In the last decade or so, Mexican film has been among the most consistently interesting in the world. It has a certain moral and social grittiness not seen in most American movies, but a tightly-edited watchability missing in European films. Some big-name, Hollywood-endorsed movies spring to mind – Amores Perros, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá También – but there are also some worthy, less-heralded candidates. One of these is 2009’s Daniel y Ana.
Directed by Michel Franco and starring Gael García Bernal’s younger brother, Dario Yazbek Bernal, the film garnered critical attention at Cannes and other film festivals, but is still without its own wiki, and its IMDB page is incomplete and littered with negative reviews. I don’t want to psychoanalyze audience reaction too much, but part of this reception could be because the movie straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between shocking and subtle. It will turn off the easily offended, but with its nearly geologically paced shifts in character, it will also alienate thrill seekers. It is genuinely disturbing – a very different effect than simply being shocking.
Most synopses of the film have shied away from the trauma at its heart, perhaps reluctant to ruin the suddenness with which the trauma occurs. I, for one, had guessed at it simply by looking at the movie’s cover, but the movie remained vital and unruined for me. In fact, this knowledge, coupled with the slowness of the movie’s first act, created a nice simmering dread which I found just as effective as the hammer-to-the-head suddenness of real trauma.
Therefore: spoiler alert for that which there is no way, really, to spoil.
Daniel and Ana are brother and sister, young privileged Mexicans at pivotal points in their lives. Ana is on the verge of getting married. Daniel is a typical teenager, taciturn and self-involved, on the verge of losing his virginity to his girlfriend and resentful of not having been given a new car yet. One day the siblings go shopping and Daniel fails to make the appropriate turn on the way home. Two men jump into their car and hold a gun to Daniel’s head. They blindfold Daniel and Ana, throw them in the trunk, and take them to a big, starkly furnished house. And yes, if you haven’t guessed, they force them to have sex. On camera. Brother and sister.
The true horror of this scene is not just in its unflinchingness, but in the way it indicts the viewer. Daniel and Ana are beautiful, slim, and pale, like Greek statues. You cannot look away as Daniel fucks her from behind. Her face is buried in the mattress, and though we know she is weeping, it might be mistaken for orgasmic bliss. Daniel comes quickly and shamefully, as any teenager having sex for the first time might.
What follows is a study in post-traumatic stress. Both victims retreat from the world in their separate ways. Ana breaks things off with her fiance and retreats into her room. Daniel stops going to school, spends time in movie theaters watching any old film. He also breaks things off with his girlfriend. Quite understandably, both do not talk to their parents about what happened.
In the end Ana proves to be the stronger about it, more equipped to deal with it because of her relative adulthood perhaps. She sees a therapist, weeps, and delicately broaches the subject with Daniel. Daniel meanwhile lies about going to the therapist and continues his self-destructive behavior. He googles their video, but gets no matches. There is another big twist at the heart of the film and perhaps you can figure it out. It didn’t surprise me, but I still don’t want to give everything away. Suffice to say it had the quality of being both unexpected and entirely appropriate that all the best storytelling should have.
As It Ought to Be cofounder, Okla Elliott, compares Franco’s subject matter to Neil Labute – that great American playwright, director, and darkly comic moralist responsible for Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men – and that’s as useful a touchstone as any. But he admits that the comparison is of limited use, and indeed, Labute has a venomous edge that Franco does not. Labute seems to see everyone as disgusting – either weak and sniveling or sociopathic – while Franco’s aim is to show us how fundamentally good people react to horrible events. Though Daniel, and to a lesser extent Ana, behave badly throughout the movie, we understand why. There is no comic distortion or exaggeration. This goes back to the difference I outlined earlier between shocking and disturbing: the shocking cries “Look at me!” while the disturbing goes about its quietly gruesome business, twisting the psychological knife deeper and deeper. It doesn’t need to beg for attention because it’s impossible for us to look away.
Further, Labute is a playwright and his characters vocalize their trauma in a way that seems psychologically untrue to me. One reason I think this movie was, relatively speaking, not well received by audiences is that there is so much silence at its heart – that the shifts in attitude of its two main characters are so gradual and happen over scenes that only seem repetitive. In pace, Daniel y Ana resembles a Euro-film (or the American idea of one), and yet there is no fashionable ennui here, or Bergman-like scenes of Freudian camerawork, just two characters coming to grips with their shattered relationship with each other, their family and lovers, and the world.
There is a beautiful and telling image some two-thirds of the way into the movie: Daniel is deep in his daily wanderings on a crowded street; the light changes and all the pedestrians move forward in a wave, crossing to the other side of the street, but Daniel just stands there. This strikes me as the perfect symbol for the way trauma affects us: it leaves us frozen on a street corner while the rest of the world moves—steadily, ignorantly, heartlessly—forward.
Thanks for the shout-out. I agree, obviously, with your assessment of the Labute comparison. Franco strikes me as more human(e) than Labute, showing real dimensions of human horrors as opposed to concocting them.
I can’t wait to see what other films he makes, since this was his debut.
Labute strikes me as gratuitous and fundamentally unrealistic at times. There’s a flatness to his characters that I don’t like: the sadists are too openly and uniformly sadistic and the wimps too pathetic. Occasionally he’ll show that the sadists are often embittered wimps and the wimps are sadists without the courage of their convictions, but this is as deep as he takes it. One thing Daniel does in this film is fundamentally unforgivable and yet I find that I forgive him because I get to see the source of his evil (to use a loaded word). It’s not actually evil; it’s an act of desperation, really. Labute’s evil seems to exist a priori: a fundamental difference in worldview, I think, and one no doubt rooted in Labute’s Mormonism.