Javier Rebollo's The Dead Man And Being Happy: Harmonic Dissonance

in 60th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

A man sets out on a journey, probably not knowing where he is going, driven by a gut feeling, by a certainty, by passion. Javier Rebollo started that journey with Lo que sé de Lola (2006), then pursued it with Woman Without Piano (La mujer sin piano, 2009). Now, with The Dead Man and Being Happy (El muerto y ser feliz), he goes one step (and hundreds of miles) further in his reflections on the narrative capacities and limitations of cinema.

In this meandering third feature-length film, Santos (a.k.a. the contract killer that does not kill,  embodied outstandingly by José Sacristán), starts his journey with a stock of morphine, a gun and an old car, takes along a woman he finds on the way (Roxana Blanco, remarkable), and clearly doesn’t have a set destination.

From its very title, The Dead Man and Being Happy establishes a kind of twisted logic in its structure: noun and verb, character and action, death and happiness, a protagonist named by what he – and everyone – will eventually become (“the dead man”), and the ultimate goal of most civilizations (“being happy”).

It is therefore no surprise to find these dissonances at the base of the film’s architecture. A female voice with a Spanish accent, and later on a male one as well, describe the action. The procedure is amusing at first, then heavy and even annoying for a while. Then it becomes absolutely natural and necessary. And when, through small details discretely scattered throughout the tale, it introduces a gap between what we hear and what we see, the fundamental question arises: what is the film telling? A series of events and situations that someone is repeating, in words, with mistakes? The mistaken mise-en-scene of the story that is being narrated off screen? The script that the main character is writing through his actions, each time he chooses the next step he will take?

Aside from the fact of being (among many other things) a road movie, the film itself is a trip. Rebollo quickly lets us understand and feel that we’re not going anywhere in a classical narrative sense. It’s the fascination that makes us want to go on a ride with this mysterious wanderer, and the equally mysterious (or plain simple?) woman that appears in his car, his trip, his movie.

The characters are lovable just for what they are. They are probably both liars. They are, in any case, inventions: of the narrators, of the filmmaker, of themselves, perhaps. The questions open a compelling and at the same time pointless spiral. It is pointless for the film we are seeing, which does not ask for us to analyze or conceptualize anything, just to enjoy the ride through the vast, beautiful and changing landscape.

But of course, even though they are posed unpretentiously, these questions apply to every film; to cinema as an art form and to storytelling in general. Is Santos (a common last name meaning “saints”) a kind of Odysseus who, too far in time and space from his native Spain, is looking for a place to die in his adoptive Argentina? Is this worn-out contract killer that will not kill the ultimate author of his own fiction? Is this fiction his, in the first – or last – place?

Just like the towns, the encounters and the stops along Santos’s way, The Dead Man and Being Happy is certainly another stop along Javier Rebollo’s journey through the inexhaustible narrative landscapes of cinema.

Edited by Carmen Gray