At the New Zealand International Film Festival, revenge takes on many forms.
As the first of six stories that comprise Argentinian comedy Wild Tales came to a close, the audience burst into rapturous applause, just in time for the opening credits. Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales relishes in crimes of passion—revenge served hot. And it’s all the better for it.
Outside of the Incredibly Strange selection, you’re unlikely to have this much fun at any film all year. Wild Tales is not your traditional festival film, despite competing at Cannes for the Palme d’Or. It’s a silly, violent, hilarious, shocking, and campy affair, filled with relatable characters pushed to the brink of madness. That the credits include Pedro Almodovar as a co-producer should give some viewers an idea of what to expect in terms of tone and style, though it’s certainly its own unique beast.
As with most anthology films, the quality of each part is not equal, but the missteps rarely amount to more than minor hiccups. It’s difficult to express how much glee pours out of the screen without spoiling the film. Most of the pleasure experienced comes from the unexpected surprises and outbursts. The highlights include: the opening tale which revolves around strangers on a plane who are connected by a sinister coincidence; an act of road rage that escalates into cartoonish violence; and the worst wedding you’ll ever have the pleasure of sitting through. At best, Szifrón manages to make us sympathise with the characters of his tales; we understand exactly what has driven them to such primal behaviour, rooting for their cathartic release. Even the less memorable parts of the film are filled with hilarious moments, never overstaying their welcome.
Szifrón doesn’t attempt to deeply examine the nature of revenge or violence. Instead he chooses to relish in it, taking sadistic pleasure from the darkly comic scenarios he has drawn up, quenching the audience’s thirst for blood. The icing on the cake how well presented it is. The premise might be something out of a b-grade horror film, but the polished camerawork, professional acting and superb production values make it something special. As the end credits began to roll, Wild Tales was appropriately bookended with another round of applause. Maybe we understand far too well how easy it is to snap.
High school is a tumultuous period in life for many people, filled with adolescent angst and teenage neurosis few of us want to revisit. The high school reunion, then, becomes a daunting setting. Sure, there are those few people we wish to catch up with, the friends and classmates we remember fondly. But let’s not forget those we had uncomfortable or painful relationships with, the bullies or brats we’d rather ignore. For Anna Odell, she will never get to experience the highs or lows of her high school reunion—she was never invited. With The Reunion she exacts her revenge through a scathing hate-letter to all her peers.
In the first part of the film (aptly titled “The Speech”) Odell rewrites history and—playing herself—shows up to her high school reunion, albeit to the displeasure of many of her former classmates. In the middle of their meal, she decides now is the right time to dredge up the past by making a speech that confronts everyone with startling honesty. She proceeds to dismantle her classmates one by one, forcing them to acknowledge the pain and suffering many of them put her through. It’s a bold statement that recalls Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (Festen) with it’s fly-on-the-wall theatricality, filled with awkward silences and uncomfortable revelations. Odell wants to wallow in relentlessly cringe-worthy scene after scene, observing how people operate when a mirror is placed directly in front of them. It’s the ultimate act of retribution that turns the bullied into bully.
The second part (titled “The Meetings”) is a startling change of pace. The simplicity and economy of the first half of the film is replaced by something far more convoluted, and risks sinking the whole film. We are taken out of the high school reunion and enter another imagined scenario: Odell seeks out her classmates and asks them to sit through her film for feedback. She chooses to execute this part of the film using a different set of actors to play her classmates once again, blurring the line between fact and fiction. It all serves as an interesting commentary on the project as a whole, questioning her depiction of her classmates, but it lacks the earlier bite of part one. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more effective it would be with her actual classmates. How much more uncomfortable it could have been.
The Reunion is more than just a self-indulgent act of vengeance, though. Odell bravely turns the camera towards her most personal scars, never compromising her vision in favour of accessibility. I suspect there is a lot more self-criticism and awareness than she will receive any credit for. Push aside accusations of artistic narcissism or filmmaking as therapy, and you’ll find a startling look at the nature of emotional violence that permeates through hierarchal structures, from adolescence to adulthood. In her debut feature, Odell reveals she may not quite have the craft of a great filmmaker yet, but she has the balls.