Back to Normal

in 56th Cannes Film Festival

by Robert Fischer

Establishing shots of Barcelona’s outskirts in the early morning light. Housing projects next to vacant lots. A closer shot of a specific building, apparently picked at random. The next shot favours a section in the middle of the building. Then we cut to the inside of an apartment, where a man in his early thirties, Abel (Alex Brendemühl), stands in front of a bathroom mirror and shaves. Over breakfast, his mother tells him that a beautiful bistrot on the Rambla will be transformed into a MacDonald’s.

Jaime Rosales’ film “Los horas del dia” begins like a modern variation of the first minute of “Psycho”: going from the general to the specific, closing in on a protagonist in a way that suggests that it might as well have been the person next door left or next door right. But the nod to Hitchcock will probably (and hopefully) go unnoticed if the viewer has the good fortune to know nothing of what Rosales’ astonishingly assured debut feature has in store for him. At first glance, there is nothing disturbing in this cool observation of the almost painfully normal life of an average guy. Nothing, in fact, of what we see Abel do during the first half hour of the film (waiting for customers in his little clothing shop, sleep over at his girlfriend’s, chatting with his friend who owns a kiosk) can prepare us for the turn the events suddenly take. Abel asks a chatty female cab driver who believes in horoscopes to take him to a place out of the city. When the driver stops on a dirt road to read a sign, Abel suddenly grabs her from behind and begins to strangle the woman with his bare hands. The victim is strong, she struggles and kicks, so Abel has to use all his force to subdue her, finally managing to kill her by smashing her skull, off screen, with a rock he picks up from the roadside. Not since the death of the cabdriver in Kieslowski’s “A Short Film About Killing”, a filmmaker to whom Rosales is clearly even more indebted than to Hitchcock, have we seen a more realistic killing.

Abel, and with him the film, goes back to normal as if nothing had happened. The difference, of course, is that the viewer is now alerted and constantly on the edge: Every little frustration in Abel’s day-to-day endeavours (he has to sell his shop and his only employee gives him a hard time about her pay-off money; his girlfriend, though clueless about the true nature of his unemotional behaviour, becomes more and more irritated with him, while his friend is preparing to marry; he tries to pick up a girl, Maria, in a restaurant who tells him she has a brother named Cain) suddenly takes on new significance. While the style of the film stays exactly the same as before the killing – static shots, a registering, unflinching camera that now becomes even more a cold gaze – the possibility of Abel’s murderous impuls erupting again at any given minute creates a suspense that is Hitchcockian by subject if hardly in style.

The second killing, coming two thirds into the film, is a good example. Abel sits on a bench in a subway station. The camera shoots him from the other platform, and we see a woman with her old father, sitting a few feet away from him. A train draws into the station and stops, blocking our view. The conditioning of the audience at this point is such that we expect to see Abel and the woman alone once the train has left, with him either following her or attacking her right there. But no: all three of them are still there when the train has left the station, and when the woman gets up and heads for the exit, Abel does not follow her. Instead, Rosales employs a tiny ellipsis and cuts into a public toilet: the old man washes his hands and pushes the button on a blow dryer, and it is then that Abel leaps on him from behind. The killing is even more protracted than the first time. The total lack of motivation, the utter randomness of the act makes the brutality even more repulsive and unbearable, and on top of it all it now dawns on us that we have no way of knowing how often Abel has killed before – or will kill again.

Abel once again resumes his normal life. His girlfriend, to our greatest relief, leaves him for good. At his friend’s wedding ceremony, Abel finds pleasure in telling him that his bride came on to him some time ago, which might or might not be a lie. He finally reaches a settlement with his employee over her money. And then the film closes with the same series of shots with which it began, in reversed order. There is no capture, trial and hanging of the killer as in Kieslowski’s film, no unmasked “mother side” with psychoanalytical wrap-up as in Hitchcock’s. Rosales stops his clinical observation of Abel, refusing any comment, interpretation or dramatic conclusion, he just shuts his camera off, so to speak. We know that Abel will go back to the hospital where he knows Maria works as a nurse, hoping for a date. So everything is possible, for better or for worse…

“Las horas del dia” is an extremely accomplished first film, using the expressive means of cinematographic language (scripting, camera, editing, mise-en-scene) to the utmost effect by lending a subject which is Bressonian at heart a completely convincing, haunting naturalism.