Friday, April 07, 2006

2006 SFIFF—In Bed (En La Cama, 2005)

Somewhere between festival program capsules that woo a filmgoer to attend a film and critical print reviews warning filmgoers to either abandon all hope before entering a moviehouse or to rage against the light while leaving, lies some modicum of personal truth experienced only by watching the film itself. I enjoy movies best before the images become saddled with description, riddled full of interpretations, or critically and decisively executed. Armed with pandering previews and ranting reviews, I sit in the dark and hope to suspend my disbelief. And if I'm lucky, that's exactly what happens. I accept the "frenzy on the wall" as representational of something real—at the least!—but, hopefully, the taint of representation will be skillfully minimized by a director so that I hasten to claim the cinematic experience as my own true experience.

The official website for Matías Bize's In Bed (En La Cama) attests to the film's vigorous rounds on the festival circuit. The program capsule for last November's Leeds International Film Festival found In Bed "[i]mmensely erotic, perceptive, touching and familiar" and insisted that—though the film is set in just one room—it was "never claustrophobic." In fact, that capsule concludes that "this simple yet hugely eloquent film creates a dreamy world where strangers are lovers and one room is all you need."

Shaz Bennett's capsule for last November's
AFI Fest praised director Matías Bize for "[a]llowing the performances to simmer and marinate on screen" and for setting up "an authentically satisfying denouement where a one-night stand can change your life."

Then in January at the
Palm Springs International Film Festival the program notes praised Bize for displaying "an intelligence and understanding of the fragility of sexual relationships that belies his youth."

By March—when In Bed reached the Miami International Film Festival—the festival program credited Bize with finding "a place so sensual that you'll forget all you know about sex in the movies—and then rediscover it."

But then In Bed screened at the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York City last month and the film's fall from preview grace was notable. At The New York Times, Manohla Dargis was at the head of the mob wanting to kill the monster. She countered the film was precisely claustrophobic and synopsized: "In between the orchestrated ohs and ahs and regularly timed cigarette breaks, the woman (Blanca Lewin) and man (Gonzalo Valenzuela) discreetly show off their pretty bodies, pleasure each other like practiced lovers (or porn stars) and slowly bare their uninteresting souls. The director Matías Bize clearly means for this soft-core encounter to open into something more substantial and not long after Round 1, alas, the newly acquainted bedmates start sounding and behaving a lot like a couple. The idea that strangers can engage in sex for pleasure without guilt, anguish and veritable laundry lists of complaints remains out of bounds, which gives this Chilean-German co-production a curiously old-fashioned, decidedly unsexy vibe."

At Slant, Ed Gonzalez was equally unforgiving: "[T]he entirety of In Bed suggests a mash-up of Before Sunrise and Tape run through Altavista's unreliable Babel Fish Translation service—you can't shake the feeling that there's something not quite right about how it looks and sounds." Gonzalez stresses: "In Bed is a great porn but a piss-poor drama. The sex here is diced not with musical performances but with painstakingly-scripted chitter chatter (topics include: vintage cartoons, Reiki massages, and movie pitches) that similarly works to schematize a movie that aims for some level of naturalism."

Nick Schager writes: "A sluggish rehash of Before Sunrise minus the romance and philosophical insightfulness, Matías Bize's In Bed (En La Cama nonetheless works so long as Bruno (hunky Gonzalo Valenzuela) and Daniela (sultry Blanca Lewin) are working up a sweat, the director's up-close-and-personal cinematographic depiction of writhing, slapping naked flesh successfully maintaining the film's temperature at a near-boil. Once the sex stops and the squawking begins, however, all is lost."

Leslie Felperin's measured (and ultimately fair)
Variety review, assesses that In Bed's "elegantly simple, Richard Linklater-esque concept, written by Julio Rojas, is energetically consummated by sophomore helmer Matias Bize . . . and its handsome leads." I smiled at her allusion to Samuel Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot (In Bed's duo announce several times that it's time for them to go, but neither actually leaves).

