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Cannes 2014: In buzzy 'Wild Tales,' a Pedro Almodovar vibe

Damian Szifron's "Wild Tales, executive produced by Pedro Almodovar, is a Cannes breakout

Cannes movies can be dour affairs, filled with trauma and human suffering. Not so with most things Pedro Almodovar is involved with, as he is with “Wild Tales,” a Spanish-language movie in competition that Almodovar executive produced and that takes its title seriously, if not always the action that follows.

The twist-heavy film, from an Argentinean comer named Damian Szifron, is a collection of six independent stories, linked thematically. In one, passengers on a plane discover they all know a malcontented musician and may have been gathered there for a dangerous purpose.

In another, a small traffic misunderstanding escalates into cartoonish violence, until two men are locked in a battle of mutually assured destruction.

The crown jewel is the last film, a fin de siècle wedding tale in which the pleasant façade of such gatherings is ripped away when one partner discovers infidelity, leading to an eruption of chaos and cake-themed violence. For anyone who’s ever sat though a wedding and wondered what would happen if people said what they really feel — or just wanted things to get more interesting — the piece will be an entertaining catharsis.

At heart in all these blackly comic vignettes is the idea that a primal instinct lurks beneath in all of us and that it really doesn’t take much prodding for it to come out. (A title sequence featuring jungle animals at rest drives the point home visually.) Szifron said he’s been taken for some time by the veneer we use to cover our true impulses and thought removing them could make for rich cinema.

“We all have this tension inside us waiting to get out but that we can’t do in any populated society,” he said. “This film asks ‘what happens when we can?’”

On Monday at an upscale Cannes hotel, Szifron was taking it all in, still the lesser-known in the elite competition group among the Dardennes and Mike Leighs of the world but seemingly enjoying his status as an It director, which, after all, you get to do only once. Don’t be surprised too if you continue to hear about the 38-year-old — he’s already attracted interest from American agents and producers off this film and has written an English-language Western he hopes will draw American talent.

Szifron, who directed two previous movies including the screwball cop romance “On Probation,” came up with the idea for this film (titled "Relatos Salvajes" in Spanish) because he was working on a sci-fi epic that was ballooning into two and even three films and he wanted to try something lighter. He began penning stories of ordinary people unloosed, and before he knew it had 14 such tales (those that didn’t make the cut possibly going into a sequel).

“I’ve always loved short stories, and this is the same thing as what's on the page: a way to tell an idea very directly.” He said he didn’t want to use overlapping characters or otherwise force the issue, preferring the pieces simply all be shown together so viewers can draw their own conclusions.

The final chapter in particular, he said, resonated for him. “I’ve been to a lot of weddings and bar mitzvahs, and everyone is sitting politely and dressed like they’re on the red–carpet at Cannes, but what they feel on the inside is very different,” he said.

What ensues in that piece may be the most Almodovar-esque of the bunch. Szifron became involved with the director and his son Augustin after the pair saw a previous film of Szifron's; the Argentine eventually flew to Madrid and sat with the Spanish maestro as they discussed ideas for this film.

Szifron resists somewhat  the idea that the same comedic vein runs through both their work but it is, to this view, unmistakable, as seemingly ordinary people are caught up in absurdist situations, getting in deeper the more they try to get out.

The Almodovar connection has likely helped in other ways  too: Longtime U.S. distributor Sony Pictures Classics has bought “Wild Tales” for a stateside release.

Every year the Cannes competition sees an unexpected movie or two to go with the more strait-laced ones. In recent years they’ve included the similarly omnibus “Holy Motors” and the exorcism-themed Dutch black comedy “Borgman.” Sometimes these films are outlandish. Sometimes they’re just wild.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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