Sep 2, 2009

On Unmade Beds

Expanding on the clear promise of his debut feature Glue (2006), Argentine Alexis Dos Santos cements his place as a young auteur to watch with Unmade Beds, a startlingly energetic film whose HD visual elegance and studied grammatical anarchy breaths new life into its old hat tale of youthful ennui amongst London hipsters.

Working in an autobiographical vein is something few narrative filmmakers own up to and even fewer are able to do successfully. Dos Santos, who spent much time in London during his formative years as a filmmaker, gives us a pair of protagonists who's dislocation and joie de vivre bare the filmmakers social preoccupations. That one of them is a scruffy headed young man of Spanish origins who's shrewder than he looks should come as no surprise. He seeks a father he’s never truly known while squatting in a giant Artist space in some posh part of London where all the attractive youngsters live in, well, to quote David Denby, "moderately hip poverty" (not that Denby had any idea what that actually looks like, but I digress).

With style to burn and never a drop of sentimentality, Dos Santos interweaves the story of this young man with an equally adrift young woman, both of whom are undergoing the trials of being young and confused in a big, foreign city. Although they don’t meet until the final reel, both dressed in animal costumes after a music video shoot turns into a loft party, the Spaniard Axel and the Frenchwoman Vera share a loft with probably a half dozen others. She works at a bookstore, but spends the days in distraction and reverie, thinking about a broken love left in Paris and the fleeting nature of mutual interconnection. He plays at looking for an apartment under an assumed name, if only to spy on the realtor, who he’s deduced is the father who left him twenty years before.

A narrative thread that in lesser hands may have been played for melodrama is given a little weight but a large dose of comedic playfulness. It keeps the forward progress of the narrative tethered to some tension and some desire to find out, in the David Mamet sense of the phrase, “what happens next”, but still allows the film heady leaps into lateral stylistics. Dos Santos ultimately pays off the thread with panache, honestly displaying the way a young man bathed in a world of zero authenticity would actually respond to the dismaying revelation that his father is an average man in an average time who never thought to say goodbye not out of malice, but out of simple respect for the perceived meaninglessness of his condition he dare not broach.

Memory, especially its ephemeral, fleeting quality, is a strong factor in Dos Santos' vision. Axel ends every night drunk, often finding himself into the bed of a woman (or man, or both), the circumstances under which these events occurred escaping him the next morning. Vera can’t seems to escape her own, so much so that she threatens the prospect of a new relationship with a Londoner whose name she can never seem to remember. If this is all seeming a bit Gondry, it is.

Yet the film’s delicate formal touches, which include still sequences as flashbacks, the use of disruptive sound flourishes and saturated Super 8mm as an indicator of intensified experience, first person narration, in Spanish or French depending on the thinker, who may slip into omniscient at the storyteller’s playful discretion, recalls not just the French New Wave, but more recent work by filmmakers as varied as Lynn Ramsay and Arnaud Desplechin, Andrea Arnold and Oliver Assayas. Even Claire Denis might deserve a shout out. Yet what makes Dos Santos' work truly sing is just how much he makes these techniques his own. The milieu and concerns he shows us, which can seem so stale in lesser hands, seems fresh and alive in his.