'Some Beasts' ('Algunas bestias'): Film Review | San Sebastian 2019

Laberinto Films
A taxing exercise in incest-flavored misanthropy.

Chilean writer-director Jorge Riquelme Serrano's sophomore feature took home the top prize in the Spanish festival's New Directors competition.

Stranded on their windswept island retreat, a wealthy family behave with less than polite decorum in Some Beasts (Algunas bestias), Chilean director/producer/co-writer/co-editor Jorge Riquelme Serrano's heavy-handed slice of incest-flavored, class-conscious misanthropy. A picture whose on-the-nose approach is signaled by its unsubtle title, it wastes a fine cast headed by ever-dependable veterans Paulina Garcia (Sebastian Lelio's original Gloria) and Pablo Larrain regular Alfredo Castro.

The presence of these two notables, plus the film's surprising success in the richly endowed New Directors competition at the San Sebastian International Film Festival — worth a cool €50,000 ($55,000) — will open further festival doors, however.

The first half of the pic is promising enough, setting the scene with economy and touches of flair from the opening god's-eye shot of the entire islet where the action will unfold. Riquelme Serrano (whose 2016 debut Cameleon played some international fests, including Seattle) and his co-writer Nicolas Diodovich take the tiresomely familiar starting point of a comfortably well-off extended Latin American clan going on holiday, then promisingly tweak it with touches that recall both Joanna Hogg's Archipelago (2010) and Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 classic L'Avventura.

As in Archipelago, the cosseted, self-centered, mildly bickering family in Some Beasts (whose credits, bizarrely and prematurely, carry a 2020 copyright date) must rely on domestic help from a practical-minded young local, here guitar-strumming, easygoing Nicolas (Nicolas Zarate). As in L'Avventura, the narrative pivots on a sudden and unexplained disappearance: When dawn breaks following the first night of the vacation, Nicolas is nowhere to be found.

There are hints that his vanishing may be a consequence of simmering sexual tensions involving him and a couple of the visitors, most notably booze-inclined grandma Dolores (Garcia). And by this stage, Riquelme Serrano has directed our attention to a deep, forest-hidden well, just perfect for the disposal of an inconvenient corpse...

But while the early stretches play (knowingly) with horror-movie trappings — there's no cellphone or Wi-Fi signal on the island and apparently not even a landline — Some Beasts likewise only dips its toes in these whodunnit waters. Riquelme Serrano and Diodovich have "higher" aspirations, looking to Lord of the Flies rather than Ten Little Indians, and are more concerned with the impact of Nicolas' "departure" rather than its cause(s). In short: Everybody quickly starts going off the rails.

As a storm lashes the family's comfortable mansion, suppressed enmities of various stripes boil over during an innocuous communal card game, the histrionics presented clinically in a taxingly long single take by means of cinematographer Eduardo Bunster Charme's unblinking, unmoving widescreen camera. Worse is to come, with a similarly protracted scene ⁠— also shot as a long-take tableau ⁠— in which drunken grandpa Antonio (Castro) gets it on with his teenage granddaughter Consuelo (Consuelo Carreno).

This sequence ⁠— which plays out to the kitschy accompaniment of noisy thunder cracks from the storm beyond ⁠— seems very much designed to court controversy and provoke audience discussion. While such incest scenes should of course be extremely disturbing and repellent, this example's extended duration, allied with Consuela's seeming acceptance of her grandfather's sleazy advance, veers toward exploitative tastelessness.

These grueling set pieces are all of a piece with the picture's sledgehammer approach; likewise the scriptwriters' tendency to spell everything out as if the viewers were too dumb to puzzle things out for themselves. "It's metaphorical!" bleats Dolores near the start of the catastrophic card game. Metaphorical Some Beasts doubtlessly is ⁠— the upper classes go to pieces when the lower orders are absent ⁠— but organic, dramatically coherent and convincing it unfortunately is not.

Production company: Laberinto Films
Cast: Paulina Garcia, Alfredo Castro, Millaray Lobos, Gaston Salgado, Consuelo Carreno, Nicolas Zarate, Andrew Bargsted
Director-producer: Jorge Riquelme Serrano
Screenwriters: Nicolas Diodovich, Jorge Riquelme Serrano
Cinematographer: Eduardo Bunster Charme
Editors: Jorge Riquelme Serrano, Valeria Hernandez
Composer: Carlos Cabezas
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Cité Films, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

In Spanish
97 minutes