The tagline for Wild Tales (the new feature from writer-director Damián Szifrón) could have simply been Howard Beale shouting, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Almost all of the characters of this film lose it to some extent; and they make it damn clear that they aren’t going to take it anymore. It explores the absolute extremities of human behaviour and our capabilities of cracking when pushed just that little bit too far—and what happens when we’re eventually pushed over the edge. Flirting with the limit of mental serenity soon becomes an afterthought for much of these characters, as most of them are already onto second base.
The supposed boundaries that (we like to believe) spaciously separate mankind from the rest of the animals are exhilaratingly challenged throughout this Argentine anthology—six darkly comic, beautifully shot vignettes, all with one particular theme in common: vengeance. The “Wild” of the title perfectly encapsulates the crazy, outrageously seditious tone of the movie, but it also reminds us of how easy it is for some to unleash their elementary, animalistic nature. The characters’ propriety, judgement, and even basic sense of morality, completely leave them, and the world becomes a chaotic, Jackson Pollack-like blur. An untamed, undomesticated spontaneity overcomes them and they do things that cannot be undone. This comparison is further highlighted in the film’s title sequence: a montage of wild animals in their habitual environment interrupted by the words “Relatos Salvajes” appearing on screen (the film’s original Spanish title).
“Pasternak”, the film’s opener, is a cracker. Everything is wonderfully set up and expertly followed through. The whole thing clips along without a single ounce of fat: A woman boards a plane and innocuously starts making chitchat with a stranger across the aisle, who happens to be a classical music critic. To their surprise, they have a common connection—her ex-boyfriend, his musical subject that he once critically slated. It turns out the passenger in front also knows the guy. (She used to be his music teacher—what are the chances, right?) Bemusement and disbelief ripple out from this conversation and spread throughout the hanger, until all the passengers quickly realise something’s not right. It turns out everyone on the plane has met this guy, “Paskernak”. But this ripple of surprise turns into a wave of fear… and then a tsunami of terror.
The first fifteen minutes of Wild Tales are about as good as any I’ve seen all year. Although, in light of the new revelations regarding the tragedy of flight A320 this week, it is may be difficult to watch this segment and not feel a tad uneasy about certain similarities between what’s portrayed onscreen and what sadly unfolded in real life. That may either work to the film’s advantage or simply be viewed as bad timing. But “Pasternak” undeniably contains one of the best freeze-frames you’re likely to see all year. The best kinds of screenwriters grab their audience by the neck within the first few scenes. Szifrón goes straight for the throat, tightening his grip throughout the film’s two hour duration. The opening is as expertly executed as some of the film’s characters are brutally executed. Every episode feels as if Szifrón wrote it with a look of menace in his eye; his goal constantly being “how do I make this situation even worse for this poor schmuck?”
It’s impossible not to get caught up in the film’s vivacious energy, even if some of the episodes work better than others. But that’s almost to be expected when making an anthological film. By definition it has a start-stop feel which inevitably disrupts the rhythm of the piece as a whole. The flow of a movie like this is a seriously difficult thing to get right, but Szifrón does a pretty good job. Not all of it works, but the pace rarely let up. And in the end, who really cares when you’re having this much fun?
One of the tightest episodes is “El Más Fuerte” (The Strongest), a short story of two men—a pompous urbanite and a parochial hick—who get into a brutal, cartoonish mêlée triggered by road rage. Both men, inevitably, fly off the edge. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see if Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodóvar decided to collaborate on a new project in South America. (The movie was, in fact, produced by Pedro and his brother, Agustín.)
The film’s final instalment, “Hasta que la Muerte nos Separe” (Till Death Do Us Part), centres on the wedding of two young lovers; the kind of wedding that makes Von Trier’s Melancholia look like Bridesmaids. It’s a wonderfully crafted piece of cinema that immediately recaptures the rowdy, rollicking tone of the picture that was somewhat missing from the previous episode, “La Propuesta” (The Proposal). “Till Death Do Us Part”, exposes the desperate pleasure of wedding celebrations, the severe want for everything—absolutely everything—to be perfect, and the intense apprehensive air that lingers throughout the day, just in case it doesn’t.
When the bride (excellently played by Érica Rivas) discovers a nasty secret about her husband, she loses it. She becomes fury personified. And she wants revenge—making for the most vindictive cinematic bride since Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. The brouhaha that soon evolves contains blood, broken glass and clumps of wedding cake—but the film finds a surprisingly tender moment with which to end: a moment that says despite everything—our many flaws, our many mistakes—we are human. This is who we are. There’s a delicate line between love and hate, and a marriage can sometimes walk that line awkwardly or gracefully. But, in the end, accepting a person for who they are, in spite of their (many) faults, is about as loving an embrace as you can possibly bestow.