'Distances' ('Les distancies'): Film Review

Courtesy of Coming Soon Films
Sad relationship film avoids reunion-pic cliches.

Five Catalan college friends struggle through a Berlin reunion in Elena Trape's drama.

An ill-conceived surprise causes even more friction than one might expect in Distances, which finds four Catalans going to Berlin to visit a college friend on his 35th birthday. Surprise houseguests are rarely welcome, and these are lugging some pretty heavy emotional baggage. But as it slowly reveals their interpersonal difficulties, Elena Trape's tense picture mostly avoids the plot beats and emotional trajectories familiar in the reunion-film genre. In their place is sadness and confusion, making for a quiet film with some appeal for boutique distributors in English-language territories.

Alexandra Jimenez leads the ensemble as Olivia, the eight-month pregnant organizer of the trip. She has brought college friends Eloi (Bruno Sevilla) and Guille (Isak Ferriz), along with Guille's girlfriend Anna (Maria Ribera), to ambush their pal Comas (Miki Esparbe) at his Berlin apartment. Barely awake when he answers the doorbell, Comas clearly is in the middle of dealing with something. He hesitates before buzzing them into his building and, once they're upstairs, is less than enthusiastic about finding them all places to sleep. "Relax," one of the group chides him, "we're only staying for the weekend."

As she begins to hint at the group's buried resentments and other issues they're hiding from each other, Trape favors medium shots that isolate individuals from those they're supposedly close to. Olivia's relationship with her husband is strained; Eloi is coping with a humiliating job loss; Anna seems to be growing apart from Guille, whose conventional middle-class attitudes are expressed in callous put-downs. Comas looks like he's waiting for something to explode. When the three men go out drinking on the first night of the visit, he slips out into the street and doesn't return.

The bulk of the film takes place on Saturday, when the visitors assume their host has hooked up with someone from the bar and is ignoring them. While Olivia stays at the apartment to bake a birthday cake and await Comas' return, the others go off to enjoy the city. They soon splinter further, thanks to Guille's nastiness, leaving Eloi to wander the streets trying to figure out what's really going on with Comas. It's Olivia who'll have the most luck on that front, though, learning something that triggers a mini-breakdown. By the time others return, disarray in the apartment physically reflects the group's emotional turmoil.

Though a muddle of affection, angst and misguided nostalgia drives it, Distances doesn't manipulate its characters into the kind of tidy heart-to-hearts and outbursts that arrive on cue in most American indies about reunions; it certainly never indulges in the kind of remember-when ecstasies where characters pretend they're once again integral to each others' lives. Instead, the plot suggests that such a bond never really existed, continually asking its characters how well they know those they care about the most. As the title suggests, the answer is not very well at all.

Production company: Coming Soon Films
Cast: Alexandra Jimenez, Miki Esparbe, Isak Ferriz, Bruno Sevilla, Maria Ribera
Director: Elena Trape
Screenwriters: Josan Hatero, Miguel Ibanez Monroy, Elena Trape
Producer: Marta Ramirez
Director of photography: Julian Elizalde
Production designers: Vanessa Locke, Nora Willy
Costume designer: Marta Murillo
Editor: Liana Artigal
Casting director: Anna Gonzalez
Venue: Cairo International Film Festival (International Panorama)

In Catalan, Spanish, English and German
100 minutes