But it's Jorge Morales'
Havana 2005 Fipresci review that provides, in my estimation, the best contextual critique of not only In Bed, but the other Chilean features it has accompanied on the festival circuit—Alicia Scherson's Play and Sebastián Campos' The Sacred Family / La sagrada familia. It's definitely a worthwhile read.

"The case of Matías Bize," Morales writes, "is the most paradoxical one. His debut with Saturday (Sábado) was a display of creative freedom. It was made in one sequence shot, and improvisation, spontaneity and the unpredictable risks were taken as the base and the decisive contribution to the mise-en-scène; as the traces of a style. With In Bed, Bize wanted to repeat the same effect in a new exercise. During an hour and a half, he only filmed two characters locked up in a room having sex and talking about their lives. But the result is totally different, risk-free; pure calculation and no spontaneity. It's a thorough and extremely conventional screenplay that covers, as if following a checklist, all the topics one can think of for two sporadic lovers. Visually, Bize works with a framing that seeks to render the image more dynamic (looking for all sorts of angles), with no apparent reason other than 'oxygenizing' the confinement, and without providing the shots with any narrative or emotional value. In a spirit closer to a short film, In Bed advances stumbling from a minimalist gaze to an orchestration full of common places. Nevertheless, the awards obtained in La Havana (Third Coral and best screenplay) are not entirely unmerited given the low level of the films in competition, and the fact that In Bed responds to a common vice among filmmakers that have achieved a previous success: making films for festivals."

So all that being said: what did I think of Matías Bize's In Bed (En La Cama)? Not that it really matters since both sides of the fence have been aptly painted; but here goes. In Bed is softcore porn. Softcore because you don't really see any full frontal erections or penetration, but definitely porn because the film's two actors Blanca Lewin and Gonzalo Valenzuela are the stuff of fantasies. She's a babe and he's a hunk. If you like to fuck, you'll want Blanca; if you like to get fucked, you'll want Gonzalo. If you're a switchhitter, you'll want a bigger bed. If you're a voyeur, you'll want a bigger keyhole.

I had no problem leaning back and enjoying the film on its surface, much like I would enjoy fooling around some evening with a stranger in a motel, and that is quintessentially what the film endeavors to express: the "transient shelter" that casual sex frequently provides the young. Bize succeeded in arresting my attention by making the scenario attractive via good casting and not-so-bad acting. His conceit that the bed is "a narrative place", a "most fundamental place" past whose limits "the universe disappears" is unflinchingly romantic, even if within the film he betrays the conceit by shooting a scene in the bath tub and boasts a game where the characters walk on strewn clothing on the floor without actually touching the floor (otherwise the world will end). In other words, they don't spend the whole time in the bed. But the depths that Bize hopes to plumb from this scenario are precisely demeaned by its softcore porn sexiness. This is a realm probably best relegated to Carlos Reygadas and actors I don't really want to see fuck each other.

Apt comparisons have been made between Julio Rojas' script and Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise / Before Sunset dyptich, which ultimately I found much sexier for remaining within the unconsummated dalliance. Discussing this with bud Bob Hoffman after the press screening, Bob stated he found the dialogue more believable in In Bed than in Linklater's films but I can't say I find the dialogue believable in either directors' work. Points are trying to be made in the relationships in both directors' work that really don't have anything to do with how relationships actually track; they're meant to suggest key elements. They're kind of like relationships and, for the strictures of a film, kind of work. In her Variety review, Leslie Felperin notes: "Like Before Sunrise, open-ending positively invites post-screening debate between realist and romantic-minded auds as to whether the characters will or won't ultimately get it together."

What worked for me in Bize's In Bed was the premise that the casual one-night stand can become the safest confessional because you can unload some deep dark secret that you've been carrying around too long. In my experience I have found this to be true. Orgasmic relief coupled to confessional absolution is a great doubleshot!! Wham wham bam bam thank you, mamn, Goddamn! And Daniela and Bruno—intuiting they will never see each other again—are free to hunt out secrets in her purse and his wallet. Those secrets truly intrigue and give the film its most interesting moments.

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