You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Felix Hubble looks at Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, the director’s debut feature film that mixes elements of Sci-Fi, Horror, and Comedy into a unique and very deliberate lo-fi, Sci-Fi indie.
Searching through the seemingly endless stream of international Horror that used to occupy the US incarnation of Netflix one afternoon I stumbled across Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes). With a foggy recollection of Kate Micucci mentioning the film on an episode of Doug Loves Movies, and intrigued by the film’s visually striking poster that depicted a bandaged assailant wielding a pair of scissors, overlaid by a striking, grindhouse-esque font that announced the film’s title I pressed play, with little to no knowledge of the plot or premise. After a few moments of buffering the film began, opening on… a bumbling man who, in the process of renovating his house, begins spying on his neighbours? The dialogue was filled little throwaway lines that referenced concepts of ‘time’ – Clara (Candela Fernandez), our lead’s wife is unsure what day of the week it is, Héctor (Karra Elejalde), our lead specifically mentions the ‘time’ a few times. It seemed as though I had been misled – Timecrimes was actually a whimsical, irksome little indie flick, certainly not the Sci-Fi/Horror masterpiece I had hoped it would be.
Then, all of a sudden, the film took a turn towards the surreal and terrifying; the poster’s masked villain entered the fray, committing surreal acts of sexual violence and relentlessly stalking our lead with a seemingly expansive knowledge of things to come – possibly suggesting some sort of supernatural abilities. Trying to escape his attacker, Héctor stumbles across an expansive research facility and, after conversing with a scientist (played by writer/director Nacho Vigalondo) over walkie-talkie, charges forth towards an observatory shaped structure on the research facility’s grounds. Upon reaching his destination Héctor is confronted with an experimental device filled with an opaque, white liquid. Convinced by the scientist that it would serve as a good hiding place from his violent stalker, he enters the tank, and… is unwillingly sent back in time to the start of the day? All the tension was sucked from the sequence, the cycle was reset, and we were back to square one except this time, I was hooked. A series of events involving a car-crash and a bystander on a bicycle revealed that this second iteration of Héctor, denoted ‘Héctor 2’, is actually the bandaged assailant from earlier in the film, before all previous scenes are revisited, taking on a totally new layer of meaning.
This was a fantastic find in a sea of seemingly endless titles (and more-than-occasional mediocrity) during Netflix’s glory days, the period right before a number of the bigger mid-level distributors pulled the majority of their content to move to Hulu Plus or make an ill-fated attempt at launching their own services. It was also a period of extensive film-watching for me – I had just recently gained access to Netflix’s library, giving me my first taste of un-mediated access to a wide array of independent films and world cinema, moving beyond just the ‘important’ arthouse flicks and festival favourites that inevitably hit Australian cinemas and regularly disappointed. Timecrimes is one of my most treasured discoveries from this era,1 a mutt of a genre film that blends elements of Horror, Sci-Fi, Comedy and Drama, constantly subverting traditional plot devices and toying with theoretical concepts like the male gaze. 4:3’s editor Conor Bateman has described this film’s plot to me as a “Rube Goldberg machine that sets itself into motion” and I think this is probably the most succinct description you can give it. That said, the phrase doesn’t hit on the other two major aspects of the film’s narrative – its constant subversion of genre convention and its extremely impressive structural coherency.
Nacho Vigalondo’s debut film, Timecrimes was made on an estimated budget of $2.6 million in 2007, shockingly low for what we generally consider reasonable to make a (successful) high-concept science fiction film on.2 The film had its world premiere in 2007 at Austin’s prestigious (for genre flicks) Fantastic Fest before going on to screen at Sundance and FrightFest in 2008. It’s interesting that the film came out in 2007 as in the past 8 years it hasn’t seemed to age at all. No technological developments (like smart phones, for instance) have diminished the believability of the central conceit, nor have they lended themselves to enact a more logical course of events (the existence of Héctor 2 in the first place is a paradox that nullifies the possibility of Héctor 1 having called the police on his cell phone, for example).
