08 April 2008

Yo (Me)

(Image from: http://www.fipresci.org/news/archive/archive_2007/sic_2007_yo_pbienzobas_en.htm)

Dir. Rafa Cortés, 2007 (Spain)

Synopsis: German laborer Hans arrives in a small Majorcan village to take over for a vanished handyman whose name was, well, Hans. But who was this first Hans, why are all his things still in the handyman's quarters, where has he gone, and who is this new Hans? Are the villagers hiding something?

Yo (the Spanish title is Yo, so the English title is Me) is a movie that's been growing on me ever since I saw it last Friday at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It's one of those movies that makes me just a little embarrassed to realize just how stupid and lazy American film audiences have allowed themselves to become.

OK, I'm going to give free rein to my snobbishness for a bit, as long as we all understand that I am part of the target for all of this criticism. In America, I think we tend to treat our movies kind of like our servants. We want to plop down in front of a flick at the end of a long work-week, and dagnabit if I'm going to do any work to "appreciate" this movie. Oh, no! I'm going to lie here with my bucket of popcorn slathered with not-entirely-unlike-buttery topping and my tanker of carbonated beverage, and this movie will make me laugh, cry, scream...feel something goshdarnit. And if it doesn't, I'll fall asleep and start snoring, or I'll talk on my cell phone or something. In any event, if this movie requires ANYTHING of ME, I'm out of here! I didn't pay $10 to have to do work on a Friday night!

Yo is a movie that makes you do some work, so much so that, even among the illuminati of the Philadelphia cinema scene, I heard heavy sighs, much restless fidgeting, and not a few whispers by about the 27-minute mark. I'm not going to lie--I felt the impatience, too, but it just reminded me of how long it's been since I've let a film challenge me. In my heart of hearts, though, I want my filmmakers to believe that I'm intelligent; I want them to invite me into the act of filmmaking as a participant, not just a spectator. And Yo does exactly that.

The thing about Yo is that the whole plot revolves around the efforts of the replacement Hans to figure out what the heck is going on in this village and what part he plays in the whole affair. But this isn't a case of dramatic irony--we don't know either, and we're left to struggle along with Hans. It's not a comfortable feeling necessarily--it's like driving down a windy country road with no headlights. And the filmmakers enhance our blindness in a multitude of ways. For one thing, there's hardly an establishing shot to be had in the entire film--that is, we're never given an opportunity to survey the lay of the land, to get a sense of our whereabouts and where our path may lead. Rather, like Hans, we're buried in the details of the village--the cracked, white-washed walls and winding, narrow streets, the tiny bar--seemingly the only social center the town has to offer, the eccentric garden villa named "Tanca" (after the owner?) where Hans will work, and the intensely claustrophobic worker's quarters, where Hans is left to squeeze into whatever tiny space can be found among the former Hans's abandoned belongings (he actually has to close the door of his bedroom before he can unfold his cot all the way at night). The camera is always in Hans's worried face, or just behind his head, peering over his shoulder as he tries to unravel dozens of tiny mysteries that face him at every turn.

The movie is almost oppressively intense, but it achieves this intensity with very little music (what there is is played on an out-of-tune piano, and it's rare) and a limited color palate that's dominated by blue tones. Sequences end with a cut to black, as if to reinforce the fact that events refuse to cohere for Hans--his weird relationships with villagers, his conversations, and his observations and efforts--nothing comes together meaningfully, and he's left to deal with the pieces, as are we.

It's not necessarily easy--I've grown so used to heavy-handedness, even in my favorite American so-called puzzle movies (like Memento or Mulholland Drive), so it was hard for me to adjust to a mystery that never really tells me that it is a mystery or a puzzle movie that never really dares me to put it together. But, like the movie's protagonist, I guess I eventually just decided that the only way I'd keep myself in one piece would be to try to solve the town's mystery, which revolves bizarrely around the mysteriously absent first Hans.

But, in the cliche of mystery movies, "things are not what they seem" in this seaside village. In fact, this is one of the few truths that Cortés telegraphs to us in the form of a more-or-less obvious metaphor, for the favorite pastime of the village's men is a Catalonian card game called "Truc," where the players lie to each other about the cards they have, and then lie to each other about believing the lies they're telling to each other. Hans is left to figure out where the truth is in all this mess, while the other townspeople seem to wink and gesture behind his back.

I won't give away the ending, except with a teaser...Hans gets pretty good at Truc.

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