"Lake Tahoe": A Single Day Odyssey in the Yucatan City of Children By Jurica Pavicic

in 58th Berlinale

by Jurica Pavicić

Lake Tahoe, the second feature film by Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke, has been seen by many as one of the very few (or only) shots of refreshing breeze in an otherwise conventional and unenlightening competition at the Berlinale 2008. Original in concept, directed in a superbly precise manner, funny and simultaneously terribly sad, Eimbcke’s film won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin Competition and stood out as possibly the most pleasant surprise of the whole festival.

Set in a small harbor city somewhere in the Yucatan peninsula, Lake Tahoe takes place during a single day. At the beginning, we see a young boy Juan (Diego Catano) who crashed his car at the post by the road. It’s morning, it’s hot, and it’s probably Sunday, so the streets are empty and bleached by sunshine. During the first half of the film, we observe the absurd, Sisyphus-like efforts of a young lad to find help and repair his car. First, the car mechanic does not work today. Second, Don Heber (Hector Herrera — the only professional actor in the film —mistakes Juan for a burglar. Later, he forces Juan to walk his dog. Later on, Juan tries to buy spare parts for the car. During all these efforts, Eimbcke introduces to us more and more vivid, bizarre, Jarmusch-like local characters. The spare parts saleswoman (Daniela Valentine) is a terribly incompetent teen mother, obsessed with her singing career. The owner (or senior worker) in the shop (Juan Carlos Lara) is slightly more introduced into the mystery of cars, but his real passions are Bruce Lee movies, Shaolin and Eastern spirituality. His mother is, on the other hand, an aggressive Christian activist: she forces Juan into a Bible lesson, giving him — by the way — his third breakfast that morning. Unnecessary to mention, the car stays broken long into the afternoon.

Fernando Eimbcke — who developed his project through Sundance workshops — introduces all these characters through superbly controlled minimalism, with very few words and even less camera movements. The camera is usually static, close-ups avoided, and characterizations are given through brilliant mise-en-scene. In the first scene where we see the incompetent saleswoman, Eimbcke elliptically avoids Juan entering the shop, or asking anything. We only see Lucia’s confused glance, she scratches her chin, walks towards the shelf and comes back reluctantly. Most of what we need to know about Lucia is in this wordless shot. This is the same way Eimbcke introduces us to David. In a wider shot, we see Juan calling home from a public phone. David waits for him and suddenly, out of the blue, starts rehearsing kung fu movements on a pavement by the phone booth. Elliptic surprises and sudden abruption of unexpected character layers — that’s Eimbcke’s strategy to keep us interested in otherwise almost plotless film.

I watched Lake Tahoe at Berlinale, without reading press notes and without knowing what kind of plot twist to expect in the second half of the film. I am glad for this, and I strongly advise critics to avoid spoiling the film to others by revealing the oncoming surprise. In the second half of the film — for those who prefer to know — we realize step by step that this is not a regular lazy morning for Juan. His father — a baseball player — just died, and he needed the car for sorting things out, because his mother is in a deep grief, catatonic in bath tub. We don’t find that out at once. Eimbcke gives us small pieces of information: first we see his disinterested, depressed mother in bathtub. Later on, the younger brother asks Juan what does it mean (“condolences”), and, at that point, we presume that’s something going on beyond the trivial surface. Once we realize that the father died, all banal and funny events during the day suddenly reappear in a different light: Juan had to deal with all these trivialities while coping with loss. Right until the very end of the film, Eimbcke continues with his narrative strategy based on omission, and giving small slices of knowledge to an audience.

At the very end of the film there is a scene which gives the film a title, but anyway stands as it’s probably only weak spot. In that last scene, Juan removes from the car the advertising plaster Lake Tahoe — a gift from their aunt who visited the lake. Juan’s younger brother puts the plaster into a booklet with father’s memorabilia. Lake Tahoe — a place where they wanted to go with their father but they didn’t — stands as a metaphor for all that they could experience with the man who died, but they didn’t and they won’t. Poignant, but slightly literary and too much by the book, this ending differs from otherwise non-metaphorical, and very ‘pure’ film.

Eimbcke — born in 1970, a former camera assistant whose previous film Duck Season (Temporada de patos, 2004) won numerous awards — is a part of generation of New Mexican filmmakers which includes, among the others Carlos Reygadas and Amat Escalante. Unlike their films, Lake Tahoe is not radical in content: there is no violence, poverty, ugliness or radical motives, even no sex. Eimbcke’s mini-mundus seems almost idyllic with all its flaws, and therefore death comes as even more shocking once we realize that someone died. On the other level, Eimbcke’s film is very ‘third-world’ on one, very specific level. Eimbcke’s Yucatan harbor seems like kind of ‘city of children’ where adults are either dead, or passive, or dysfunctional, and children run things, try to solve problems and take care of themselves. This is probably the creepiest aspect of Eimbcke’s outstanding, great movie.