eno says repetition is a form of change…
Scope: But you are also introducing new things constantly. Each time you add something—for example, a line of dialogue—it eventually gets visualized in some way. I guess the tears of sperm are the most prominent example of that.
Bonello: Maybe I put too much in the film. I’m doing a lot because the environment in the film is a single location. So I thought, “How can I give the spectators some air using space and time?” If there’s no physical space, then I give them space through time. So you have this split-screen, the flash-forward-backward, you have a lot of mirrors…and I put in a lot of artifice. Certainly my film is baroque in a way that Flowers of Shanghai is not.
Scope: How do you situate yourself within French cinema?
Bonello: I have to say I don’t feel very comfortable in the French cinema. This is why I’m trying to do different things. When I was in competition eight years ago with Tiresia there were four American films in the festival: The Brown Bunny, Elephant, Mystic River, and The Matrix 2. Each of these films goes very far in a different direction. When I came back to Paris after the festival, I said, “My god, poor French! Where are we?” I don’t know if I would be comfortable with the American way of making films, but in terms of the movies themselves it interests me a lot.
Scope: Is gender something you think about when you’re writing?
Bonello: Well, after it goes [makes hand gestures] here, here and here, it can go to gender…My films are not so much about gender, I think. It’s more about the relationship of the head and the body. When I was young I was very influenced by the films of David Cronenberg, which are all about that. But Cronenberg doesn’t work too much with romantic questions. This is something I work on a lot, I’m attached to romanticism. Romanticism is something that is sick. For example, someone asked me about an image of a rose petal falling in L’Apollonide that appears twice. He asked why it was repeated, and I said, “If I put it in once, it’s sentimentalism; if I put it twice, it’s romanticism.” It’s a little grotesque, you know? It’s sick…Otherwise it’s love.
Scope: Changing gears, I wanted to ask you about period. There’s an aspect of the film that seems to be very true to the period, and then there are interesting digressions.
Bonello: Well, I did a lot of research initially. Then I wanted to be free and write my own story. But I’m really attached to details, so I really wanted to know what time they had lunch, what they ate, how they cleaned, how they cleaned sperm. Afterwards I make my mind free for the story, for the dreams. I like this mix of dream and reality.
Scope: There’s a wonderful scene in which the girls in the film sway kind of freely to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.” There’s a lot of ahistorical music in the film.
Bonello: I think every film belongs to the period in which it’s made. If you see today a film made in the ‘70s set in 1900, you still say it’s a film from the ‘70s. With my film, their going to say it’s a 2011 movie. So why not use this music?
Scope: Can you talk about that scene with the Moody Blues song? Was it tough to direct? This is your largest acting ensemble to date.
Bonello: Yeah, it’s tough to direct that. I prepared them a lot. To try to play with them, I would say, “In six days you have to cry, in five days you have to dance”…and then on the day that we would shoot I wouldn’t say a word to them! And when we shot I would say that I would only do one take, to instill a bit of fear.
Scope: The ending is perhaps the boldest move, bringing the film squarely into the contemporary.
Bonello: I shot that with my own camera, it’s not even HD—it’s regular old DV. I usually use it for the casting videos and rehearsals. Today we are very used to these images, this trashy video. And I didn’t change the sound, it’s just the shitty sound from the camera. It’s a way of saying time has changed; it’s not good or bad, it’s just the reality of right now.
I always have a problem of how to end films. I always write six beginnings, five endings…I could probably do an entire film of just beginnings and endings. I always have to resist the temptation of adding one more. But this ending says to the spectator, “OK, the dream is finished.” On the other hand, I’m also exploring this idea that one character in the film says to another, “What are you going to do now?” She responds, “I don’t know.” A hundred years later, she’s still a whore.
Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina
A forest in Paraguay is being mowed down in the opening moments of Pablo Giorgelli’s Las acacias. At the time, this event appears pregnant with meaning, as does almost any depiction of logging on film, as if the very act represents a rape of the earth. Moreover, Giorgelli films it ominously in compressed telephoto shots, with small fires burning in the foreground and large logging trucks lurking in the background. Even the trucker, Ruben (German de Silva), with his hawk-like nose, gruff appearance, and gradual facial spread of wrinkles, looks menacing.
There’s also a specifically Argentine cinema association with this sequence, as the loggers bring to mind Misael the woodcutter in Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad (2001). Men in solitude, going about their work, carving out a piece of nature. And Ruben, as de Silva depicts him in a kind of contained silence, may as well be an Alonso character in his enclosed privacy, any emotions held in check by the job of driving his truck, long distance, back and forth to Buenos Aires. Hours of nothing but you, your thoughts, the strip of road, and breaks for food at tables for one, then gassing up, a shower, and a rest in the truck’s sleeper container.
The various expectations established by these scenes are upended by Giorgelli, who has entirely different concerns on his mind than Alonso, and certainly isn’t out to make a film about environmental destruction. Ruben, in fact, has two tasks in Las acacias: First, to drive his load of timber to Buenos Aires, and second, to transport a Guarani woman to the capitol. They both work for the same employer, it turns out, but since she works in the employer’s house, they’ve never met before. His first sight of her isn’t promising: she has a baby in tow, and the boss never told him about any baby. He’s so much into his own business that he doesn’t even ask her name until they’re well down the road. Ruben’s always at work, it seems, and checked out from humanity.
