Vito, Luis and Francesco are three Spanish friends around thirty who travel by van to Paris for no apparent reason, just looking for a reunion with their respective ancient, idyllic and yet ephemeral love affairs, perhaps with the only mission of surprising themselves and continue to still feel alive.
Jonas Trueba’s follow-up to his well-received ‘The Wishful Thinkers’ picked up awards in Malaga and acclaim at Buenos Aires’ BAFICI festival
“We’ll always have Paris,” Ricks says in Casablanca. The characters in The Romantic Exiles have never had Paris, but want it badly, along with all it implies. Jonas Trueba, son of the Oscar winner Fernando, is one of the bright lights of Spanish arthouse cinema in its more accessible incarnation, and this follow-up to his well-received style piece The Wishful Thinkers takes a similar trio of self-absorbed, tousle-headed, baggy-trousered dreamers and takes them in a battered orange van to France — obviously the director’s spiritual home — to muse on life, love and art.
Always engaging, often comic and deftly handled, Trueba’s work seems to be made for the consumption of arts students under thirty, and since there are plenty of them to be found around the globe at the arty end of the international festival circuit, that’s where Exiles will travel. The film picked up three awards at Malaga and has undertaken what will presumably be an extensive fest itinerary.
It kicks off with a quote from E.H. Carr’s novel of the same name, about a nineteenth century Russian family which becomes embroiled in revolutionary affairs in France and Italy. There’ll be no such sweep or range here, and indeed Trueba’s film feels like a gently ironic record of the last gasp of that noble romantic tradition.
Two of the trio appeared in The Wishful Thinkers and are probably the same characters, each hoping to continue a relationship previously started. Vito (Vito Sanz) is the driver and as a character is the least well-defined of the three, only coming into his own late on in a wonderfully comic, awkwardly self-conscious dialogue with his French dream girl, Vahina (Vahina Giocante). Francesco (Francesco Carril) is the most obviously tortured of the three romantics, before during and after his meeting with Renata (Renata Antonante): Luis (Luis E. Pares), (a film academic here playing a film academic who is, wink, wink, a specialist in exile in film) is seeking a reunion with Isabelle (Isabelle Stoffel, memorably over-the-top in The Wishful Thinkers, considerably more grown-up and contained here).
The early road scenes are dull: there’s only so much fun to be had in watching people traveling in a van wrapped up in their own thoughts, however romantic and interesting those thoughts may be. It’s all so much more fun when they’re talking to one another in a variety of languages, as when the group gathers round a dinner table in the company of an old, wise American (the 60s counterculture figure Jim Haynes) to pin down some of the film’s themes, such as the bizarre but intriguing wish that the 21st century will belong to Buckminster Fuller. In a film heavy with literary and film references, those to the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, in particular to her magnificent essay about education, The Little Virtues, are key: Renata quotes extensively from it.
The Romantic Exiles is a film about the end of youth, about women as the new drivers of the world, about the struggle to find emotional fulfillment (call it “life”) in a world where it’s increasingly difficult to find it, about friendship, and about film. Stylistically, it’s suggestive of the deceptively meandering, heavily nuanced worlds created by Eric Rohmer and Philippe Garrel, and has much of the same semi-improvised lightness of touch and cleanness of line.
At his best, though, Rohmer is never merely self-indulgent, as The Romantic Exiles sometimes is. To see the group sitting in a bar transfixed by a not-very good (but yes, impeccably romantic) song performed in its entirety by Miren Iza of the Spanish group Tulsa is to be very aware of time passing by, especially in a film with a running time of just 70 minutes, and regardless of whether the lyrics offer a running commentary on the film or not.
But for all its archness (and indeed perhaps offensiveness to a generation of unemployed Spaniards who would like nothing better than to get into a van and head off to France in search of romance, but can’t), The Romantic Exiles is at least sincere in its depiction of its half-baked attempt to make its proganists’ little dreams come true. Spanish cinema is too often lacking in Trueba’s delicate, engaging irony.