Daniel Sánchez Arévalo
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 07 November 2006
Source Alta Classics 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
A man crashes a car through the window of a tailor, mesmerised by the expensive suits on display. An incarcerated woman dreams of bearing a child, looking for an easy life on the maternity ward. A son watches his father take sexual pleasure from his (male) masseur, before booking an appointment for himself. An audience fails to care.
Originality is overrated. Too often in modern cinema, the unexpected takes precedence over the affecting. The viewer is made to feel clever, knowing, pleased with themselves, at the expense of honest, genuine emotions. Films like Talk To Her, Amores perros and American Beauty treat their characters like chess pieces, substituting irony for empathy, arch satire for warmth or humour. DarkBlueAlmostBlack is a prime example of this trend: a film about real people in extreme and potentially powerful situations, rendered utterly bloodless by its remote, mechanical style and dry aura of pseudo-intellectual superiority.
The unfortunately named Quim Guttiérez plays Jorge, a son trapped in his father’s janitorial job after the old man suffers a paralysing stroke. His brother Antonio is reaching the end of a lengthy prison sentence, but has fallen in love with fellow inmate Paula, who’s just using him to get pregnant. When it transpires that Antonio is sterile, the pair enlists Jorge to act as a surrogate, and of course he and Paula fall in love, much to the chagrin of Jorge’s wealthy on-off girlfriend Natalia. Meanwhile, in a loosely connected story, Jorge’s best friend Israel has found out his father is secretly paying a man for sexual favours, and begins to blackmail him.
DarkBlueAlmostBlack is exactly the sort of film this brief synopsis suggests. It’s filmed in shades of cool blue and steel grey, loaded with shots of attractive young people staring intensely at one another or off into the distance, displaying their achingly modern detachment. There are flashes of tasteful nudity, sudden outbursts of anger or resentment, a vague sense of irony which never quite develops into outright humour. Soft, repetitive piano and guitar music plays, underscored with the steady thrum of Madrid street traffic.
It’s a film about incarceration, both voluntary and enforced—Jorge’s life with his vegetative father is as restrictive as his brother’s imprisonment. It’s also about betrayal- Jorge betrays Natalia with Paula, Israel’s father betrays the family, likewise Antonio. The events in the film are structured for maximum dramatic irony, events cleverly coinciding as the characters tread their separate paths. In more humanist hands this could have been an interesting study: the characters are intriguing, the situations and dilemmas potentially explosive. The actors all have their moments: the scenes between Guttiérez and Marta Etura’s Paula actually come close to provoking real empathy. But it’s Arévalo’s direction which is at fault here, keeping everything at a distance, pinning his actors down. You want to shake Guttiérez by the shoulders, force him to feel something, anything.
As an exercise in modern ennui, DarkBlueAlmostBlack is perfectly serviceable, if you like that sort of thing. But for those who appreciate the human touch, it’s a cold, plastic and ultimately rather tedious experience. There’s never any sense that Arévalo either knows or cares for his characters; his is a God’s eye camera, fixing his subjects with an unblinking, dispassionate stare. Never for a moment are we encouraged to care what happens to them.