A Monster Calls: Help!
by Alfonso Rivera
- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2016: Juan Antonio Bayona’s third film is a fable populated by fantastic creatures, childish nightmares and deep-seated fears — and a relentless assault on the tear ducts
Hotly anticipated and screening in the official selection of the 64th San Sebastián International Film Festival, albeit out of competition, A Monster Calls [+see also:
interview: Juan Antonio Bayona
film profile] is the latest film from one of the most commercially successful directors ever to come out of Spain: Juan Antonio Bayona, the man behind box-office smashes The Orphanage [+see also:
film profile] and The Impossible [+see also:
interview: Juan Antonio Bayona
film profile]. Just as he did in The Impossible, Barcelona-based Bayona has thrown a great deal of resources, money and special effects at his latest work, which he again chose to film in English (its sights are set on the borderless international scene), and cast some well-known Hollywood faces in the leading roles. This time we have Felicity Jones (nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Theory of Everything [+see also:
film profile]), Liam Neeson (lending his powerful voice and physical presence to the fantastical being of the title) and Sigourney Weaver, who on Wednesday evening received the second Donostia Award for lifetime achievement of this year’s festival (the first of which went to Ethan Hawke), to well-deserved applause.
This is not the New Yorker’s first visit to San Sebastián; that was some decades ago, when she came to promote the original Alien. Once again, it was a monster that brought Weaver to the Cantabrian shore — but one cast from a very different mould. While the creature in the 1979 cult classic descended from outer space (where no one can hear you scream) this one looms up out of the frightened soul of a young boy who cannot accept his mother’s terminal illness — and if we can hear him scream, it’s because Bayona has turned up the volume to a deafening level, in order, much like the extraterrestrial predator once did, to reduce his audience to weeping.
The director does not hold back, but brings out all the big guns of a second-rate tearjerker, manipulating our emotions with an insistent and mawkish score by Fernando Velázques that assails the eardrums with predetermined malice. It is almost as if the already gratuitously weepy script by Patrick Ness (Bayona having opted this time to do without his usual writing partner, Sergio G Sánchez, who recently made his directorial debut: read more here) did not contain enough tragic elements (cancer, bullying, an absent father... ) to make it clear just how heart-rending we ought to find the life of this poor scared kid. His unfortunate story, a fusion of nightmare and grim reality, plays out on two levels: in his struggles with a grandmother/witch, and in his encounters with a tree-giant who visits him each night to tell him stories that are not quite the stuff of Disney: the princes are treacherous, the ordinary men lose all faith and the villains are never what they seem. Bayona illustrates these tales with animated sequences (a narrative technique he also used in the award-winning short, Mis vacaciones) featuring faceless beings, shifting stylistically between watercolours and stop motion.
All of this is brought to bear on Bayona’s basic theme, the acceptance of death, and might have had some artistic interest if only Jota — as Sigourney calls him — hadn’t been so heavy-handed, if there was some (even minimal) element of risk in the mise-en-scène and if the plot wasn’t quite so predictable. Even the imagining of the man/tree is perilously close to certain fantastic creatures we’ve seen before; for example, in Lord of the Rings. For all of these reasons, Bayona comes across here as a pet student of Spielberg (at his worst), who in fact will be producing his next film, also buckling under the weight of almighty and furious beasts: the latest in the never-ending saga of Jurassic World. If the human protagonists of that film yell “Help!” when pursued by prehistoric terrors, this hapless critic longed to issue a similar plea as he suffered through the abysmal A Monster Calls: a film that aims calculatedly and directly for the heartstrings. Nothing more likely to awaken the monster inside the author of these lines.... as you can probably tell.
(Translated from Spanish)