A dysfunctional family gathers for an explosive weekend on the Costa Brava in this dark Catalan comedy

A House On Fire

Source: Film Factory Entertainment

‘A House On Fire’

Dir: Dani de la Orden. Spain/Italy. 2024. 105mins

A dysfunctional family gathers to watch itself fall apart in an idyllic Costa Brava setting in Dani de la Orden’s dark comedy A House on Fire. Smartly plotted and well played, but also schematically scripted and psychologically blunt, House entertainingly but uncomfortably straddles two different films – one a slick, energetic farce redolent of the prolific director’s output to date, and the other an edgy troubling study of the harm that money does to love.

A sugar-coated skewering of the hypocrisies of the Catalan bourgeoisie

Though never quite settling into either groove, the film, which recently opened BCN Film Fest and will release theatrically in Spain in June, is laced with lovely performances and is solidly assembled, satisfyingly combining chuckles with contemplation. 

Montse (Emma Vilarasau) has decided to bring her family together at their stunning cliff-side house on Spain’s Costa Brava to discuss the sale of the property, so that she can use the proceeds to pay for a care home for her mother. Travelling there with her feckless son, wannabe musician David (Enric Auquer) and his girlfriend Marta (Macarena Garcia), Montse calls in on her mother – only to find that the old woman has died alone in her apartment. Intriguingly, Montse leaves her mother as she is and does not reveal her discovery. From now on, the audience will be less inclined to trust the Machiavellian Montse than her family is.

They are joined at the house by David’s stressed-out sister Julia (Maria Rodriguez), her easygoing, bland husband Toni (Jose Perez-Ocana) and their two kids, and later by Montse’s ex-husband, Carlos (Alberto San Juan), a shady, affable businessman. Carlos brings along his new girlfriend, Gestalt psychologist Blanca (Clara Segura), who seeks to put a lid on all the simmering neurosis.

Via some spiky, quickfire dialogue – which shifts between Catalan and Spanish – multiple stresses and tensions quickly start to fracture. The narcissistic David seems to be locked into permanent adolescence, still expecting his mother to iron his clothes whilst composing dreadful love songs for Marta. Julia (Rodriguez Soto is a standout) is hating being a wife and mother, and is exchanging X-rated text messages with a local waiter. Carlos, meanwhile, drops the bombshell that Montse is not actually free to sell the property at all, because – years before and unbeknownst to her – he changed the name on the deeds to his own. 

Things are not improved by a role play game instigated by Blanca, where the family are asked to close their eyes and imagine themselves being rescued from a burning building (hence the film’s title), introducing a symbolic note of which the script makes pretty heavy weather.

Dramatically, things play out through a few nicely staged set pieces. One has the distraught David taking Marta out for her first parachute jump immediately after she has dumped him, their dialogue on that issue understandably becoming increasingly urgent as the ground races up to meet them. Another, altogether less comic but equally intense, has Julia’s kids disappearing on the beach. (In these scenes, de la Orden’s cinematic chutzpah is on full display but, as in much of the rest of the film, the music is laid on too thick.) Less successful is a scene about who is responsible for leaving a full condom lying around: there is the sense that A House on Fire really doesn’t need to stoop so low.

In its exploration of the dilemma of whether to sell a house to pay for an elderly relative’s care the film is, on one level, a sugar-coated skewering of the hypocrisies of the Catalan bourgeoisie. The fact that no one in the family apart from Montse is prepared to put granny before the cash speaks volumes about a society in which love and grief have been monetized. But Eduard Sola’s script hesitates to investigate this darker aspect too thoroughly, keeping things firmly on the humorous side of the tragicomic divide.

Yet over its later scenes, as revelations bring Montse back to centre stage and Vilarasau rises wonderfully to the final challenge, A House on Fire does achieve the depth and richness it has been promising from the start. We have been watching, we now realise, a film about the damage that can be wrought on a mother by a lifetime of filial ingratitude.

Production companies: Playtime Movies, Sabado Peliculas, Atresmedia Cine, 3CAT, Eliofilm

International sales: Film Factory Entertainment info@filmfactory.es

Producers: Toni Carrizosa, Alberto Aranda, Ana Eiras, Jaime Ortiz de Artinano, Kike Maillo, Dani de la Orden, Bernat Saumell

Screenplay: Eduard Sola

Cinematography: Pepe Gay de Liebano

Production design: Nuria Guardia Allue

Editing: Alberto Gutierrez

Music: Maria Chiara Casa

Main cast: Emma Vilarasau, Enric Auquer, Maria Rodriguez, Alberto San Juan, Clara Segura, Jose Perez Ocana, Macarena Garcia