Review: WILD TALES, A Comedic Thought Experiment
As it happens, last year I found myself in a relatively short line at the Cannes film festival for "some Argentinian film," as the person standing next to me put it when I asked what we were to see. I briefly looked up the title ("Relatos salvajes"? Salvaging your relatives, thought I...) and, flipping through the guide, I saw the words "romantic comedy".
I tell you all this because, frankly, this was perhaps the best possible way for this film to be seen, period. No expectations (if anything, lowered expectations), no idea who was involved in the production, nothing other than it was probably going to be some terrible South American rom-com.
The first few minutes did little to disabuse me of this fact. My mantra is clear, don't leave. Less than a few minutes in, I felt like bolting as an awkward, coincidence-filled conversation unfolded on an airplane.
And then suddenly...
Well, who am I to ruin the surprise. Know this: Wild Tales is a Palme D'or eligible (and worthy) film, it's indeed a comedy, and wherever it's playing, you should rush out to see it.
For those insisting on being a little bit more spoiled, you should know that it's produced in part by Augustin and Pedro Almodóvar, directed by Damián Szifrón, and is easily the funniest film of this often dour festival. The comedy is bleak and nihilistic, entering Monty Python levels of acerbic absurdity that often astonish.
It's an anthology piece, akin to The Meaning of Life with its chapter-like segments of various lengths. Some are good (the tow-truck, the diner), some are great (the opener), and some are downright astonishing, including what may be the best road-rage segment since Duel and the best (Jewish) wedding scene in maybe forever.
One segment involving a family may not be the funniest or bleakest, but it's an exceptionally taut piece of filmmaking. The performances throughout are pretty top-notch, a sense that each participant is bringing their heart and soul into their often broad portrayals.
I think it's a film that'll work if you know about it, but I had such a delightful experience having the (red) carpet pulled out from under me that I'm reticent to say too much about what makes it work. This is truly one of those "trust me" films, one where you just should go, no questions asked, and experience it as fresh as possible.
I thus learned that Wild Tales isn't simply just some Argentinian film, but it sure is some Argentinian film.
Comedy is so hard to get right, particularly for an international audience, without devolving into the most overt of physical humour. This film has plenty of funny, to be sure, but it equally has the rarer attribute of wit, a smartness to the script that knows when to turn the lights down and have things go dark, even somber. This contrast, of course, makes the highs seem even higher, and Szifrón seem to have mastered this black art.
At its core, the film is an examination of a fundamental existential question: How will we behave when put into a situation of great jeopardy or upheaval? In each chapter, a quite ordinary situation (a plane trip, a hit-and-run accident, a car being towed) escalates into levels both absurd and profound. This is a kind of comedic thought experiment, an episode of Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories dealing with much more quotidian horrors, showing through humour how certain behaviour, if unchecked, can lead to quite surprising conclusions.
Seen individually, these are funny and profound short films of varying quality, while collectively they form a quite visceral experience. You feel yourself waiting for the shoe to drop as each segment takes place, and even then the writers are savvy enough to undermine our expectations.
Absolutely one of the highlights of Cannes 2014, Wild Tales may be the most universally adored film of the fest, even if it's not quite getting the respect I feel it may deserve. Still, it's an exciting and energizing achievement in filmmaking, a truly funny work that's equally deep and philosophical, all while not taking itself too seriously.
Review originally published in somewhat different form during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014. The film opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, February 20, and will expand throughout the country in the coming weeks.