'The Weasel’s Tale' ('El Cuento de las Comadrejas'): Film Review

Courtesy of Latido Films
Old-fashioned fare with an up-to-date edge.

Juan Jose Campanella’s first live-action feature since his ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ won the 2010 best foreign film Oscar, this inter-generational comedy is one of the big Argentinian releases of the year.

Four throwbacks to the Golden Age of Argentinian cinema come up against an unscrupulous pair of real estate salespeople in The Weasel’s Tale, a slickly calibrated, classically structured dark comedy that again highlights Juan Jose Campanella’s skill at pressing his viewers’ buttons across a range of genres. Enjoyably over-the-top, well-played and in some passages an homage to those acid, preposterous Ealing comedies, Weasel Tale’s script cleverly pits two kinds of actors against one another — traditional movie star vs entrepreneurial whiz kid — to see who comes out on top, and the result is often sharp, funny and never dull, though it could have shed about 20 minutes.

Having debuted strongly in Argentina, this Argentina-Spain co-production is now enjoying early summer success in Spain. As with The Secret in Their Eyes, which spawned a flat-feeling American remake, the strength and universality of its central idea suggest that a cultural transplant could be in order for a crowd-pleasing movie that deftly fuses cinema, intrigue and fun.

Weasel's Tale is a remake of, and homage to, Argentinian Jose A. Martínez Suarez’s 1976 cult classic Yesterday's Guys Used No Arsenic, name-checked once or twice, and stripped of its misogyny and most of its 1970s political bite — this Weasel is relatively toothless. Among other details, the character names have been retained. We first meet aging actress Mara (Graciela Borges, who made her film debut in 1958) as she watches through her tears old clips of herself in a rambling, rather beautiful mansion surrounded by the artifacts of her glory years. (The black-and-white clips suggest an era too early for even the elderly Mara.)

Any Sunset Boulevard comparisons pretty much end there, as Mara shares the mansion with her wheelchair-bound husband, the former bit-part actor Pedro (Luis Brandoni); retired screenwriter Martin (Marcos Mundstock, a member of Argentina’s much-loved comedy/music troupe Les Luthiers); and the director of some of Mara’s triumphs, Norberto (Oscar Martinez, perhaps best known to non-Argentinian audiences for Damian Szifron’s Wild Tales).

The wives of Martin and Norberto are strangely absent, though awful portraits of them by the all-around artistic failure Pedro hang gothically on the wall of the beautifully cluttered mansion, which must have been a lot of fun for production designer Nelson Noel Luty to put together. The relationship between the four elderly eccentrics is entertainingly bitchy and cynical, but the multiple one-liners it generates start to pall a little in a film that wouldn’t have been damaged by being 20 minutes shorter.

This is the kind of self-reflexive film where, when Martin suggests that their life is happy but dull, and needs a villain, that villain turns up, right on cue. Francisco (Nicolas Francella, son of Guillermo, who played a key role in Secret) and Barbara (Spanish actress Clara Lago, best known outside Spain for Spanish Affair) show up pretending to be lost and apparently thrilled to be meeting Mara in the flesh. Martin and Norberto, who’ve been living there for free for 40 years, are rightly suspicious that the youngsters have dastardly plans to throw them out, but it’s too late: Francisco and Barbara, who are indeed real estate developers, have successfully flattered Mara’s ego and get her to sign away the deeds of her home.

Much of the pic therefore pits the wits of two generations against one another, but one thing’s certain: Francisco and Barbara have walked into unexpectedly dangerous territory. The aging quartet are far from being the softies they might have imagined, with skeletons coming tumbling out of the closet later on. That they’re going to be no pushover for the ruthless young couple is made clear over a richly enjoyable snooker game, pregnant with double meanings, at which Martin trounces Barbara, telling her to keep her eye on her rival, not on the game. The elegance and wit of the dialogue — there’s the feeling that the older characters are reciting from old scripts they have performed, written and directed — is an Ealing-style cover-up for the entertaining foul play that will drive the story along as the stakes rise.

Campanella, as Secret in Their Eyes made clear, is a master craftsman, and Weasel Tale’s script has a similarly solid, well-polished feel. For example, the early scenes see Norberto strolling the grounds shooting the weasels that threaten to kill the chickens they keep, aptly establishing the mansion as a place not only of nostalgia but of death.

Like so many films in which old-timers are reunited, the performances are key. Borges is perfectly over the top as the misty-eyed but sharp-tongued Mara, and neither she, nor the viewer, nor the other characters — least of all her hapless husband — are ever quite clear about whether she’s sincere or performing a role. Mundstock’s smooth tongue dominates at the start but fades later on to let the reliably superb Martinez come through. Francella is efficient in a role that lacks nuance, while Lago successfully works Barbara up into an edgy, femme-fatale combination of the seductive and the ruthless.

Weasel's Tale is more daring visually than structurally, the camera swooping energetically around the mansion’s interior, with DP Felix Monti often choosing the unusual and oblique angle even in close-up (think the classic soccer stadium scene in Secret in Their Eyes, for which Monti was also responsible, but on a far smaller scale).

One of the few criticisms of Secret in Their Eyes was the pileup of multiple, seemingly never-ending plot twists through its final stretch. Though the new film is tonally completely different, something similar happens in Weasel Tale’s climactic and frankly absurd end scene. While beautifully orchestrated, it’s both wildly overdone and completely implausible. But this late on, and after his enjoyably extended display of old-style comedy craftsmanship, the audience is happy to let Campanella lower his guard a little.

Production companies: 100 Bares, Tornasol, Jempsa
Cast: Graciela Borges, Oscar Martinez, Luis Brandoni, Marcos Mundstock, Clara Lago, Nicolas Francella
Director: Juan Jose Campanella
Screenwriters: Juan Jose Campanella, Augusto Giustozzi, Darren Kloomok, Jose A. Martinez Suarez
Producers: Juan Jose Campanella, Gerardo Herrero, Axel Kuschevatzky
Executive producers: Muriel Cabeza
Director of photography: Felix Monti
Production designer: Nelson Noel Luty
Costume designer: Cecilia Monti
Editor: Juan Jose Campanella
Composer: Emilio Kauderer
Casting director: Gabriela Fantl
Sales: Latido Films

128 minutes