Co-produced by legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (of Volver (2006) fame), Wild Tales will make you laugh, shake your head, and turn to the stranger next to you to make eye contact.
In his first feature-length film, Argentinian director Damián Szifron threads the common theme of revenge through six disconnected vignettes, each lasting around 15 minutes. Revenge might not actually be the right term in this case—it’s more about the pleasure of losing control, giving into the animal urges held in check by human propriety. Each story line thrusts characters into stressful or otherwise extreme situations, and lets the viewer watch as they crumple up the script dictated by society and release their inhibitions.
Perhaps most impressive is Szifron’s ability to pack so much into so little time. Constructed with the economy of a good short story, the viewer is given all the information needed within the first few minutes of each vignette. The first one begins with a woman asking a flight attendant if she can still get air miles on a company-purchased ticket. On the plane, the woman strikes up a conversation about her lousy ex-boyfriend, Pasternak, with the passenger beside her, who happened to ruin Pasternak’s budding career. Several other passengers overhear, stepping forward as Pasternak’s grade-school teachers, therapists, and classmates, and they gradually come to the sickening realization that everyone on the plane had their tickets bought by the same company. Pasternak, of course, is in the cockpit, at the controls of the fate of his tormentors.
Throughout the movie, Szifron uses images of wild animals to establish the duality of freedom versus society. In the title sequence, each name is set against a still of a safari animal, and in the plane feature, the woman flips through a National Geographic feature of a lion chasing a gazelle. While the transformation from human to animal often results in gruesome violence, the strength of this film is the degree to which which Szifron manages to infuse the violence with whimsy, hilarity, and pleasure. In each vignette, there is a specific turning point when something snaps and you can see the last strand mooring the character to the dock come undone. And once the characters let go and float away, there’s no going back. The clarity and force of these moments is in part due to superb acting by several unknown faces such as Ricardo Darín, Leonardo Sbaraglia, and Erica Rivas, but the bulk of the praise is owed to some genius directorial choices.
After a futile battle against the wrongful towing of his car leads to the destruction of his marriage, job and reputation, a demolition engineer proceeds to exact revenge by loading his trunk with explosives and having it towed on purpose. Set to dreamy pop music, the decisive scene shows the man thoroughly enjoying a French breakfast at the window seat of a luxurious restaurant. The camera pans across a buttery croissant before following the man’s line of sight out the window and onto the street, where his car is being towed. Szifron uses music to the same effect in other vignettes, providing a joyful soundtrack to these turning points as his bloodied characters gorge themselves on wedding cake and consummate the marriage on top of the crumbs.
While the movie is undeniably a comedy first, the intense situations often yield genuine insights into the power that society holds over our actions. Throughout the movie, the most savage violence occurs when no one is watching. In the third vignette, an encounter between an urban yuppie and a redneck on the open road results in both parties ending up as blackened skeletons. Furthermore—with a few exceptions—male characters carry out most of the revenge, which may or may not have been an intentional gender commentary on Szifron’s part. The exploration of the spectrum between restraint and abandon is fascinating, but don’t go see this movie for the deeper meaning—go for the pleasure.
Wild Tales is playing at Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc) and Cineplex Odeon Forum Cinemas (2313 Ste-Catherine W) at various times this week.