Telling tales

With ‘Wild Tales’ Damián Sz­ifron has sin­gle­hand­edly re­vived the of­ten ig­nored art of the port­man­teau film. The direc­tor talks to Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM - Direc­tor Damián Sz­ifron

The main press screen­ing of Damián Sz­ifron’s Wild Tales at last year’s Cannes film fes­ti­val prob­a­bly broke some kind of record. Surely, few other films have, at that fes­ti­val, re­ceived four up­roar­i­ous ova­tions be­fore the fi­nal cred­its rolled.

There’s a trick here. The Ar­gen­tinean film is from that much-de­rided, never-quite-fash­ion­able genre: the port­man­teau movie. Wild Tales com­prises six dis­crete sto­ries on the themes of re­venge and loss of con­trol. Two men duel on a re­mote high­way. A de­mo­li­tion ex­pert goes barmy when his car is towed. And so forth. The fu­ri­ous in­ven­tion is un­end­ing.

“Cannes was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Sz­ifron tells me. “Th­ese sorts of films never go to Cannes. I used to think of the fes­ti­val as a more snob­bish place. But film crit­i­cism has changed a lot in the past few years. There is more chance for films like this.” A main­stream film? “I’ll ac­cept that word,” he laughs.

Wild Tales is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a cross­over hit. At last month’s Os­cars, it beat the

Dar­denne broth­ers’ Two Days, One Night and Win­ter Sleep, the even­tual win­ner at Cannes, to a nom­i­na­tion for best for­eign lan­guage pic­ture. It looks as if crit­ics and au­di­ences are pre­pared to ac­cept this rarely used struc­ture. Back in the 1970s, stu­dios such as Ami­cus and Tigon churned out suc­cess­ful hor­ror port­man­teaux, but even they re­lied on a fram­ing de­vice to link the tales (four trav­ellers tell ghost sto­ries on a train or what­ever). Sz­ifron al­lows only the­matic con­nec­tions.

Too many au­teurs

“It was im­por­tant to have a sin­gle direc­tor,” he says. “You have things like New York Sto­ries that work well with dif­fer­ent di­rec­tors. But then you have pro­ducer-led films like Paris, je t’aime, and usu­ally di­rec­tors shoot their seg­ment in a week when they are do­ing other things. You want

one per­son fo­cus­ing on the story. That’s what you had in Pulp Fic­tion.”

That’s a fair point. Many of the an­thol­ogy films that have made it into cine­mas – such as Aria or 7 Days in Ha­vana – have come across as messy, in­co­her­ent af­fairs, lack­ing an over­ar­ch­ing vi­sion. De­spite shar­ing no com­mon char­ac­ters, the yarns in Wild Tales do seem to be­long in the same space.

“When I think of Wild Tales I think of some­thing like Nine Sto­ries by JD Salinger,” he says. “In the book world it is nat­u­ral for a writer to write both nov­els and short sto­ries. If you cre­ate an an­thol­ogy as a film-maker they think the char­ac­ters must get up at the end and re­veal they are all the same char­ac­ter or some­thing. I also think of rock al­bums or jazz al­bums. You have dif­fer­ent tracks, but there is still a con­ver­gence.”

So what is the con­ver­gence with Wild Tales? The poster prom­ises “six deadly sto­ries of re­venge”. There is cer­tainly some­thing in that. The fi­nal story con­cerns a bride driven mad by her new hus­band’s in­fi­delity. An­other con­cerns a rich young man who knocks down a preg­nant woman in his car. Rich veins of out­rage are pump­ing away here. But there’s some­thing else afoot. The film also ap­pears to be about a break­down in psy­chic or­der – about the aw­ful things so­ci­etal norms in­hibit us from do­ing.

“Yes, it’s about los­ing con­trol and feel­ing good about it,” he says. “It’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s the In­cred­i­ble Hulk. When we get an­gry most peo­ple re­press them­selves. Some ex­plode. I don’t like to kill an­i­mals. I don’t like to hunt or fish. But when there’s a mos­quito in the room I en­joy killing it and smash­ing it into the wall. You feel good about de­fend­ing your­self.”

Born in 1975, the sleek, good-look­ing Sz­ifron made his name as cre­ator of an Ar­gen­tinean con-man se­ries en­ti­tled Los Sim­u­ladores. Wild Tales, his third fea­ture, re­ceived a ma­jor boost when Pe­dro Almod­ó­var signed on as pro­ducer, and the film does carry flavours of that Span­ish direc­tor’s sur­real en­er­gies.

Ar­gentina is a vast coun­try, but, as Sz­ifron con­firms, the cine­mas are as packed with US prod­uct as are those of Ire­land, France and, in­creas­ingly, China. How easy is it to flog do­mes­tic prod­uct to au­di­ences in Ar­gentina?

“Some of them work very well,” he says. “But it is hard. The econ­omy is al­ways in a state. This is a huge coun­try with rel­a­tively few peo­ple spread across it. So we have all th­ese re­sources. We should be a rich na­tion. But we ex­port food while peo­ple are starv­ing.”

More Hitch than Loach

There is some po­lit­i­cal anger in the film. “But I think it is more Al­fred Hitch­cock Presents than Ken Loach,” he shrugs.

If ever a for­eign-lan­guage film looked set for a US re­make it is Wild Tales. “I have been asked about it, yes,” he says. “They’ve been on to me. I have also had quite a few scripts sent to me. It’s very tempt­ing. But I have other things to do.”

Catch the Ar­gen­tinean ver­sion be­fore some­body else is al­lowed to muck it up.

WILD TALES ( Re­latos Sal­va­jes)

A model re­alises that she has some­thing in com­mon with the mu­sic critic seated op­po­site on an air­plane. A cor­rupt politi­cian is served by a wait­ress whose fam­ily he ru­ined. Two men be­come ri­vals on a lonely stretch of high­way. A de­mo­li­tions ex­pert is in­creas­ingly ex­as­per­ated when he at­tempts to rea­son with car clam­pers. An elab­o­rate plan is hatched in or­der to pro­tect a priv­i­leged kid in­volved in a hit-and-run. A new bride dis­cov­ered her hus­band has cheated on her at their wed­ding re­cep­tion.

Art­house cinema doesn’t get more ac­ces­si­ble than this zany an­thol­ogy film which ar­rives with a heap of plau­dits and awards (not to men­tion an Os­car nom­i­na­tion) at­tached. The per­son­nel ain’t too shabby ei­ther: Ri­cardo Darín (the Ar­gen­tine De Niro) stars, Pe­dro Almod­ó­var pro­duces, Gus­tavo San­tao­lalla ( Broke

back Moun­tain) com­poses. In­evitably, some sec­tions are stronger than oth­ers: the open­ing se­quence is a doozy and the fi­nal minia­ture is the best worst wed­ding ever.

Damián Sz­ifron brings a light touch to the black­est com­edy. His play­ful fic­tions would sit nicely within a re­booted Twi­light Zone. But his de­li­cious punch­lines have a flavour that’s all their own.

Best worst wed­ding ever: Érica Ri­vas in Wild Tales

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