The news that Spanish director Rodrigo Sorogoyen was going to expand his Oscar-nominated 2017 short film to feature length was met with both excitement and dread. The premise of the short was high-concept to the point of gimmickry, and yet Sorogoyen pulled it off impressively, thanks mainly to his lead actress, Marta Nieto, playing a woman in Madrid who receives a phone call from her six-year-old son, Ivan, who is visiting his father in France. Ivan is on a beach he doesn’t know, alone, and as his mother, Elena, attempts to get him oriented and in touch with either his father or a person of authority, she slowly starts to lose her grip. Over a period of 15 minutes the situation escalates into something truly terrifying.
Though some would say Sorogoyen was being manipulative, his idea of expansion is completely the opposite. In fact, anyone expecting the usual searching-for-the-missing child thriller will be deeply disappointed. Following the opening sequence, which is exactly the same short film that was nominated for the Academy Award, Sorogoyen moves the narrative forward ten years, with Elena now working at a beach in France, presumably the one from which Ivan called her and, as we soon discern, disappeared from completely. Though we assume Elena is there to look for him, nothing she does indicates as much. She works as a manager of a seaside restaurant and goes about her chores as if everything were normal, because, after ten years, everything is as normal as it’s going to get. She goes home at night to her boyfriend, Joseba (Alex Brandemuhl), who we figure out almost immediately is not Ivan’s father, and they have dinner. The only thing that seems slightly off is that Elena doesn’t have much energy.
And then she sees a teenage boy on the beach one day, a refugee from Paris, there with his family on vacation. Elena’s intent gaze implies she thinks he at least looks like what Ivan would look like now, and she starts to stalk him. Eventually, they meet by accident, and enter into conversation that leads to a budding friendship. By this point, the viewer is becoming increasingly uncomfortable, not because we necessarily believe the boy, Jean (Jules Porier), really is Ivan, but because the relationship feels fraught with emotional if not downright physical danger. Inevitably, Elena meets the parents (Anne Consigny, Frederic Pierrot), who see nothing wrong with a fortyish woman hanging out with their 16-year-old son, but those feelings are bound to change as well.
The sexual frisson is unmistakable, at least from Jean’s point of view. Elena’s is more difficult to gauge, but in a sense Jean as an individual who’s completely separate from Ivan starts to provoke Elena’s sympathies, and while I wouldn’t want to call it something as trite as “maternal instinct,” she empathizes with Jean’s normal adolescent anxieties in ways that are particularly charged given her background. There seems to be something actually healthy in her regard for Jean’s well-being, even if you dread what will come of it. It’s a test of Sorogoyen’s mettle as a storyteller that he can take such perfect grist for a conventional thriller and turn it into a stomach-churner of a completely different sort.
In French and Spanish. Opens Oct. 23 in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707), Yebish Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).
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photo (c) Manolo Pavon