Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Puzzle

Director: Davide Melini
Writer: Davide Melini
Producers: Ezekiel Montes, Davide Melini
Cast: Cachito Noguera, Alessandro Fornari
Country: Spain
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener

I don’t get sent many Spanish films so it makes a refreshing change to review something like The Puzzle, Davide Melini’s little five-minute drama. It’s a slick, stylish, impressive-looking bit of film-making and it makes a great showreel piece... but unfortunately Melini (who is actually Italian) has somehow forgotten to include a story.

Here is the entirety of what happens: a woman answers the phone and tells somebody that “it’s over” because he spends too much of her money. Then she does a jigsaw puzzle. She fixes herself something in the kitchen when suddenly all the lights go out. She hears someone outside the door. She sees that the jigsaw puzzle is now - somehow - a picture of herself, sitting at the table doing the jigsaw puzzle. Then it becomes the same picture with an arm through the window behind her, holding a gun. Now that becomes reality. Bang. The end.

I’m not being sarcastic or mean when I express surprise that there was a script (as seen in an accompanying Making Of) because there is only that one line of dialogue and the rest of the plot is as above. How could that stretch to more than one page? Tristan VersluisI Love You didn’t actually have a script and that had two lines of dialogue!

According to the back of the DVD sleeve (something I always avoid reading because a film should be self-contained), the man is her son but there is nothing to suggest that. We see a framed photo of the two together and he is clearly younger than her but both of those pieces of evidence would suggest a lover, not a son, as would the one line. Who would say “It’s over” to their son? What would that even mean? Murders are more commonly committed by jilted lovers than children.

In fact, here is the full sleeve blurb:

"A woman refuses to give money to her son, despite his continuous pressure. One night she decides to relax and forget her troubles with her favourite pastime: making puzzles. However, this simple table game hides strange features that can turn her peaceful night into a nightmare."

If you read this paragraph first, you can place this interpretation on the film I suppose, but without reading the DVD sleeve (which is how a film-maker must always assume an audience will approach a film), most of what is described above simply isn’t there.

As mentioned, there is no indication that he is her son. If a relationship between two characters is important it must be unambiguously indicated. Nor is there evidence of ‘continuous pressure’. We don’t know that jigsaw puzzles are her favourite pastime nor is there any indication that she is doing this one to “relax and forget her troubles”. The final sentence is an obtuse promise of puzzle-related spookiness which, though it does appear, has neither context nor rationale within the brief story.

It is not enough to put something onto the pages of a script and the sleeve of a DVD (or on a website or in a publicity brochure or wherever). If it ain’t on screen, it ain’t it in the scene and it ain’t been seen. (Actually, that’s quite a good motto. I might work on that.)

But to return to the promised puzzle-related spookiness - it simply doesn’t make sense. By which I don’t mean that it is surreal or abstract, I mean that there is no coherence about what happens. No indication that the puzzle is anything to do with the lights going off. No indication of what relevance the puzzle has to anything, in fact. Is it a metaphor? I assume it’s a metaphor but ... for what? What does it signify? What does it mean? What should we understand? Because, frankly, we don’t understand anything.

It is also worth pointing out that, although there is virtually no plot on show here, what little action there is involves a woman who is worried about someone outside her house backing away to stand next to an open window with billowing net curtains. Either she is afraid of a possible intruder or not. Make your mind up.

What we do have on show here, ironically, is directorial flourishes. Lots of them. Too many of them. Apart from that first answering-the-phone scene, everything else is treated in some way. Shots are sped up, shots are slowed down, shots are given ghost images or are done without colour or treated in some other way that might work in a music video but here just seems like - sorry, but it’s true - showing off.

Fancy post-production work on a scene of a woman doing a jigsaw doesn’t add one single thing to our understanding of what we’re watching: which is a woman doing a jigsaw, nothing more, nothing less. If she was clutching her forehead and frequently dropping jigsaw pieces on the floor, we might take the video effects to indicate that she was tired or mad or drunk or something similar. But we have no context whatsoever for this scene. In fact, no context for anything that happens in the four brief minutes of action inbetween the opening and closing credits. So all this fast/slow/monochrome malarkey might as well not be there. It seems to have been done because it can be, not because it needs to be.

The final scene with the changing jigsaw is a neat and original idea (we don’t get a good shot of what it looks like beforehand) but the idea is not used in any way. Has the jigsaw genuinely changed in some supernatural way? Is it a hallucination brought on by, well, tiredness, madness or booze? Is it another metaphor? Or the same metaphor?

Often with films that don’t have an obvious narrative, the viewer might wonder: what is going on? But with The Puzzle, the viewer is left wondering: is anything going on? As the end credits roll, with the killer leaving the gun on the table beside the dead woman’s body, the viewer sits, nonplussed, wondering what they have just seen. The only logical response is to marvel not at the film itself but at the gaping disparity between presentation and content.

Because presentation-wise, this is certainly very impressive. Clearly David Melini knows how to use the various video tricks on display, he just isn’t sure when or why to use them. They don’t detract from the paucity of plot here, they emphasise it. And that’s not good. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not expecting a complex beginning-middle-end in four minutes but something has to happen and it has to happen for a reason. There is no reason for anything here, or rather whatever reason exists is not shown to the audience, it is submerged underneath a lot of gratuitous flashy effects.

The greater package on the screener DVD is also impressive, perhaps overly so. There is a one-minute trailer which seems extraordinarily superfluous. Why does anyone need a trailer for a five-minute film? I have seen entire trailers that ran to more than five minutes. There is also a seven-minute unsubtitled Making Of (called The Puzzle: El Making-Of!). Most impressively, the film is available on this screener in four different languages: Spanish, English, French and Italian. Eschewing subtitles or dubbing, this has been achieved by simply having the actress record her one-line telephone scene four times (plus translating the credits).

This is Melini’s third short, following Amore Estremo/Extreme Love and La Sceneggiatura/The Screenplay. Cachito Noguera plays the woman and Alessandro Fornari (who was also in Extreme Love) is the killer. Ezekiel Montes, whose own short films as director include Ritual, Natasha and Granit, produced (with Melini) and was also cinematographer.

I really, really wish that I could like The Puzzle better but there is just nothing here. It’s not so much a puzzle, more an empty puzzle box, albeit one with beautifully designed, overly complex packaging.

MJS rating: B-

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