Giorgelli is interested in how he checks back in, just the reverse of the alienated husband in El otro (2007), the last film by Ariel Rotter, who is Giorgelli’s patron, producer, and advisor on this feature debut, winner of the Cannes Camera d’Or. (Giorgelli has made a few documentaries, none of which I’ve seen or which have made much of an impact.) Rotter depicts a man’s escape out of his own life; Giorgelli depicts a man stumbling upon something that he may want to pursue, and finally, in the end, summoning up enough energy and nerve to begin the pursuit. Las acacias is that rare thing in post-psychological, Bazinian Argentine cinema: the beginning of a love story.
The film provides a connection between a certain humanist mode that stretches back as far as early neo-realism (some of the roadside cafes that dot the film, like the highway Ruben drives, could be right out of Visconti’s Ossessione ) and the dedication among younger filmmakers around the world to explore bodies in motion and in stasis, the space around those bodies, and the cinematic meaning of both, freed from the constraints of dramatic narrative and psychology. While both tendencies are rooted in kinds of realism, the former can sandbag itself in sentimentality, while the latter can produce thin ideas lost in a thick goo of “style.” But the possibilities of binding the two on a physical, visual axis—the road itself providing a certain direction and structure yet also a sort of open text—in effect, the melding of the beginning of genuine human emotions with a rigorous sense of social and optical realism, is Giorgelli’s project.
Once Ruben, the mother Jacinta (non-professional actor Hebe Duarte), and her chubby baby Anahi (scene-stealing Nayra Calle Mamani) are on that road, Giorgelli establishes a new challenge for himself which is both considerable for a first-time feature filmmaker and also an assignment in self-discipline: How do you film three people in an interesting way as they sit in a truck en route for hours at a stretch? He makes subtle yet clever use of such details as the driver’s and passenger’s side mirrors, reminding the viewer of the massive lumber cargo that Ruben is hauling, a physical reminder of the film’s early minutes, the logs appearing inert, like a stack of corpses. This reflective image deliberately clashes with the unexpectedly lively activity inside, where Giorgelli finds a wide range of situational and behavioural moments that pierce the outer masks of these strangers. He applies a strict visual code, never tossing in fancy low or wide angles for a different perspective on the trio, but always side-to-side shots (either on Ruben’s side or Jacinta’s side), or close-ups taken from a similar angle that aren’t exactly traditional over-the-shoulder shots but do adhere closely to the other person’s perspective. There is thus an optical balance maintained during the lengthy passages in the truck that informs the gradual development of their relationship, a balance that brings Ruben into Jacinta’s centrifugal orbit; for without her, and the presence of a baby that at first seems to be an annoyance but is ultimately a magnet for affection, Ruben remains a lonely man without purpose.
Perhaps the most remarkable factor that gives Las acacias a certain staying power is that while the film is interested in the immediate moment itself, whatever that may be (a respite for Jacinta to feed Anahi, Ruben oversleeping, the sight of Ruben’s severe back scars, a communal roadside lunch that spurs Ruben’s unspoken jealousy when he spots Jacinta chatting with a fellow Paraguayan), it simultaneously tracks a longer timeline, mapping a man’s virtually unspoken change in consciousness and identity. It happens without him, or anyone else, quite realizing it: the truck at last arrives at Jacinta’s cousin’s place in Buenos Aires, and Ruben witnesses a large and happy family greeting her with a genuine wave of kisses and hugs. Giorgelli needn’t insert flashbacks of a previous scene when Ruben has his own family meeting (dropping off a birthday gift for his sister, two months late), which is comparatively morose and cold; Ruben doesn’t even wave goodbye as he drives away. The viewer already has these moments visually stored away, and the images now rush back. And now, without planning to, he’s entered into a zone of unconditional love, the kind of familial force that comes across as powerfully authentic, and it hits Ruben between the eyes. He appears more isolated than ever, alone on screen, visibly shaken by the recognition of what he once had. (He speaks of no wife, or any relatives beyond his sister, except for a son, whom he cryptically remarks didn’t meet him until he was four years old, and whom he hasn’t seen in eight years.)
Las acacias underlines nothing, and is constructed with a confidence in the viewer’s involvement with subtle gradations of behaviour as well as shifts through physical space, from nearly wild nature to traffic-jammed urban centres. The changes in both happen invisibly, and yet, when they do happen, they contain the force of a smack. Thus, when it appears that Jacinta is going inside her sister’s house, swept forward by the sheer mass of her family members, never to reappear, there’s a sudden sense of loss, combined with a feeling of disbelief that she would leave Ruben without saying goodbye. With no emphatic cuts or sustained shots for extra dramatic juice, she does come back outside to see him, the moment that will fundamentally change Ruben’s life. The earned quality of this character’s victory—his humble bid to ask Jacinta on a date, and her acceptance—is one of the better happy endings in recent cinema. Ruben leaves the scene, hauling his logs, but he’ll be back.