London Film Festival 2015: ‘Truman’

Cesc Gay’s agreeable buddy movie is like a friend you’re happy to have spent time with -- despite occasional irritations.

Truman, the latest film from the Catalan director Cesc Gay, follows Tomás (Javier Cámara), a 40-something Spaniard living in Canada as he returns to Madrid to spend some time with his best friend Julián (Ricardo Darín), a divorced Argentinian actor who’s dying of lung cancer. Despite quite a number of years of separation, the two men quickly re-establish their old rapport, and the movie is fairly low-key and relaxed in presenting the pair’s activities and interactions over a period of a few days.

Though still working (he’s currently acting on stage in a Molière play), Julián is now making some tentative steps towards settling his affairs in a dignified manner in preparation for his death. The two men take a trip to Amsterdam to visit Julián’s son Nico (Oriol Pla), who believes his father to be over his illness, and also begin to make some funeral plans. One especially pressing task is finding a new home for the title character: a large mutt who’s been Julián’s constant companion.

Consistently amusing, sometimes affecting, and just a little bit smarmy, Gay’s bright buddy movie is likeable overall. Gay can’t be said to be at his subtlest in this film – the opening scene is set in Canada so, inevitably, there’s snow on the ground – and he’s not above shamelessness either, including numerous cuts to the dog for cutesy reaction shots.

Still, Truman sustains a genial, friendly tone, and the deft underplaying of its performers saves some of the weaker moments. Cámara and Darín (who shared the “Concha de Plata” Best Actor prize at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival) perform beautifully, the former ever-watchful as he assesses his friend’s attitudes and moods, the latter chatty and lively yet clearly suggesting that Julián is a man winding down.

By far the oddest aspect of the movie (though unmentioned in any of the English-language reviews I’ve seen up to now) is its attitude towards the homoerotic underpinnings of the protagonists’ relationship. Anxious to reaffirm the men’s heterosexuality at every stage, Truman also includes some pretty obvious indications that there’s something more going on. “I can see you’ve got an erection,” jokes Tomás, when the gleeful Julián greets him on arrival, and there’s much kissing and hugging throughout, and even a spot of bedroom hand-holding at one point.

The film also introduces a female relative of Julián’s – a cousin named Paula (Dolores Fonzi) — for Tomás to fall for and finally sleep with, in an inappropriately explicit late sex scene that seems to activate the character’s grieving process but that looks like nothing so much as the culmination of his barely-suppressed desire for Julián.

It’s hard to say whether Gay (whose early film Nico and Dani (Krámpack) [2000] dealt with gay desire in the context of a teenage male friendship) should have made these elements more or less overt, but this aspect of the film does feel weirdly inconclusive, suggested in terms more explicit than the average screen bromance yet ultimately evaded in a way that’s oddly coy.

Truman is an uneven movie, then, with truth and falsity running side by side. Still, it remains quite agreeable, like a friend who can get on your nerves a bit, but whom you’re happy to have spent time with in the end.

RATING 6 / 10