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The Public Experience: San Sebastian International Film Festival 2023

Close Your Eyes

There’s something fittingly appropriate about the way that The Spirit Of The Beehive director Victor Erice became the first Basque director to receive a lifetime achievement Donostia Award at the 71st San Sebastian Festival, while the Golden Shell for Best Film also went to San Sebastian-born Jaione Camborda for The Rye Horn, which is scripted in Galician and Portuguese. It encapsulates not just the way that the old meets the new at the festival but how, under José Luis Rebordinos’s directorship since 2011, it has continued to champion home-grown voices and non-hegemonic languages.

Erice brought Close Your Eyes, his first film in 32 years, to the festival after its odd out-of-competition premiere at Cannes earlier this year. His film is a leisurely but absorbing consideration of ageing and memory that, with its film-within-a-film device, also gestures to the 82-year-old’s love of cinema. Its first scene, which sees a man (José Coronado) tasked with heading to Shanghai to find the lost daughter of a rich elderly Spanish-Jewish refugee (Josep Maria Pou), turns out to be almost all that remains of a film production that was jettisoned after the actor sent on the lost-girl mission, Julio Arenas, vanished without trace. The story then spins forward to 2012, as the film’s director Miguel Garay (Manolo Solo) finds himself contacted by a cold-case TV show who want to run an episode on Arenas’ disappearance. This sparks further developments, and while nothing here unfolds quickly, it does so satisfyingly, as essential truths about human connection that stretch beyond material possessions come movingly into focus.

The curse of the festival film critic means I didn’t manage to catch The Rye Horn, but there were plenty of other female-centric dramas to enjoy, both in and out of the main competition, many of which centred on what might be considered “difficult women” and two of which could easily have netted their stars awards. In the end, the gender-neutral Silver Shell was shared by two male stars: Tatsuya Fuji, for dementia drama Great Absence, and Argentinian Marcelo Subiotto for his enjoyably Eeyore-ish performance as a philosophy professor in María Alché and Benjamín Naishtat’s comedy Puan, which also won the award for Best Screenplay.

It’s a shame more acting awards weren’t available, as a case could have certainly been made for Laia Costa (best known to international audiences for one-take film Victoria), who proves magnetic in Isabel Coixet’s Un Amor. She plays Natalia, a woman who has decided to relocate herself to the Spanish countryside. Stuck in a dilapidated house with an aggressive landlord (Luis Bermejo) whose idea of a “gift” is a scarred and untrained rescue dog, and a wannabe lothario neighbour (Hugo Silva), she finds herself drawn to another incomer, Andreas, known as “The German” (Hovik Keuchkerian), even after he offers to trade fixing her roof for sex. 

Coixet, adapting from Sara Mesa’s best-seller, explores the whole gamut of toxic masculinity—from passive aggression through emotional manipulation to something much more overt—in her best film in years. Un Amor is packed with uneasy emotions, as Natalia’s psychological trajectory looks less than rosy, but it also captures the primal aspect of her attraction to Andreas, with Keuchkerian offering a surprising amount of nuance despite his bear-like appearance. He received a supporting Silver Shell for his performance but this really is Costa’s show as, despite Natalia’s brittle appearance, she shows there’s bite that lies beneath.

Conflicting emotions are also key to Emmanuelle Devos’ compelling central performance in Joachim Lafosse’s A Silence. (Distilled titles seem to be all the rage in San Sebastian this year.) She plays Astrid, an upper middle-class lawyer’s wife who has kept her husband’s unpleasant secret for decades. Loosely based on the real-life case of a Belgian lawyer whose transgressions became known as the Hissel Affair, Lafosse’s drama  begins near the end before looping back to an extended flashback in which we watch the carefully maintained walls Astrid has built to maintain her family begin to crumble after her adult daughter (Louise Chevillotte) tells her enough is enough. Lafosse shuns melodrama, which leaves plenty of room for Devos to work tension into virtually every gesture and glance. Like Costa’s Natalie, Astrid’s motives are psychologically complex and not always easy to define, challenging the audience to work through the tangled knot of ambiguities on their own time.

Away from the main competition, Delphine Girard’s Through The Night—which premiered in Venice and screened in San Sebastian’s Zabaltegi-Tabakalera section—also questions what society might expect, this time from a rape victim. It begins with a gripping sequence in which we see Aly (Selma Alaoui) being driven in a car by Dary (Guillaume Duhesme), pretending to call her sister while in fact trying to get help from emergency service phone operator Anna (Veerle Baetens), an opening following the structure of the writer-director’s Oscar-nominated short Sister. 

The film then divides into a tripartite character study of what happens next. Aly’s refusal to play the role that society thinks she should in terms of the ensuing investigation and court case gives the film a similar vibe to this year’s Palme d’Or-winning Anatomy Of A Fall (which also screened in San Sebastian’s Pearls). Meanwhile, Girard deftly shows how apparently easy it is for Dary to move on with his life, although the fact that flashbacks to the run-up to the rape appear in his memory, not Aly’s, indicate who should be haunted by the act. Through The Night is a smart piece of intricately woven storytelling that celebrates female solidarity and refuses to define Aly by this single act of aggression.

The most literally “difficult woman” at the festival must surely be Ellen Burstyn’s unnamed matriarch in Mother, Couch! She is on a trip to an increasingly odd furniture store with her son David (Ewan McGregor) and his half-brother Gruffud (Rhys Ifans) when she sits on a sofa and refuses to budge. There’s shades of Samuel Beckett and Charlie Kaufman about this debut feature from Niclas Larsson, which screened in San Sebastian’s New Directors section, and which had a chilly reception from critics after its premiere in Toronto which it definitely didn’t deserve. It soon becomes apparent that this strange store, with its eager-to-help assistant Bella (Taylor Russell), could well be more to do with the furniture and emotional clutter of David’s brain than a physical place. David’s half-sister Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle) also rocks up, and from then on the absurdist and surreal circumstances begin to spiral, with a key that could fit any number of locked drawers and an atmosphere you could cut with that suspicion-looking letter-opening-knife David’s mum produces from nowhere. A scene in which David sits down to a dinner we can’t see with Bella also deserves a special jury prize for food with the most threatening aura. Although this is structurally a bit baggy in places, Larsson’s no-fear approach, coupled with the cast’s expert handling of this audacious material, make this a funny, fascinating and unpredictable watch.

Perhaps the last thoughts should go to Erice, who noted: “I have always understood the cinema as a form of knowledge. That’s why, for me, learning it never ends.” In the city, he also lamented the fact that the “shared experience” of watching a film in cinemas has been reduced now we can “contemplate a film in the privacy of our own homes,” which is “not the same.” It’s an idea underlined by the audible exhale of the audience following the plane crash which drives events in J.A. Bayona’s Andes survival drama Society of The Snow. It was the Audience Award winner here and is, ironically, destined for Netflix. That shared breath of 200 people who have been gripped by a piece of cinema and the subsequent chuckles of relief is something that could never be recreated at home on a couch. “I defend the public experience of watching a film,” Erice added, a crucial sentiment that vibrant festivals like San Sebastian serve to remind us of.

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