“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead.”
— W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales (2014) is a collection of six short films about individuals that are pushed to the breaking point. Some vignettes, like the one that opens the film, are short and to the point, whereas others, like the middle three, are deliberately more in-depth. Each tale stands alone, but when combined, they form Szifron’s savage thesis on the human race. It’s the same thesis that philosophers like William Godwin preach, and one that Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) wryly sums up in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), when she says, “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown: there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
The characters in Wild Tales suffer one trauma too many, and each of them take to the streets and start screaming in their own perverse, mischievous, deliciously entertaining way. If the film’s recent inclusion in the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 is any indication, audiences around the world are beginning to fall in love with these darkly comic revenge fantasies from Argentina, and rightfully so. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have named Ida the Best Foreign Language Film of 2014, but Wild Tales is the one that has achieved crossover success.
Although the vignettes are absurdly funny, they are rooted in anger, frustration, and misery. One is about a pilot that punishes everyone in his life who wrongs him, and another focuses on a newlywed who is betrayed by her husband. The film excites us because the characters are mistreated and decide not to take it anymore. In real life, we cannot be as impulsive, and too often we swallow our pride and put up with nonsense in order to avoid confrontation and chaos. Wild Tales presents a world in which characters risk confrontation and chaos to rise up against injustice, and it’s exhilarating to watch unfold.
Wild Tales is proof that the most compelling artists channel their rage into their work. Szifron is clearly fed up with a contemporary world in which individuals act like assholes on a daily basis and get away with it, and governments carelessly treat their citizens like interchangeable objects. Szifron’s message is strong: if it’s not your husband that’s cheating you, it’s your government; if you’re not battling with your fellow man, you’re battling with the system. Either way, we’re all screwed, unless we stand up for ourselves and shout “enough is enough!” from the rooftop. With this angry sentiment, Wild Tales pays homage to Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) stirring “I’m as mad as hell!” speech from Network (1976). Indeed, not much has changed since the cynical ‘70s, as many people still feel powerless in their societies.
However, Szifron doesn’t settle for despair. These are revenge tales, after all, and Szifron gives his characters their victories. Some end up in prison and others end up dead, but that hardly matters. All of the characters make autonomous choices that liberate them, and the pleasure of the film comes from witnessing what each character does to reach his or her liberated state. Dissatisfaction leads to anarchy and barbarism, which free the characters from society’s constraining clutch. These themes couldn’t be timelier, and yet despite the film’s relevance to right now, Wild Tales is as timeless as cinema can get.
The film is funny in the way that Luis Buñuel’s surreal romps are funny, and it’s satisfying in the way that Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasies are satisfying. It’s not for everyone, and there are undoubtedly going to be viewers that are turned off by Szifron’s transgressive message. In this social media age where people appear to be professionally outraged over anything that deviates from the norm, I can only imagine the reaction to Szifron’s gleeful celebration of his characters’ subversive actions. The film, for lack of a less condescending term, is not for squares.
The rest of us can marvel at Szifron’s gloriously mad adrenaline shot of a movie. Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar are credited as the film’s producers, and it makes sense. Wild Tales is as beautiful as their best melodramas, with cinematographer Javier Julia’s colorful palate and Szifron’s strong command of cinematic language. Szifron co-edited the film with Pablo Barbieri Carrera, and he miraculously maintains the film’s pace throughout. There’s never a dull moment, and one vignette involving a car chase, in particular, is tenser than any bloated Hollywood blockbuster in recent memory.
One of Almodóvar’s most celebrated films is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), an absurdist comedy about a group of women not unlike the pissed off characters in Wild Tales. Almodóvar, more than any other male filmmaker, creates fully fleshed-out female characters, and a few of Szifron’s vignettes similarly feature captivating women in prominent roles. It’s refreshing when a male director honors great actresses, and Szifron deserves credit for giving dynamite actresses like Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, and Érica Rivas the opportunity to delve deeply into complex characters.
The two bonus features on the DVD are weak, but Wild Tales does have significant replay value. It’s that rare entertaining film that engages the viewer with interesting ideas. Viewers will enjoy the film on a minute-to-minute basis, and then they’ll want to have a conversation about it when it’s over. Szifron single-handedly shows Hollywood studios that entertaining films don’t have to be so stupid, and he shows art-house auteurs that smart films don’t have to be so solemn.