May 23, 2024

Incendiary Spanish director Isabel Coixet (“The Secret Life of Words”) heads to San Sebastian for the international premiere of her latest drama “Un Amor,” a take on devouring love starring Laia Costa (“Lullaby”) and Hovik Keuchkerian (“Money Heist”) that sets Coixet up to compete on the festival’s main stage for the first time. 

“Un Amor” is produced by Buenapinta Media’s Marisa Fernández Armenteros (“The Mole Agent”) alongside “Society of the Snow” producers Sandra Hermida and Belén Atienza, here producing out of Perdición Films. World sales are handled by Film Constellation (“Return to Reason”).

The film is based on its namesake novel by Sara Mesa, branded Spain’s 2020 book of the year by Spanish newspaper El País. The script was written by Coixet and Laura Ferrero (“Empty Pools”).

Tormented by occupational hazards and the hustle of city living, protagonist Nat ventures to the countryside town of La Escapa to start fresh. Unpartnered and saddled with a wayward dog, she stands fiercely in her solitude, existing just outside societal bounds while quietly infuriating the residents of her increasingly inhospitable new home. 

Longing for more than surface-level niceties, she evolves and devolves in tandem after a bewildering proposal from the brusque and towering Andreas unravels into an unfettered obsession that holds her captive as she clumsily attempts to collect her pride.

“Her tragedy isn’t being an outsider. Her tragedy is that, in a way, she wants to belong a little bit,” Coixet told Variety.

The director admits an affinity for Nat, a character that Mesa says was named the most hated protagonist in contemporary Spanish literature on account of her motives, the irrational nature of her actions. Upon a second perusal of the text the story coaxed Coixet into an adaptation.

“I have this absolute identification with Nat. In a way, it was so difficult to do justice to this character, and at the same time, easy, because I’ve been there. I behaved like that, I felt all these things. I’ve felt this contradiction.”

Though harnessing an innate power, Nat comes to find country living isn’t the peaceful endeavor she’d imagined and at every turn she’s faced with the disingenuous nature of a society not trusting of a woman striking out on her own.

“We suffer micro aggressions in our daily lives as women. When we go to a new place, the first question someone asks is, ‘are you going to live here alone?’ ‘This was your first night here, you weren’t afraid?’ Why, as a woman, do we have to justify ourselves about every single thing going on in our lives?” Coixet asked. 

“I wanted to portray that. I also wanted to show what happened with people, let’s say, with ‘normal lives.’ The woman who has two kids and implies you’re not as good as her because you don’t have kids, you don’t have a partner or your house is crumbling or dirty, or you have a dog and the dog looks strange. Yet, all of those set standards she represents have made the life of women miserable,” she added.

Coixet film alum Costa runs with the ambitious character study, from her strident independence through the film’s obsessive bent and on toward an absolving and defiant culmination.

“I love Laia, we had a blast shooting my series, ‘Foodie Love.’ We’ve become friends, we’re very open with each other,” Coixet relayed. “Sometimes you get lazy as a director, because I’m sure there are a bunch of actresses who could play Nat, but Laia’s going to shine because she’s extraordinary.  I’ve said I have a deep connection with Nat, but Laia is so opposite to that character yet she really understood her, became her.” 

Costa and Hovik were stripped down for their roles. Incredibly vulnerable and raw, each sex scene worked to advance the narrative. Not over stylized but stumbling, wanton, brutal. Something Coixet credits to wide-open communication and a keen eye for the mood on set. She recalled the influence of the first cinematic sex scene she saw that felt real, which focused on the passion-flecked face of Meryl Streep’s title character in “Sophie’s Choice.”

Isabel Coixet
Credit: Zoe Sala Coixet

“People must talk and rehearse, a director must be present and create an atmosphere of trust, that’s what we did. It’s the duty of the director, a very important part of your job, to be there for them, notice if they’re not telling you something, guide them. Because, that’s what you are asking of them, to be present in that scene, in that moment,” she opined.

“I don’t want to say it was easy, nothing is easy. But I’ve shot many scenes like this in my life, and I have to say that if I had to shoot a guy flying, destroying a city, I would probably have more problems than shooting a sex scene. I don’t like the idea of choreography because sex is clumsy, it’s dirty. Sometimes you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do and we have to play with that too,” Coixet added.

“The representation of sex in our movie was key because what makes this something unique from other stories about sexual obsession is how this story begins, how the sex specifically acts as a token in a capitalistic system,” she continued.

“Un Amor” is an alluring anti-romance at every turn, full of brutal honesty and ill intent veiled in painted-on grins and unsolicited advice. A woman’s body plays currency – on offer for trade, barter and payment in full – as even the most self-sufficient among us require connection and assistance at a certain juncture.

The narrative turns on the mystifying act of human relation and all that’s said and left unsaid of our truths and furtive desires and proves a twisted rumination on love, belonging and the mind’s fragility as it settles the self-kept score of our cumbersome transgressions.

“All this about being very comfortable in your skin and accepting yourself, what is this? I don’t accept myself. I’m not good in my skin, I’m not comfortable. Maybe the day I’m comfortable in my skin, I’ll die. I’d rather be uncomfortable,” mused Coixet. 

“One of the things about films? They don’t have to be comfortable. They don’t have to be sweet. They have to challenge you. If there’s no challenge, there’s also no confrontation. In one of my films, one of the characters said, ‘Understanding everything makes the mind lazy’ and I think that’s the truth.”

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