It comes as no surprise that Nacho Vigalondo is an accomplished director of short films – an earlier short effort, 7.35 in the Morning (7:35 de la Mañana), was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 – as Timecrimes works well with a limited budget and runtime (only 92 minutes including credits, really impressive for what is essentially a four-act time-travel film) and is a fantastic debut effort, eclipsing a lot of other more established director’s entire bodies of work. It is obvious his budget was put to good use; consistently aware of the constraints a low-budget places on a high-concept Science Fiction film, Vigalondo has crafted something that is structurally complex, rather than visually complex to carve out a position of relevance in a contemporary filmic climate. That’s not to say that he pushes aesthetic aspects of his film to the wayside – it is also clear that he has plotted out a few striking visual motifs to burn the film into spectator’s memories. Of particular note is one sequence (revisited at multiple points in the film through many different shots) in which Héctor 2 spins to face Héctor 1 with his hands held over his face to mimic binoculars. Each time this sequence is revisited, the scene takes on a new meaning, as our understanding of it is mediated through a different iteration of Héctor’s eyes.
Conforming to a strict, plot hole-free structure with an economy of time takes precedence over pacing in Timecrimes. There is a definite constant flow from scene to scene throughout the film even though the pacing occasionally has a tendency to lag. These lags are a necessity to maintain the internal structural consistency of the film due to its complex use of multiple timelines and to tighten the editing would be to betray a very deliberate and prioritized continuity. It’s extremely fun to, in retrospect, mentally reverse-engineer and break down the way in which Vigalondo has ordered various shots during the film’s principal photography stages. In order to maintain a continuity in which X happens to object y in timeline 3 at point b, that then ensures that X happens to object y in timeline 1 at point b or that X has already happened to object y in timeline 1 a little after point b it’s clear that Vigalondo has had to shoot the film out-of-order – at least it definitely feels that way because so many shots are perfectly echoed when they recur at later moments in the film. In this sense it has a sense of central logic far more akin to Primer than The Time Machine as there are no flashy lights or glossy actors to fall back on to distract from potential plot holes.
In this way (strangely enough) Timecrimes offers a counterpoint to something like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a mega-budget film that was edited such that it vastly prioritized a deliberate sense of pacing and flow over plot holes and inconsistencies. If it’s a trade-off between the two, I have to favour Vigalondo’s approach of using his second and third timelines to whimsically set up, reference and/or close off scenes that have come before it in the first timeline at a cost of establishing a tight pace – Science Fiction films should hinge upon equal parts science (or at least logic) and fiction, not just one or the other. We have our obvious object of fantasy, the time-travel tank, that receives little to no explanation and serves as a plot device rather than a mechanical contraption, and around this we have our tightly coiled plot, with a consistent internal logic across three separate but interconnected timelines. What a frustrating film this would be if it cheated its internal logic in favour of a few less lags; in the pursuit of stronger pacing Vigalondo would tear a gaping hole right in the middle of the entire conceit. It is extremely admirable that Vigalondo maintains this structural integrity throughout the film’s runtime and this hints towards a very expansive, very complex planning phase during the film’s pre-production process.
Another great aspect of the film is Vigalondo’s manipulation and subversion of traditional genre tropes. He intentionally opens the film with some extremely hokey and ham-fisted dialogue about time-travel to put his audience off guard, characterizing the film as something it’s not – it’s some great misdirection that totally throws unsuspecting spectators (myself included) off the scent, obfuscating what’s to come by opening with some student-film level inane dialogue. He follows this up with his own personal throwback to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, as Héctor puts a chair up in his front yard and begins spying on a woman undressing in the distance through his binoculars – this expertly mimics the opening (post-credits) scene of Rear Window, down to Héctor passively responding to his wife Clara much in the way that Jeff (James Stewart) ignored the obvious advances of Lisa (Grace Kelly), paying her a minimal amount of attention as he longs for her to leave his apartment so he can recommence enthusiastically spying on his neighbours.3 Both of these scenes are cast through a totally different lens later in the film, the former revealing itself to clearly be a joke on Vigalondo’s part when the central time-travel conceit is revealed (he’s not making any meta-jokes about this iteration of Héctor having travelled through time or the couple being stuck in an endless time-loop), and the latter gaining new meaning when it is mediated through the eyes and lived experience of Héctor 2.
