Dir: Daniel Burman. Argentina-Spain-France-Italy. 2008. 90mins.
A quietly humorous study of the late-life crisis afflicting a no longer young married couple, Empty Nest represents a return to form for Argentinian director Daniel Burman after the humdrum Family Law. Already big in Argentina - where it notched up 150,000 admissions in its first two weeks on release - the film has a cross-border charm that should lead it to at least as much overseas action (particularly among thirty-plus viewers) as the director's last decent outing, Lost Embrace.
Marked by unobtrusive whimsy and wry, sensitive psychological detail, this is an unhurried bittersweet comedy that drags at one or two points. But it has a trump card that Burman's previous features lack: a clever but unshowy 'dream-or-reality'' narrative structure that gradually gets its hooks into the audience as the film progresses.
Finally abandoning his actor alter-ego Daniel Hendler after the loose trilogy of partly autobiographical films that began with Waiting For The Messiah (2000), Burman finds a worthy replacement in veteran Argentinian thespian Oscar Martinez. Martinez plays Leonardo, a famous playwright who dislikes talking about his work, going to the theatre, or having too much to do with other people. He appears to love his cultured and sexy wife Martha (Roth) but the youthful passion has gone, and an increasingly irrascible Leonardo spends his time pretending to write - and pretending to read the novel manuscript sent to him by the Israeli boyfriend of his daughter Julia (Efron, the young revelation of XXY).
He embarks on a flirtation with Violeta (Capizzano), a young dentist who is fitting him with 'invisible' braces, and has a series of ever more unlikely encounters with the hawklike Dr Spivak (Goetz), whose latest field of study is the way that certain people turn their frustrated desires into memories that appear real to them. But these fantasy touches - which include two short and sudden dance sequences, one set in a shopping mall and the other at Tel Aviv airport - are not overdone, and it's perfectly possible to believe that we are moving through the story in real time, witnessing true events. These include Martha's return to university as a mature student (and Leonardo's jealousy of the young men that always seem to hover around her), and a trip to Israel to visit Julia and her paramour - who turns out, frustratingly for Leonardo, to have real literary talent.
There's something of late-period Woody Allen - Melinda And Melinda, say - about Empty Nest's combination of tricksy plot structure, writerly self-consciousness and intelligent romantic comedy with a bitter edge. But Empty Nest is less of a high-concept exercise than this would suggest; on one level it works purely as a study in the problems of beached marriages when the kids that provided some much-needed distraction have flown the nest.
It's one of those films whose appeal grows post-screening. Fluently shot with frequent but not jerky handheld camera shots and engagingly edited, Empty Nest is discreetly stylish.
Bavaria Film International
(49) 89 6499 2686
Jean Pierre Noher