Surprise! Loose Reflections on the Element of Surprise in Films in San Sebastian By Pamela Biénzobas

in 54th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

Sometimes, when watching a film, spectators expect their beliefs and views of the world to be fulfilled. But more often than not they want to be surprised.

Surprise can be a key narrative element or a provoking visual choice. It can also be a flaw, an involuntary blunder. It can be a carefully sought effect or an unforeseen reaction. It can cause raised eye brows, laughter, reflection, distress, annoyance. In any case, the presence or absence of the element of surprise is surely one of the factors that most strongly determine our first impression. And one possible perspective to approach the films screened in San Sebastian.

Of course, absence of surprise is also a style. A risky one that bets on the spectator’s complicity to accompany the flowing action; to get involved in a usually slow rhythm that refuses to resort to the conventions of storytelling. Like many Argentinean films in the past years, two works programmed in Horizontes Latinos are good examples of this trend.

The (sub)title of Alexis Dos Santos’ Glue — A Teenager Story in the Middle of Nowhere) (Glue — Historia adolescente en medio de la nada) is already ‘warning’ us that it is anything but an action movie. Its bid is to get the spectator to care about the main character’s mundane problems and yearnings. The shifts and the punctuation are not based on the events but on the aesthetic treatment; mainly on the use of music and the photographic choices. Glue is an honest film in which what you see is what you get, and if the title, the poster or the storyline drew your attention, you surely won’t be disappointed. Much more radical (and accomplished), Rodrigo Moreno’s El custodio cleverly uses the element of surprise in an almost perverse manner: denying it throughout the entire film to reinforce the effect of the final coup. El custodio is a challenging, roughfilm, which seems to tease the spectators, making them feel the lack of surprise, the weight of routine and of banality.

One of the Golden Shell winners, Martial Fougeron’s My Son (Mon fils à moi), completely rejects the element of surprise by choosing to open with the story’s outcome. There is some slight ambiguity, since there are a couple of possible interpretations; but we basically know, from the beginning, the exact path we will follow throughout the film. It plays with expectation, basing its strength not on the suspense but on the achievement of a certain atmosphere. The question is not what will happen, and barely even how; it’s basically when. This creates a heavy, dense tension that was explicit when the audience cheered in a scene in which the father slaps the mother. Some saw it as a proof of the film’s gratuitous violence, but it is most likely a manifestation of the accumulated tension that needed to be released. Whether this is enough to sustain the film is subject to discussion.

Javier Rebollo’s Ce que je sais de Lola (Lo que sé de Lola) also bets on the absence of surprise, but in a totally different way: we don’t really know where the story will go. It is so open that in a way anything can happen. Even if we don’t expect it, it doesn’t really surprise us because we are soon drawn into a narrative logic that meanders instead of flowing straight. However, the main denial of surprise is in the narrative construction. Rebollo chooses redundancy, both through the recurrence of actions and places and in the ‘echo’ of the image in the speech, with the main character’s off voice telling us exactly what we see (with the remarkable exception of the mistake with Lola’s astrological sign).

A film that made an outstanding, ironic use of the element of surprise was Delirious. Tom DiCillo (rewarded with the Silver Shell for Best Director and the Jury Prize for Best Screenplay) skillfully juggles surprise, deception and expectation, usually playing with commonplaces, bending them sarcastically. Both morally and visually, he requires the spectator’s connivance in the ironic use of clichés to gently mock the conventions of a world that he has dealt with in his different films (show business). He occasionally gives us the image that we were expecting; occasionally not. But the best moments are when, after a cut, he surprises us by offering an exaggerated version of what we were expecting, reinforcing the ridicule and nonsense of the trite formulas of mainstream cinema. Perhaps it is here, even more than in the dialogues, the mise-en-scène or the performances, where DiCillo’s sense of humor resides.

One of the definitions for ‘surprise’ in Webster’s dictionary is “the state of (…) feeling aroused by something unusual or unexpected; wonder or astonishment.” After all, isn’t the desire for this one of the main reasons we sit down to watch a film?