Directorial Tricks in "Solitary Fragments": Inviting or Alienating? By Kim Linekin

in 51st San Francisco International Film Festival

by Kim Linekin

Jaime Rosales’ Solitary Fragments (La Soledad) has won three Goya awards and been lauded by the Cinema Writers Circle of Spain for its direction, editing, screenplay and central performances. It’s not hard to see why. The film offers the sort of heightened slice of life that art house audiences adore: plain folk going about their everyday business, speaking to each other about their everyday concerns instead of about the plot, until one day tragedy strikes and the audience must piece together a plot out of how these characters are affected and, of course, interconnected. The fact that there isn’t an obvious “story” (in the Robert McKee sense of the word) in Solitary Fragments doesn’t detract from its power to engage and move. The storytelling is minimal, buried deep in the subtext of characters’ responses to each other and to events, yet even when these responses happen off-screen they still shape the narrative. Solitary Fragments feels complete and satisfying. It is also intermittently very aggravating. What I’d like to examine are the techniques Rosales employs to pull his audience in closer that sometimes result in intimacy with his characters, and sometimes backfire and push the audience out of the film altogether. My apologies, but this article will need to give away key events in the plot.

The most striking techniques Rosales employs are distant, static camera placement combined with split screen editing to show us two adjacent rooms, nearly always from incongruent angles. The opening scene — and many indoor scenes thereafter — finds the camera far down the hall from where the action is taking place. Adela (Sonia Almarcha) brings in a baby stroller through the front door and wheels it into another room, which is obscured by the split screen showing the outside window into her kitchen. She chats away happily to the baby even as she moves into the kitchen. We can’t see the baby; there are no close-ups of “Miguelito,” and he stays hidden in the unseen room. This approach arouses curiosity about her relationship with the boy and its relationship to the overall story. (In retrospect, it may also be an attempt to foreshow his fate.) At this point, we can’t even be positive he’s her son — she could just be a very loving nanny.

Why is Rosales keeping us at a distance, forcing us to work hard to see what’s going on and deduce its meaning? Perhaps he recognizes that smart audiences enjoy a challenge, but more crucially because human nature dictates that anything made to seem difficult and slightly out of reach becomes that much more inviting. We all want what we can’t have (or even see). As Hitchcock grasped when filming murders through a keyhole or obscured by a half-closed door, the audience’s imagination creates a much more powerful scene than a camera can ever capture.

Rosales’ distant camera is generally very effective at fostering intrigue, never more so than during the scene when the bus Adela is riding blows up. The camera is about a block away, watching one passenger exit the bus, another bus pull into the stop behind Adela’s, more people trickle in and out. The loudest sound is birds singing. Then, during a single, long, unbroken shot, the bus we think Adela is on explodes from the inside. The explosion isn’t amplified — it makes surprisingly little noise for a bomb — and yet the horror of the event is magnified via its juxtaposition with the tranquil surroundings. The birds fall immediately silent. And instead of cutting to shots of ambulances approaching, Rosales waits until one person, then another get off the second bus and sprint away. Then he moves his camera even farther away, to the park on the other side of the bus stop, where our attention centres on a man standing on the grass, watching the bus from a distance. Through this man we reorient ourselves to the bus’s location. It’s actually hard to make out where the bus is because the camera is so far away and there’s so much smoke. Plus, in classic Hitchcockian fashion, the bus is partially obscured by a monument. One person runs shrieking through the park. Then another.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, horrifying scene. Instead of alienating the audience from the action, Rosales’s staging of the explosion and his camera placement both pique our curiosity and reassure our sense of propriety by seeming respectful and non-exploitive of the human suffering that must surely be taking place.

Rosales doesn’t enjoy the same success when he uses a similar push-pull technique in the narrative. I was not impressed with how he handles the revelation that Adela’s son died in that explosion. We’re forced to wait through several scenes — Adela napping while her flatmate Inés (Miriam Correa) invites her mother Antonia (Petra Martínez) in and admires Antonia’s new sweater; Inés playing cards with her family; Adela waiting in line at the bank, clearly injured but not grievously so; Adela telling Inés that she never wants to speak to the baby’s father again — before we piece together the fact that her son is no longer with her. Should a baby’s death be exploited in this way for suspense? Given Rosales’s brilliant restraint in depicting in the bus explosion, using a baby’s death to toy with the audience seems like a miscalculation.

Rosales also builds unnecessarily manipulative suspense into Adela’s reaction to her son’s death. We watch her go through the motions at work and with her flatmates, and her downcast demeanour is nicely at odds with the attempts of those around her to go on with the pleasures of living, such as her flatmates’ attempts to engage her in polite dinner conversation. But when she’s finally alone, in a long scene where she gets out of the bath and gently towels off her wounds, Rosales lets us wait for a breakdown that doesn’t come. Adela even spends awhile looking at her face in the mirror. Where are her tears? Their absence seems less like restraint and more like a cheat here. If she were from a colder culture I might understand her stoic response, but this woman was so openly, Spanishly affectionate with her son that it’s not unreasonable to expect some kind of emotional display upon his death.

Rosales is inexplicably capable of both excessive restraint and excessive directness. Consider his decision to shoot the seizure and death of Antonia in excruciating real time as she collapses onto her bed and then onto the floor. He lingers to make sure we catch every last spasm. And as a literal about-face to his wide shots, Rosales often shoots conversations with one of the participants looking directly at the camera. This technique unnerves and alienates rather than engages. It offers the kind of forced intimacy that makes the viewer want to get up and move a few rows back.

With his split screen editing, Rosales indulges in a similarly artificial contrivance. He’ll have a character walk out of the frame in one side of the screen and into the frame in the other side — except the two sides aren’t contiguous. The character will exit stage left and enter downstage and topsy turvy vice versa. The experience is not just disorienting — presumably Rosales wants us to feel that way as a way of imitating the characters’ alienation from themselves and each other — but downright distracting. He’s forcing us to work too hard here. I felt more like I was trying to follow a video game, where the little figure scampers off the screen and pops up on the other side in the next level, than follow a story.

One could argue that Rosales’ techniques aren’t meant to be interpreted emotionally but rather thematically. Whether they alienate or intrigue is less the point than how they complement his story of how people pull apart and then back together in response to tragedy. I appreciate this argument, but I still prioritize the emotional response. When I’m pushed away from the action for good reasons — for example, in the aftermath of the bus explosion — I feel curious yet respectful, full engaged in the story and wondering what the characters are feeling. When I’m pushed away for bad reasons — like when I’m expecting to see Adela grieve for her son and am denied the opportunity — I feel frustrated, which forces me out of the story to wonder whether the character has been inconsistently written or if the director is cheating. Staying engaged in the story is of the utmost importance while watching a film. Contemplating the themes and techniques should happen afterwards.

That said, Rosales’s gifts for naturalistic dialogue and performances, crafting a satisfying story and composing exquisite shots (particularly his half-interior/half-exterior split screens) bode well for his directorial career. The real-time length of many scenes occasionally tests one’s patience and results in a film that feels about fifteen minutes too long, but it also fosters a pleasing intimacy with the characters. It feels like a confident choice, not an indulgent one.

Rosales’s experimentation is sometimes breathtakingly effective, and always interesting if not always successful. Solitary Fragments is only his second feature. I look forward to his next one.