Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes), which is playing at the Argentine Film Festival, London, looks set to be the crowd-pleasing arthouse breakout hit of 2015. Kicking off with a hilarious pre-credits segment set on an aeroplane (and the less you know about this, the more fun it’ll be), it goes on to present another five stories which have nothing in common – no recurring locations or characters – but which are linked thematically, and by their dark comic tone.
And the theme is payback. In Szifrón’s film it takes several different forms: sometimes it’s directed at intimates, sometimes it’s a hapless citizen striking back against a faceless system, sometimes it’s murderous, sometimes slapstick, or escalating road rage. But each story is a perfectly-formed vignette of dreadful hilarity as someone driven by the frustrations or betrayals of everyday life exacts a revenge so excessive it tips over from the merely violent into black comedy.
For those who know as little about South American cinema as me, the most familiar names in the credits will be those of Pedro Almodóvar and his brother Agustin (both producers) and Ricardo Darin, the wonderful actor who was in Nine Queens and The Secret in Their Eyes. Darin plays an engineer whose life falls to pieces after his car is towed away. Other segments are set in a diner, on a stretch of lonely road (the moral: never insult the driver of the car you’re overtaking à la Duel) and at a wedding reception almost as dramatic (and a lot funnier) than the one in Lucia di Lammermoor.
The penultimate episode, about a cynical attempt to cover up a hit-and-run, is the odd man out since the payback seems more like an afterthought than the motor of the story, but the entire film zips along at such a breezy pace that it never drags. The disconnected episodic structure is more reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s Tales from the Golden Age, or perhaps of Roy Andersson’s films, rather than more traditional portmanteau films, such as Dead of Night or the Amicus horror-comedies, in which separate stories are set within a linking framework.
The filming is slick without being distracting, mercifully unhampered by fashionable directing tics. Everyone will have their favourites; mine were the first, the fourth and the sixth. In other hands, any one of these individual yarns might have been padded out to feature length, to probably diminishing returns, but what a joy to see them treated as anecdotes, playing out to their natural length so that none outstays its welcome. Wild tales! Good times!
Wild Tales is showing at the 3rd Argentine Film Festival, London (27th-30 November 2014).
Wild Tales opens in France in January 2015, and in the U.K. in March 2015.