‘Felices 140’: Film Review
Spanish country-house drama from leading Spanish female director about a lottery win that turns to tragedy
One of Spain's foremost female directors, Gracia Querejeta has a reputation for spearing the hypocrisies of the Spanish middle class via solid, quietly-spoken, character-based dramas. Though Felices 140 lacks the finesse of some of her earlier work, it’s dramatically her punchiest to date. A compact script, an intriguing moral premise and classy performances from a range of Spain’s finest actors are the upside over its first hour, but over the home stretch there’s a schematic, rushed air to things which means that the final impression is of a film which has failed to exploit the richness of its premise. But for its well-executed concept with universal appeal, Felices nonetheless deserves exposure beyond Spanish-speaking territories.
Elia (Maribel Verdu, with a high profile amongst international auds for her work in Y tu mama tambien, Snow White and Pan’s Labyrinth) invites family and friends to a luxury pad in the Canary Islands to celebrate her 40th birthday. Invitees include Juan, played by Antonio de la Torre, who tends to play untrustworthy types and as a wife-beating lawyer does so here: his submissive wife, Elia’s sister Cati (Marian Alvarez, a multiple prize-winner for The Wound); restaurant-owner Ramon (the reliably fine Eduard Fernandez) and wife Martina (Nora Navas): millionaire businessman Polo (Alex O’Dogherty); and, crucially for Elia, her ex Mario (Gines Garcia Millan), with whom she’s still in love, with his new g.f., the much younger Claudia (Paula Cancio).
A short way in, Elia announces that she’s won about $150m in a Euro-wide lottery. This being one of those family reunions behind which dark truths lurk and human motivations are under scrutiny, the win is bad news for Elia, as everyone starts figuring out how to get their hands on a share, while Elia, who’s not above a little moral sleight-of-hand herself, clumsily tries to use it to win back Mario. There’s more than enough material already in place for a nuanced moral exploration of the subtle power of money -- especially in times of crisis -- to contaminate intimate relationships, and for about an hour the film is exactly that, satisfyingly and intriguingly.
But the script seems anxious to press on, and it does so with a shocking event which transforms the film entirely, shifting it at a stroke into noir territory and into one of those satisfying but superficial “would you” dramas in which the audience is directly asked to reflect on how it would behave under such circumstances: would you let your wife sleep with Robert Redford for $1m? (With such movies, and here, the audience is presumed guilty.)
Querejeta has assembled one of the best possible casts which Spanish cinema can provide to create this gang of morally disgusting individuals, though all the actors have the ability to suggest that their moral disgustingness is comprehensible. Verdu successfully carries the emotional burden, the combination of softness and hardness in her features evoking a brittleness about Elia’s happiness from the start, though O’Dogherty as Polo doesn’t feel fully integrated, either as a character or as a performer. De la Torre makes it a pleasure to watch the brain of the borderline psychopath Juan working at full speed behind his sly features; Fernandez, who guarantees a little quality to every film he appears in no matter how poor it is, is given the film’s most richly ambiguous role after Verdu’s as the henpecked, good-hearted Ramon.
The plotline is elegantly worked though, but the dialogue sometimes feels stilted, and though Querejeta can be depended upon to handle a script with sureness and sophistication, there are several uncertain moments. It’s highly unlikely that a group of not especially cultured Spaniards would know all the lyrics to “money makes the world go round” from Cabaret. worse, the several pop-up moments in which the various characters address the camera directly are a risky dramatic move which doesn’t come off and should have been quietly edited out, not least because from them we learn little about the speakers which we didn’t already know.
The lovely, expansive cliffside home which Elia has hired and the harsh, wild coastal Tenerife setting provide a nice metaphor for the fragility of wealth and the primitive instincts it engenders: it is also simply lovely to look at.
The title translates as "Happy 140", and refers to the amount money Elia wins.
Production company: Hernandez y Fernandez, Tornasol Films , Foresta Films, La Ignorancia De La Sangre
Cast: Maribel Verdu, Antonio de la Torre, Eduard Fernandez, Nora Navas, Marian Alvarez, Alex O'Dogherty, Gines Garcia Millan, Paula Cancio, Marcos Ruiz
Director: Gracia Querejeta
Screenwriters: Gracia Querejeta, Antonio Mercero
Producers: Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky, Carlos Rodríguez Y Javier López Blanco
Executive producer: Gerardo Herrero
Director of photography: Juan Carlos Gómez
Production designer: Uxua Castelló
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Leire Alonso
Composer: Federico Jusid
Sales: Latido Films
No rating, 98 minutes