Lost and Found
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Fernando Eimbcke, Mexico, Film Movement
Screening in this week’s Film Comment Selects series
Wide outdoor expanses. Static frames. Frequent cuts to black. Impassive camera subjects. The sense that humor’s hovering, but withheld, in dead, thin air. It seems we’ve heard this song before. But in his second feature, following his 2004 deadpan debut Duck Season (a pocket-sized, black-and-white coming-of-age kinda-comedy that was inexplicably picked up by a then optimistic Warner Independent), Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke retreats into this much-rehearsed visual style only to dig a little deeper, and with a color palette that, if not vibrant, at least provides the director with some new emotional hues to work with. The surprisingly touching result is as affecting as it is atmospheric, and the overall impression is less one of self-conscious mannerism than of genuine heartache, an honest attempt at conveying a young man’s necessary, if tenuous, stab at human interaction. At first, the whiff of Kaurismäki and Jarmusch is undeniably pungent, but Eimbcke keeps peeling back his layers of detachment one by one, until something pure and plangent remains onscreen.
Lake Tahoe, which takes place not in its titular tranquil getaway, but in a parched Mexican suburb (the title ends up being a tangential yet stirring Madeleine), opens with a seemingly insignificant car accident. Juan (Diego Cantaño) has slammed his red Nissan sedan into a telephone pole: we only hear the crash over a black screen, and see the resulting minor smash-up once we flash back to a still, cloudless daylight. Juan leaves his car on the side of this stretch of blank road and makes his way on foot to the nearest town. Eimbcke frames his search for assistance as a somewhat expected series of clear, head-on compositions, an immobile camera patiently peering at vacant or closed workshops as Juan makes his way across the screen, left to right. As he traverses the neighborhood, edifices at once colorfully painted and drab, buildings of aquamarine and white and slate-gray, take up nearly the entire frame, with a shadowed door opening the only way out—or in. By virtue of the camera’s placement and stillness, the Yucatán settings of Lake Tahoe, with their overgrown, weedy sidewalks, palm trees, and broken fences, are reminiscent, variously, of Kaurismaki’s Helsinki, Seidl’s suburban Vienna, or Jarmusch’s early Eighties New York—they seem to be receding away from the viewer.
Indeed, this is a film about recession itself, and all that can imply. Environment of course impresses itself upon those who inhabit it, and the handful of locals Juan meets over the course of his day all seem the products of some combination of economic and personal despair. Upon entering the gate to the property of elderly mechanic Don Heber (Hèctor Herrera), Juan is immediately suspected by the cantankerous, lonely man as a trespasser and possible robber. Through precise framing and the presence of a mild-tempered mastiff, Eimbcke turns this minor instance of mistaken identity into sullen comedy rather than a fracas—the dog stands completely still and stares straight ahead at Juan, sitting in Don Heber’s living room, the two figures making a center-frame monolith. Following this and an extended shot in which Heber and his animal share a breakfast-table moment, eating out of their own cereal bowls, while Juan looks on with tense bemusement, one would predict Lake Tahoe to continue to unspool as a series of black-out vignettes, in which our passive protagonist finds himself tangled in a web comic mundanities, meant to amuse by virtue of their reserve and discomfort. Yet the humor grows less assertive, and the melancholy less forced, as we gradually discover, with the most delicate of strokes, the source of Juan’s apparent despondency.
A stone face, whether it be on Bill Murray or Kati Outinen, is key to this brand of humor, and Cantaño, whom Eimbcke had previously cast for his mix of precociousness and stultified prepubescence in Duck Season, nicely calcifies his features here. As his decidedly unwacky misadventures continue throughout the day, including his meetings with a young, quietly flirty single mother (Daniela Valentine) who works in a meager auto parts shop and her pony-tailed, kung fu–obsessed coworker (Juan Carlos Lara), however, Juan’s oddball mixture of diffidence and longing purposely begins to disturb the fabric of Eimbcke’s film. From phone calls to his younger brother Joaquin (Yemil Sefami), it’s clear that something’s amiss, and that perhaps Juan’s car accident, for which he has yet to procure the proper replacement mechanism, was indicative not of a farcical insouciance but of his mind fixating on other, more dire, things.
Eimbcke cements these suspicions with Lake Tahoe’s first instance of camera movement. Upon returning home midway through the film, Juan enters the bathroom to discover his mother lying in the tub, the shower curtain half-drawn, revealing only her arm, extended out not must further than her wrist, a cigarette dangling from her fingers. Eimbcke slowly, almost imperceptibly, zooms in to this tableau, the odd, sterile disassociation of which can’t help but recall Kubrick’s woman-in-the-bathtub scene in The Shining. Yet the mother never emerges from behind the curtain, and her curt, seemingly unimportant exchange with her son, muffled as it is with vague grief, remains abstracted. Yet Eimbcke’s cunning camera move registers, however subtly—it’s a disruption in the well-maintained aesthetic approach of the film. Later, Eimbcke will parallel this with a more pronounced zooming out, as Juan unleashes sudden, and surprising, fury on his car in a movie theater parking lot.
There’s no doubt that with this film, Eimbcke has confirmed himself as a masterful practitioner of the artfully composed long take—there’s a truly graceful arrangement of Don Heber napping in a hammock, bathed in a hazy burst of sunlight, his dog reposing underneath, and later a lovely, almost Tsai Ming-liang–worthy nighttime image in which Juan’s car pulls away from the front of his house to reveal a silhouetted Joaquin in an illuminated tent in the yard just beyond the gate—but Lake Tahoe also proves his approach to melancholy is more humane than aesthetically trendy. There’s a beating heart beneath this still life.