Damián Szifron: one director, several stories

With ‘Wild Tales’ Argentinian director Damián Szifron has singlehandedly revived the often ignored art of the portmanteau film. The secret is to have just one person making the whole thing, he says


The main press screening of Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales at last year’s Cannes film festival probably broke some kind of record. Surely, few other films have, at that festival, received four uproarious ovations before the final credits rolled.

There’s a trick here. The Argentinean film is from that much-derided, never-quite-fashionable genre: the portmanteau movie. Wild Tales comprises six discrete stories on the themes of revenge and loss of control. Two men duel on a remote highway. A demolition expert goes barmy when his car is towed. And so forth. The furious invention is unending.

“Cannes was an amazing experience,” Szifron tells me. “These sorts of films never go to Cannes. I used to think of the festival as a more snobbish place. But film criticism has changed a lot in the past few years. There is more chance for films like this.”

A mainstream film?

“I’ll accept that word,” he laughs.

Wild Tales is in danger of becoming a crossover hit. At last month’s Oscars, it beat the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night and Winter Sleep, the eventual winner at Cannes, to a nomination for best foreign language picture. It looks as if critics and audiences are prepared to accept this rarely used structure. Back in the 1970s, studios such as Amicus and Tigon churned out successful horror portmanteaux, but even they relied on a framing device to link the tales (four travellers tell ghost stories on a train or whatever). Szifron allows only thematic connections.

Too many auteurs 

“It was important to have a single director,” he says. “You have things like New York Stories that work well with different directors. But then you have producer-led films like Paris, je t’aime, and usually directors shoot their segment in a week when they are doing other things. You want one person focusing on the story. That’s what you had in Pulp Fiction.”

That’s a fair point. Many of the anthology films that have made it into cinemas – such as Aria or 7 Days in Havana – have come across as messy, incoherent affairs, lacking an overarching vision. Despite sharing no common characters, the yarns in Wild Tales do seem to belong in the same space.

“When I think of Wild Tales I think of something like Nine Stories by JD Salinger,” he says. “In the book world it is natural for a writer to write both novels and short stories. If you create an anthology as a film-maker they think the characters must get up at the end and reveal they are all the same character or something. I also think of rock albums or jazz albums. You have different tracks, but there is still a convergence.”

So what is the convergence with Wild Tales? The poster promises “six deadly stories of revenge”. There is certainly something in that. The final story concerns a bride driven mad by her new husband’s infidelity. Another concerns a rich young man who knocks down a pregnant woman in his car. Rich veins of outrage are pumping away here. But there’s something else afoot. The film also appears to be about a breakdown in psychic order – about the awful things societal norms inhibit us from doing.

“Yes, it’s about losing control and feeling good about it,” he says. “It’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s the Incredible Hulk. When we get angry most people repress themselves. Some explode. I don’t like to kill animals. I don’t like to hunt or fish. But when there’s a mosquito in the room I enjoy killing it and smashing it into the wall. You feel good about defending yourself.”

Born in 1975, the sleek, good-looking Szifron made his name as creator of an Argentinean con-man series entitled Los Simuladores. Wild Tales, his third feature, received a major boost when Pedro Almodóvar signed on as producer, and the film does carry flavours of that Spanish director’s surreal energies.

Argentina is a vast country, but, as Szifron confirms, the cinemas are as packed with US product as are those of Ireland, France and, increasingly, China. How easy is it to flog domestic product to audiences in Argentina?

“Some of them work very well,” he says. “But it is hard. The economy is always in a state. This is a huge country with relatively few people spread across it. So we have all these resources. We should be a rich nation. But we export food while people are starving.”

More Hitch than Loach

There is some political anger in the film. “But I think it is more Alfred Hitchcock Presents than Ken Loach,” he shrugs.

If ever a foreign-language film looked set for a US remake it is Wild Tales. “I have been asked about it, yes,” he says. “They’ve been on to me. I have also had quite a few scripts sent to me. It’s very tempting. But I have other things to do.”

Catch the Argentinean version before somebody else is allowed to muck it up.

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