A film for people who don’t like romantic comedies, about a man who doesn’t like romantic comedies. But of course: it’s a romantic comedy. Picture an Argentinian Charlie Kaufman and you’re not far off the mark.
Hernán Guerschuny’s El Crítico is a clever film that would repay a second watching. It concerns curmudgeonly film critic Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), who spends his evenings in darkened basements previewing dreary films. It should thus tickle the fancy of film reviewers everywhere (such as those who bring you Flickfeast) who spend their evenings doing the same thing. It certainly tickled mine.
Victor is published in the national daily. On the posters of those rare films he favours, his capsule is emblazoned across the city. But we suspect he trades on a reputation long since withered: over decades a dark bitterness has overgrown his soul. He hasn’t awarded five “chairs” in years. These days his reviews are morose and negative, and he is especially contemptuous of lightweight romantic comedy.
Suddenly, this is causing him trouble. Arce (Ignacio Rogers), an aspiring director of such fare who has just suffered at Victor’s hands confronts his complacency in a cafe in front of his fellow reviewers. As he is manhandled away, Arce throws down a challenge of sorts: as a critic he isn’t, as received wisdom usually has it, a failed director. He’s a failed critic.
Victor’s employer seems to agree: so badly have Victor’s excoriations the paper’s advertisers that its editor threatens to doctor his reviews to make them more positive.
Of course, Victor is divorced, he drinks red wine alone in a shambolic, darkened flat (this is among a number of allusions to the vampiric lifestyle of the critic), and rejects a world which refuses to accept that it, rather than he, has the problem. Victor grumbles literately to his critic buddies, sometimes in French, sometimes in Spanish, about la maladie du cinema.
All the same, following Arce’s challenge, he decides to try to write a screenplay himself. While searching for a better apartment in which to write it, encounters a pretty young Spanish lady Sofía (Dolores Fonzi) who gazumps him.
In more ways than one.
Sofía is – you’ll never believe it – a free spirit: she rides her bike with a bright pink helmet, she has gay friends, can party on the spot, she’s a kleptomaniac; she lies pathologically about her background, disrobes wantonly and, of course, she isn’t nearly as straightforward as she’d have you believe. And Victor can’t stand her. Yet circumstances contrive repeatedly to throw the two together.
To the disgusted commentary of his own interior monologue Victor watches himself rolling through the motions of the most formulaic romantic comedy: they segue from antagonism to affection to besotted love, walk giddily around an old market, and finally kiss (how Victor abhors The Kiss!) as a gibbous moon reflects across the harbour.
This sequence is very wittily done. Spregelburd’s hatchet face is constantly a picture. Yet it’s not a throwaway laugh: its the dramatic crux of the picture. What on earth is going on? Who is pulling these strings? Is this Victor’s screenplay? Is it Sofía’s fantasy? Victor’s nightmare? Arce’s revenge? Someone is having a laugh here: it is Hernán Guerschuny’s considerable achievement that you’re never quite sure who.
Guerschuny is a playful connoisseur of cinema, and there are clever shots, hat-tips, homages and tropes casually scattered about his screenplay. The plotting is careful and inventive: Guerschuny sprays around miscues like Stallone with an Uzi (though First Blood is one of the few films not referenced, come to think of it) so El Crítico functions well from a number of perspectives: Arce’s, harbouring resentment at his treatment at Victor’s hands, and Victor’s adolescent niece (Telma Crisanti) who, by way of counterpoint is naively experiencing the travails of young love for the first time.
The ending, involving (of course) an airport departure lounge and a tight shot pulling out wide, is delightful, ambiguous and well filmed.
El Crítico is a subtle pleasure. Being foreign language(s!) it is unlikely to get a wide release in the UK, but it is well worth seeking out in the independent theatres.
The Critic played at the Raindance Film Festival Sunday 6 October 4:30pm
Director: Hernán Guerschuny
Stars: Rafael Spregelburd, Ignacio Rogers,Dolores Fonzi, Telma Crisanti
Running Time: 98 min