The Double Steps: Film Review

Over-ambitious rumination on art and artists works better as impressionistic mood-piece than dramatic narrative.

Catalan director Isaki Lacuesta took the top prize at Spain's San Sebastian Film Festival with this fusion of biopic, mythology and artistic musings.

SAN SEBASTIAN -- While Spanish writer-director Isaki Lacuesta's fifth feature The Double Steps isn't by any means his finest achievement, it's the one that's now propelled him into the international limelight, surprisingly, by taking the top prize at his country's biggest film festival.

The Double Steps is every inch a head-scratcher rather than a crowd-pleaser. Unfolding in the deserts of Mali in northwest Africa and with most of the dialogue in the Dogon and Bambara languages, it's an opaque, often impenetrable film-poem with a cast of non-professionals or unknowns, freely inspired by the life of a somewhat obscure writer and occasional painter Francois Augiéras.

The chief selling point is the involvement of Miquel Barceló, one of Spain's leading contemporary artists. Alas Barceló isn't well-known outside cutting-edge artistic circles, and the hazily unfocused The Double Steps, even with the San Sebastian award under its belt, faces a tough task to emulate the likes of Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams to break out beyond the festival circuit.

Bookings will, however, be brisk on the latter front, in most cases in conjunction with its hour-long companion-piece The Clay Diaries (El cuaderno de barro) which observes Barceló at work in a manner that's much more conventional and also more rewarding than its obliquely fictionalized counterpart. The two films will, presumably, be packaged together for DVD purposes that may prove lucrative offerings at future Barceló exhibitions and retrospectives.

While some prior knowledge of Barceló is useful for an appreciation of The Double Steps, awareness of Augiéras is even more illuminating. American-born of French/Polish ancestry, Augiéras (1925-1971) spent much of his short life in North Africa, the setting for the majority of his books. These autobiographical texts are uncompromising in their sexual directness: Augiéras was gay, a virulent misogynist, who occasionally dabbled in bestiality.

Lacuesta carefully skirts around each of these aspects of Augiéras's personality, the bestiality detail is represented only by a brief, comic interlude with a sheep. The film navigates through a series of often dream-like episodes, which derive more from the writer's inner life and self-aggrandizing fantasiesthan his actual biography.

Augiéras (who was a Caucasian European) is present almost exclusively via his alter ego, Abdallah Chambaa, a virile, forceful black man played by newcomer Bokar Dembele (also known as 'Bouba'). We observe the hazardously picaresque life of Chambaa, first as he trains with fellow soldiers at a tough boot-camp under the stern command of his uncle (Hamadoun Kassogue), scenes which, in their concentration on masculine activity in dustily sunny African locales, clump unimaginatively across terrain long staked out by Claire Denis.

Chambaa next joins a bandit troupe, before starting to buckle down to work as an artist, using charcoals to create what he intended to become (according to opening titles) "a Sistine Chapel of the desert" in an underground bunker. As Chambaa planned, this bunker remained undiscovered until the present century by which time another European artist, Barceló, had long since started his artistic interpretations of the same bleakly beautiful Malian surroundings.

Lacuesta intersperses the narrative with documentary-style footage of Barceló at work, interjections that make more sense after a viewing of The Clay Diaries. But the documentary in no way provides any kind of conclusive key to unlocking the manifold, intertwined mysteries of The Double Steps —a title which refers to Augiéras/Chambaa's practical means of eluding pursuit when walking across a desert, and to his idea that "the best way to hide" is to send a double out into the world.

Evasion, obfuscation and mystification are clearly central to Augiéras' process of self-mythologizing, and Lacuesta certainly takes them as guiding principles here.

As in his 2009 feature The Condemned, he toys with considerations of narrative but is really much more concerned with and skilled at evocations of atmospheres and places, aided by Gerard Gil's African-flavored score and Diego Dussuel's meticulously-lit cinematography.

Audiences willing to forego considerations of character-development and conventional plotting may find themselves wafted to a strange, exotic world. As someone remarks, "I keep seeing fragments, holes, isolated images." But the less indulgent may quickly lose patience with Lacuesta and co-scriptwriter Isa Campo's allusive palimpsest of artistic ruminations, which wears out its welcome during a second half featuring some ill-advised attempts at knockabout humor.

The Double Steps is certainly a disappointing follow-up to what remains Lacuesta's most satisfying film to date, his relatively accessible Ava Gardner homage, All the Night Long (2010), where Lacuesta and editor Diana Toucedo achieved some brilliant montage effects. "Even if there's no road," intones the bandit-leader, "our law is to go even farther."

While the 36-year-old Catalan's ambition is commendable, he's lost his way somewhat in these desert wanderings and ended up in an artistic cul-de-sac.

Venue: San Sebastián Film Festival
Production company: Tusitala in collaboration with Bord Cadre and TVE - Televisión Española
Cast: Bokar Dembele, Alou Cissé, Hamadoun Kassogue, Miquel Barceló
Director: Isaki Lacuesta
Screenwriters: Isaki Lacuesta, Isa Campo
Producers: Luisa Matienzo, Dan Wechsler
Director of photography: Diego Dussuel
Production designer: Sebastián Birchler
Music: Gerard Gil
Editors: Domi Parra
Sales: M-Appeal, Berlin
No rating, 91 minutes