On the films of Jonas Trueba — a young Spanish filmmaker transcending his last name by prying at the fourth wall of cinema
August 27, 2016
His middle name is Groucho but his comedy is far from the Marx legacy that influenced his father, Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba, and though some aspects of his films recall the French New Wave, do not call his style retro. Jonás Groucho Trueba’s films have modern concerns about love in a modern age. He also uses cinema techniques that push the against the medium’s boundaries to represent his themes with an equally fresh perspective.
All three of his first movies will be shown during a retrospective at the Coral Gables Art Cinema this weekend. Trueba and his producer, Javier LaFuente, will be present for introductions and Q&A sessions during screenings on Friday and Saturday. In 2010’s Every Song is About Me, Ramiro (Oriol Vila) can’t seem to get over the end of his six-year relationship with Andrea (Bárbara Lennie). Stuck in the nostalgia of what was and the fantasy of what could be, he can hardly acknowledge the reality of the present: their relationship is over.
For his debut feature, which he shot on 35mm film, Trueba shows great confidence in handling that tenuous place in loving someone else from a place of ego without making the film’s protagonist obnoxious or completely pathetic. The acting is grounded in earthy humanity. There’s a nice influence of Francois Truffaut going on, particularly in the occasional, sparse but insightful moments Trueba uses voiceover and the active camera that moves to the breezy, flute-driven jazzy score by Perico Sambeat.
The film builds toward a wonderful open-ended finale, following a heartbreaking monologue by Ramiro to his unreachable former lover Andrea (Bárbara Lenie), which melds nicely with the film’s musical pièce de resistance: a gorgeous version of “Silence is the Question” by The Bad Plus. The chaotic yet moving instrumental crescendos as Ramiro gives Andrea a letter but speaks a heartfelt declaration of love that will be his last desperate attempt to reconnect with her. The results of his efforts, however, are left up to the viewer. It’s one of the best endings I’ve seen in a long time because it never betrays the film’s themes while it never short-changing the hopes of our hero.
Every Song is About Me will remind some of (500) Days of Summer without the gimmick of jumping back and forth through time. With the friends that surround Ramiro, Trueba also takes jabs at other kinds of relationships — from the purely superficial, to the naive, to the apathetic. The film also has room for humor that bookstore lovers will recognize. This is a rich, well-drawn film that hardly ever slacks, as it never compromises what a complex, inner problem it elucidates about relating with someone on the outside of a personal, inner world. Viewers should approach this film ready to tune into that wavelength as it requires some experience to appreciate the film’s overall themes.
The Wishful Thinkers (2013) is a much more meta bit of filmmaking, reflecting Trueba’s own experiences in making a movie in a desperate Spanish economy. With this film, he used a 16mm camera with black and white film. It further reveals his French New Wave influences. It even includes some iris out shots that look to have been done by hand.
It’s rough-around-the-edges feel is appropriate, as it follows aspiring filmmaker León (Francesco Carril) who is struggling to make an indie film with no budget. León is obsessed with the idea of picking up a story about a couple, where the man kills himself early in the film and life continues for the woman. With his second film, a thematic pattern has emerged in Trueba’s filmography, revealing an interest in endings disguised as beginnings, which speaks against the idea that films need to end with “fin,” and offer tightly resolved answers to all of a film’s questions. That isn’t life, and if cinema is supposed to be representative of life, why should they go against that, Trueba seems to say.
The inclusion of clapperboards before some scenes, especially one scene that shows a variety of different takes of an actress repeating a line of dialogue, emphasizes the artificiality of cinema. At the same time, his films show great concern about how friends and lovers connect in the real world. Trueba seems to be a director searching to fix the disconnect between life and film. Neither is the other, of course, but there’s an acceptance of film’s place as a representation. In fact, there’s a vitality to that representation, as he reaches for something more, including considering how choosing art as representation of life affects one’s sense of self. As The Wishful Thinkers follows a director talking about making a movie, it all gels neatly as an unfinished kind of work, yet it’s more real than most movies you see at the multiplex.
Finally, The Romantic Exiles (2015) follows a trio of friends traveling through France as, one at a time, they attempt to reconnect with former loves. Trueba shot this film using a handheld digital camera, which also reveals a looser approach to filmmaking and his concern for realism. It has the clearest structure of all his films while also being his shortest at 10 minutes over an hour.
Music pays a key role in all of Trueba’s films. Within the title of his first movie is the sentimental idea that our hopeless romantic cannot get over his lover because hearing certain songs tie him to her. In the second film there is a musical sequence featuring a band in someone’s living room. But, in The Romantic Exiles music delineates the film’s three chapters, as the three guys travel France in a borrowed camper, following Spanish singer Miren Iza, of the Spanish indie pop band Tulsa, who also composed the film’s score. Iza appropriately sings dreamy songs of longing and unrequited love on affected acoustic guitar. The final scene featuring Iza once again touches on Trueba’s affection for breaking the fourth wall of cinema.
Despite the self-awareness of the medium, there is a buoyant naturalism to the film’s likable characters. Trueba succeeds strongest with the third reunion between man and woman, a long take of one of the friends attempting to woo his French girlfriend with a letter in her language. It’s a beautiful back and forth two-shot where the man says everything, and the woman listens, sometimes smiling, occasionally wincing and sighing several times at certain declarations, revealing her feelings in silent but profound reaction. The women matter in this film, so much so that Trueba includes a scene when two of the women discuss the Bechdel Test in a meta kind of moment that flows well with these characters’ story, subverting the problems with the argument while solving it for the film. The Romantic Exiles is a movie that accepts that it is from a heterosexual male’s perspective and how confused, confounding and funny life can between the two sexes.
It takes some digging to note the film’s dynamism, as these are people in flux, caught in a place of ideas of action instead of taking much action. In spite of the road movie construct, these are people going nowhere. But this is the young Trueba concern: The present is all we have, which is also how the art of cinema was approached before VHS and DVD: a fleeting, impermanent art that existed for the moment light projected it.
There’s a clear evolution to follow in Trueba’s work. Through his films reveal a bold confidence in the medium to strip it bare while telling earthy, grounded stories many will relate with. There is a playfulness in his filmmaking that never allow his films to feel ponderous. His career is certainly in the early stages, but this filmmaker certainly seems on his way to making his mark as a distinctive voice beyond his father’s name — not to mention that middle name — with an inspired exploration of the medium of cinema.
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I also interviewed Trueba for a story in the Miami New Times’ art and culture blog. To read about his philosophy for film and a style of filmmaking he calls “cinema Ouija,” jump through the logo for the blog below:
Director Jonás Trueba and Producer Javier Lafuente will introduce the screenings of their films Every Song is About Me, The Wishful Thinkers and The Romantic Exiles on Friday and Saturday, August 26 and 27, and do a Q&A afterwards. After the screenings of The Romantic Exiles, also on Friday and Saturday, Latin Grammy nominee Miren Iza, of the Spanish indiepop band Tulsa, will perform songs inspired by the film, which she also appears in. Visit gablescinema.com for tickets. On Saturday afternoon, at 1 p.m., Trueba will host a workshop on indie filmmaking also at Gables Art Cinema. It is free; details are at filmprojectmiami.com. All images and trailers provided by the Gables Art Cinema.