In black comedies, civilization is always the joke. They take a world that’s mostly similar to ours, distort it in a slight way, then giggle as the veneer of society gives way to abrupt, violent chaos. This worldview is not depressing, at least not to me, because it’s refreshing like a cold shower. Wild Tales, Argentina’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, pushes black comedy to the limits of good taste. Director and screenwriter Damián Szifrón has sympathy for his subjects, yet that does not stop him from exploring humanity at its ugliest.
The most important thing to know about Wild Tales is its structure. Instead of one feature-length narrative, the film is an anthology of six short vignettes. Aside from some thematic overlap, there is no connection between them. Instead of summarizing them all, I’ll just focus on one of them so you get an idea of the overarching tone. A man drives his Audi through Patagonia, and the car ahead of him will not let him pass. He finally gets through, calling the second driver a “motherfucking hick,” and this exchange ends to a slow-moving chase sequence. The payoff of the chase includes an explosion, unhinged brutality, and even on-screen defecation (yes, really). The vignettes vary in terms of ambition and the number of characters, so what unites them is cynicism about justice, both in the legal and karmic sense.
It goes without saying that some short films in Wild Tales work better than others. Szifrón does not have time to develop his characters with much depth, so the film it at its best when stories unfolds with inexorable logic. The first short is a perfect example of this, as it shifts from gentle comedy into horror within minutes, yet never feels forced. The camera always shoots with elegant economy, with crisp cinematography and wicked editing choices, yet the first story has the beats of a joke a relative might tell over family dinner.
Still, the most resonant films involve characters who nearly lose their minds when they’re put in extraordinary situations. Argentine film star Ricardo Darín stars as an engineer whose life upends after he receives a wholly unfair parking ticket. He rages against an indifferent bureaucracy, nearly becoming a folk hero, and it works because Darín has the same intelligent everyman quality that made Dustin Hoffman a star. The final story, which is also the longest, is about a bride whose wedding reception starts with ebullient joy and ends with Romanesque hedonism (with some casual assault throw in, naturally). Parts of Wild Tales are disturbing, not in terms of gore but in terms of how ordinary people compromise their values, so if it has any weakness, it’s that the blood gets in the way of a deeper message.
In addition to receiving a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, Wild Tales was a massive hit in Argentina, and it’s easy to see why. Recent news involving a Presidential coverup and a prosecutor’s death is extraordinary, at least to a foreigner, yet the film is skeptical of the country’s institutions and justice system. We see corruption from both ends of the spectrum: there is one character who becomes a vigilante precisely because she cannot trust her government, while a group of more affluent characters use economic corruption as a means to abuse the poor and influence the media. There is a universal quality to everything in Wild Tales, yet I suspect that Argentine audiences laugh with an added note of grim acknowledgment.
Between the popularity of films like Force Majeure and the British TV sci-fi series Black Mirror, filmmakers prefer cinematic elegance to show just how fucked we have become. Wild Tales continues that trend, without the temporal difference science fiction or the avalanche that jumpstarts Force Majeure, and so it cuts deeper. When these characters do terrible things, they have no one to blame but themselves: if anything, the social contract just gets in the way of our brutal, more honest selves. Wild Tales ends on a upbeat note of sorts, with two character consummating their love in a way that’s both touching and vulgar. This disturbing, bittersweet scene is the only silver lining Szifrón can find, it seems, which is precisely why a film like this will (probably) be a harbinger of the inevitable.