Yesterday Never Ends: Film Review

Yesterday Never Ends Ayer no termina nunca - H 2013
Though 99% bleak, “Yesterday” will reward those who can engage with its brave commitment to uncomfortable emotions.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet returns with a spare two-hander on the emotional damage done by the economic crisis.

Too few Spanish directors have addressed the human consequences of the economic crisis on the nation’s psyche -- Isabel Coixet bravely steps up to the mark with Yesterday Never Ends. Replacing the artifice bordering on whimsy that characterizes much of her work with a rawness that seems to have been born out of real anger, Coixet, one of Spain’s more international directors, here strips everything back to Spain, to a single setting and to two committed actors, focusing more tightly on raw emotional interplay than ever before. The demanding but often rewarding result casts the audience in the role of uncomfortable voyeur. Given the fact that it recently took several awards at Spain's Malaga fest, festivals are the film’s likeliest destination.

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The film is set in 2017 and early images establish, somewhat depressingly, that yesterday has in fact not ended and that Spain is still in the grip of crisis. J. (Javier Camara), most recently seen as a flamboyant flight attendant in Almodovar’s I’m So Excited, left Spain for Germany but is now revisiting to meet with his former partner C. (Candela Pena). They have met in a cemetery to sign divorce papers, but the lawyer never turns up, leaving them free to deal painfully with past horrors and present tensions.

A loose adaptation of German Lot Vekemans’ play Gif, Yesterday is structured into two emotional halves. The first has J. trying to fend off five years’ worth of pent-up bitterness from C., who is in full attack mode. C’s resentment is driven partly by the fact that J has left Spain and has a better life than she has, and partly because she is still damaged by the death of their child. It’s this emotional legacy which determines the tone of the gentler second half, during which the warring couple achieves brief comfort.

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Brief flashes from elsewhere, mostly in black and white and often consisting of C. sitting in a cave and reflecting aloud, add little given that both performers are strong enough to suggest emotional resonance far beyond what is shown. Camara, a Coixet veteran from The Secret Life of Words and best-known offshore for Almodovar’s Talk to Her, confirms his reputation as perhaps Spain’s most adaptable character actor, but here it’s Pena who takes the dramatic lead. She has a history of playing damaged women, and here seems to distil everything she knows into a raw and passion-fueled performance that’s sometimes painful to watch. Having made only five films in as many years, Pena either chooses her roles with care, or is criminally underemployed.

D.p. Jordi Azategui does well to exploit limited resources, with brief, prettily-framed tableaux making the most of the cave-like space in which the film is set. Alfonso Vilallonga’s piano-based score, light and subtle though it is, feels unnecessary.

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At the more abstract level, Yesterday teems with ideas that are critical of the attitudes which have brought Spain to its current sorry state, contrasting the inability of southern Europe to shed the burdens of its past (represented by C) with the cool pragmatism of the north (J). Ultimately, this is a sad but haunting metaphor about a Spain that’s still at some level at war with itself, with only the most fragile-feeling of reconciliations seeming likely for the future.

Venue: Cines Princesa, Madrid, 18 May
Production companies: Miss Wasabi Films, A Contracorriente Films
Cast: Javier Camara, Candela Pena
Director/screenwriter: Isabel Coixet
Producers: Isabel Coixet, Adolfo Blanco
Director of photography, editor: Jordi Azategui
Music: Alfonso Vilallonga
Sales: Gaumont, Neuilly-sur-Seine
No rating, 108 minutes