Review: Argentine dark comedy ‘Relatos Salvajes’ is dazzling and wicked

CANNES — As I was standing in line last night outside the Salle Debussy, it was obvious that things were out of the control of the people running the festival. For those unfamiliar with the way badge hierarchy works at these events, Cannes has a carefully segregated caste system. If you have a white badge or a pink badge, the world is your oyster. You are able to walk in first, and you are given your choice of location. If you have a blue badge, you have to wait until white and pink have all been seated. And then beyond that, there are at least two more colors that have to wait even longer, and there's a good chance many of those people don't even make it inside.

I'm rocking a blue badge this year, somewhere in the middle of the pecking order, which means I need to spend some extra time in line if I want to try to guarantee myself a seat. The line for “Relatos Salvajes” was unusually long by the time I arrived, though, and it took me a moment to find the end of it amidst the crowd that's always gathered in front of the Palais. There was no clearly marked space, though, and people with every color badge started to pile in from the sides, creating more of a mob than a line, and as they started letting in, things got volatile very quickly. I saw people forcing their way in ahead of people who had been waiting, and within moments, I started to worry that I genuinely wouldn't get a seat.

If I were not in a particularly good mood this trip, there is a good chance I would have blown up. I'm not known for my calm and reasoned reactions to what I see as the rules breaking down, and having a hair trigger temper has caused me myriad problems over the years. As I watched some of the more egregious behavior from line-breakers and fed-up journalists yelling at each other, it actually helped me calm down. There is nothing like seeing someone else lose their mind to remind you of just how off-putting and ugly it can be, and besides, everything worked out. I got in. I found a perfectly acceptable seat in the upper balcony. And as soon as the film began and I realized what the film was about, I started laughing at what a perfect set-up for the movie the entire incident had been.

Written and directed by the fiendishly funny Damian Szifron, “Relatos Salvajes” (roughly translated as “Wild Tales”) is an anthology film about the way all of us have the potential to go savage if the right button is pushed. This is dark comedy served all the way dark, and I was hooked from the moment the first segment ended. I've got to commend Szifron for just how big a punchline he packs into that first sequence, because you realize at that point that anything can happen in these stories, and he's not afraid to follow a story to an apocalyptic ending.

There's no framework connecting the various stories, and there are no titles to separate them. Still, it's a very elegantly structured film, and it's very clear when each piece reaches its conclusion and then moves to the next. At 122 minutes, it feels like he packed a whole lot of incident into each new sequence, but none of them feel rushed or feel like he had to cheat to fit them. Szifron doesn't seem interested in whether the various reactions we see are right or wrong, but instead just digs in to see what it is that makes us lose control, and how easy it is for any of us to be pushed to that point under the right circumstances.

The first segment is all set aboard a commercial airliner, where a music critic (Dario Grandinetti) discovers he has an unexpected connection to a model (Maria Marull) seated across from him, and the way Szifron stages not only the gradual reveal of what's happening but the unforgettable visual punchline to the sequence is genuinely impressive. The second sequence is about a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) and cook (Rita Cortese) at a dingy little truck stop diner who are pushed into an ethical debate when a figure from one of their pasts comes walking in. Anyone who is a fan of Steven Spielberg's “Duel” should enjoy Szifron's spin on that basic idea, and watching a businessman (Leonardo Sbaraglia) lose his mind and end up in the most deranged possible road rage encounter is both a cautionary tale and hilarious and horrible wish fulfillment. Ricardo Darin, who is legally required to appear in any film made in Argentina, plays an engineer who specializes in demolition who finds himself bristling as what he sees as the constant cruelty of the system. When his car is repeatedly towed by the same company and no one will listen to his protests that they are doing so for no reason, he finds himself pushed way past the breaking point. Perhaps the most morally difficult segment in the film, and also maybe the most provocative, deals with what happens when a wealthy man (Oscar Martinez) wakes up one morning to discover that his waste of a son has been involved in a hit and run accident in which he killed a pregnant woman. The way the man looks to solve the problem is ugly, and as clear a comment on the difference between the haves and the have-nots as anyone is going to make in a movie this year.

It's the final segment, though, where I feel like the film really brings it all together. There have been some amazing weddings in movies over the years, important to the films in which they appeared, and yet I'd wager that there has never been a more passionate, outrageous, and almost primally honest wedding than the one we see here. When Remi (Erica Rivas) realizes during her reception that her brand-new husband has not only been cheating on her with a co-worker, but that he has also invited the woman to the wedding, it sets off an escalation of terrible behavior on all sides that left me sore from laughing. It is terrible, terrible, terrible stuff, and I loved every second of it. It feels like it's the longest of the segments, although that may not be true. I think it feels that way because it's such a complete piece of filmmaking, even within an accomplished overall package like this.

I was seated next to a guy during the screening who had a big full-body laugh, not unlike my own, and at one point during the wedding sequence, he got hit by a particularly strong case of the giggles. And as he tried to get it under control, it only got worse, his laughter turning into a feedback loop that kept getting bigger and bigger. He started gasping for breath, trying to get himself to stop, and eventually started squeaking out a desperate little “Lo siento!” between each gasp. When the film ended, it felt like he was grateful more than anything else. Ten more minutes, and we would have probably had to call in a doctor to help this poor guy.

Beyond being very smart and funny, it's also a great looking movie. Javier Julia's scope photography is rich and interesting, and it's not shot the way Hollywood shoots comedy. I hate the idea that something has to be bright and flat to be funny, but nine times out of ten, when you look at how mainstream comedies are shot, they all have this generic look as if the visuals are unimportant, not connected in any way to how effective the comedy is. The same thing is true of the score by Gustavo Santaolalla. He scores it for the full breadth of the experience, and not just to underline the laughs.

I am thrilled to hear that Sony Pictures Classics has picked the film up for the US already, although a little sad that Warner Bros, who is handling it in a number of other major international markets, didn't see any upside to handling this one domestically. I think this is a commercial film, a crowd-pleaser, and just because it's in a foreign language, I don't buy that they couldn't find the right way to release it. Still, any release this gets in the States is a good thing, and I'm ready to go check out more of Damian Szifron's work. It also feels appropriate to me that Cannes is celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Pulp Fiction” winning the Palm D'Or this year, since this movie has some of that same anarchic spirit of comic invention, with that feeling as you watch that anything can happen, and a constant sense that the madman behind the camera is cackling as he tells the story.

So far, “Relatos Salvajes” is easily the film of the festival for me, and I can't wait to see it again.