Connecting with the isolated through film

Special to The Times

Nearly a decade ago, Isabel Coixet found herself on an oil rig off the southern coast of Chile. An aspiring if impecunious filmmaker, she was there to shoot an industrial film for Shell Oil. The job was neither glamorous nor idyllic, but in the weeks she spent aboard the isolated platform, she was struck by something extraordinary, even beautiful. "Alone in the middle of the ocean, men open up to each other more and talk about what really matters to them." These days the Catalan-born Coixet, 44, is one of Spain's most honored directors. But the oil rig, and what it embodied, are still with her.

"The Secret Life of Words," which opened last week, takes place largely on a dreary platform in the North Atlantic -- an ideal setting for Coixet (pronounced Coy-SHET) to return to her favorite themes. Often featuring mongrel casts and multinational funding, her movies are worlds where one's identity is defined not by geographic frontier or spoken language but by personal tragedy, and where loneliness and affiliation are poles between which stories unfold. It is through intense individual encounters and personal relationships, in fact, that Coixet seeks to illuminate broader issues; her films address international audiences and global problems through an idiom of intimacy.

But it is a hard-won intimacy, for despite her devotion to cinema, Coixet is, in many ways, a reluctant filmmaker. "I dreamed of making movies since I was a child," says the globetrotting native of Barcelona, Spain, "though I've always been most influenced by writers" (Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers and Richard Ford top her list). "I despise all of the grief involved in shooting, and I loathe the reviews and criticism -- I really can't stand all of that." Indeed Coixet, though convivial and publicly engaged, is herself well acquainted with loneliness. "You can't ever escape yourself," she says. "I think there are people in the world, maybe like me, who feel more themselves when they are alone."

Coixet, who still lives in Barcelona, is quick to add, "There was nothing in my childhood that made me this way, except maybe that I spent hours and hours watching films alone in a big theater where my grandmother worked selling tickets. That's a special kind of loneliness -- when you are alone in the dark, in the company of ghosts."

She does not consider solitude something one always chooses. "I once saw Patricia Highsmith in a coffee shop in Switzerland," she says of the British novelist, "and she was looking out the window at the people passing by, sipping cafe au lait very slowly, smoking. I'd never seen anyone who seemed more lonely and at the same time hungrier for human touch, contact, something. But it was also clear -- at least to me -- that she was not the one who chose her solitude. She was chosen by solitude, like when you're born with a mole on your back in a shape of a bean."

'Look and listen'

The director, who just ended a long relationship with the father of her 11-year-old daughter, acknowledges that you can be part of a couple and still be a loner. "One of the most painful things is feeling lonely while being with someone. I've experienced that very often in my life."

For all of her own solitude, Coixet admits to being a "sponge for other people's emotions -- for some reason, they want to tell me about their experiences." And she knows that her craft depends on discerning the value of those experiences. "Robert Altman once told me that there are two things to know as a filmmaker," she says. " 'Look and listen.' That's what I try to do. I write other people's stories because my own life is boring."

Coixet's passion for telling stories, along with her belief in movies' power to feed the human hunger for connection, temper her aversion to filmmaking's daily grind and public scrutiny.

"The Secret Life of Words" is the director's most compelling treatment to date of the dilemmas surrounding solitude and isolation.

The picture is built around an accident that leaves Josef (Tim Robbins), an oil rig employee, badly burned and temporarily blind.

While awaiting transport, he is cared for by Hanna (Sarah Polley), a sourly introverted and somewhat mysterious young woman on vacation from her lifeless factory job. Josef and Hanna awkwardly develop an enigmatic if absorbing rapport that, as Hanna's tragic past gradually comes to light, both transforms them and speaks volumes about the consuming violence, born of ethnic and religious hatreds, that has marked recent history.

"The Secret Life of Words," like several of the director's movies, has an international cast (including the American Robbins, the Canadian Polley and the Spaniard Javier Camara) and takes place outside her native country. Unlike Spain's preeminent director, Pedro Almodovar, currently making the rounds with "Volver," Coixet does not capitalize on distinctly Spanish themes and icons.

"I'm Spanish," she says, "but I think cinema is my nationality. It's stupid to be proud to be from a country -- why be proud of something that you have by chance? A good paella -- now that's something to be proud of."

Coixet thrives creatively, in fact, in places unfamiliar to her. "The problem with Spain for me is that it's comfortable," she says, "and I don't like being too comfortable when I'm making films." The multi-lingual director (she is fluent in Spanish, Catalan, English, French and Italian), who writes all her pictures, even prefers to compose scripts in languages other than her native one. Three of her five completed features, including "The Secret Life of Words," are in English.

Empathizing with actors

Linguistic, ethnic, and national barriers seem bound up in Coixet's larger fascination with human isolation. Inhabiting the netherworld of the oil rig, "The Secret Life of Words' " central characters converse in flawed English, affirming their separation from one another. But they connect in other ways. "The cook [Camara] on the platform is always worrying about what he's preparing," says Coixet. "He's there to bring focus to the senses -- to texture and taste." Indeed, Josef and Hanna's relationship, at first stalled in cagey jest and dishonesty, eventually flourishes through sound, smell, touch.

As a filmmaker, Coixet herself consciously seeks to connect with her actors. "I like to create intimacy on the set," she says, explaining why she uses cinematographers but operates the camera herself. "And intimacy's hard to have if I'm sitting at a monitor two miles away. It helps an actor to know the director isn't so distant."

Coixet's efforts to bridge the distances that separate people may be why Polley is her actor of choice. "She has a brutal empathy," says the director. After a long search, Coixet first cast Polley in her 2003 film, "My Life Without Me." She had seen the actor just once, in Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter," and was struck by her versatility and physical presence. "My Life Without Me" earned high praise at the Berlin International Film Festival, and Coixet wrote the part of Hanna in "The Secret Life of Words" for Polley. "Sarah's a unique person," says the director. "As an actor she will never deceive you."

It is just such empathy that Coixet seems most determined to conjure in her work. John Berger, the writer to whom she dedicated "The Secret Life of Words," she says, "told me that we all carry baggage, but that we ultimately carry it alone. I know I'm not the best known director in the world, but I also know that in some strange place, someone will come up to me and say, 'Your film made me feel less alone.' Dylan Thomas talks about composing in shadows and light; I guess that's what interests me -- how a strip of film, wrapped around a spool, run through a projector, can create a powerful emotional experience."

A fitting ambition for a filmmaker who accepts estrangement even as she works to relieve it. The response so far to "The Secret Life of Words" -- the picture won Goyas (her country's equivalent of the Oscars) for best director, best film and best original screenplay -- suggests Coixet may be hitting her mark. "When someone asked [Luis] Bunuel if it was really true that he liked being alone, he answered, 'Sure, I love solitude -- especially when I have a friend to talk about it with.'

"To connect," she says, "that's the ultimate point of film."

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