When we are first introduced to Héctor’s disrobing ‘neighbour’ (who, of course, turns out to not be a neighbour at all) our gaze is mediated through Héctor 1’s binoculars, a clear lens-centric metaphor for the cinematic male gaze through which most sexual interaction is shot. When we return to this sequence later in the film after Héctor has undergone the first round of time travel and assumed the role of the bandaged man. As Héctor 2 desperately attempts to replicate the actions he experienced passively as Héctor 1 earlier in the film, so as to not create a time-based anomaly, our gaze changes. The female who was initially an object of visual desire for the audience is given an active role in the way in which this scene is played out and becomes an obvious victim of sexual assault at the hands of Héctor 2. However, in this case, Héctor 2 is going against his best wishes in enacting this assault, objectifying the woman for the pleasure of his past self, Héctor 1, to avoid creating a time paradox. The way in which he so clearly does not want to inflict sexual assault upon the woman, highlighted in the awkward forced nature of their interaction in this continuity, is a hilarious contrast to his willing objectification of the same person in the same instance when he was just a passive observer. It’s a great set of sequences that offer a pretty biting commentary and criticism on the role of the male gaze in contemporary cinema – something that Vigalondo comes back to in his more recent picture (and English language debut) Open Windows.
There is a lot more that can be said about the genius of Timecrimes, however in the interest of keeping this relatively concise I will finish by imploring you to go and check this film out for yourself (preferably in Spanish with subtitles). Timecrimes is a fantastic, hilarious, and subversive addition to the time-travel canon, an assured debut from a director with a lot to offer, and beyond that, simply a damn good time.
Virat Nehru: I’m an absolute sucker for films that use time travel as a plot device or premise. To put this in perspective, I even enjoyed Hot Tub Time Machine 2 – a wholly unnecessary and rather unfunny sequel to the original. So when I realised that this week we are going to look at a film featuring time travel, I was hooked. I haven’t seen any of Nacho Vigalondo’s previous works, but on a purely first impression, he seems to be an extremely adept film-maker, making clever use of the limited resources at his disposal. Timecrimes reminded me a lot of the Australian sci-fi film Predestination (2014) by the Spierig brothers. The use of time travel as a plot device is similar in both films, but while on one hand Predestination relied wholly on the big ‘reveal’ moment at the end, Timecrimes is much more than merely being a film about time travel.
One of the most striking elements about this film was the way it was shot, which gave it a voyeuristic sensibility reminiscent of North by Northwest (1959) in particular – especially in terms of the way the character of Héctor 1 was set-up and the power dynamic between the multiple Héctor sequels and the young girl. The frontal nudity shots add to the sense of voyeurism and retrospectively, the film appears more about the way there is a constant power struggle between all the characters as they try to make sense of the warped conception of capital T ‘Time’ ideologically and also chronologically, than it is about the actual events that unfold because of the time travel. Another very good example illustrating that point is the fact that Héctor 2’s realisation of what he thinks he’s done to his ‘wife’ (but the audience knows isn’t) is central to the way Héctor 3 deals with his real wife at the end. The film uses the interplay between the multiple Héctors and the characters he interacts with very effectively. In this sense, the film becomes a somewhat absurd character study of the different variations of Héctor as they appear throughout the film and how he responds to himself, as opposed to a conventional plot driven suspense/thriller narrative.
The other point I wanted to make has been elaborated by Felix in his essay. I was quite amazed by how efficient Vigalondo was in utilising his limited budget. The comparison that Felix draws between the budget afforded by major production houses to what Vigalondo had at his disposal is eye-opening. Vigalondo’s sensibility and vision appears quite reformed – he knows how to make sure and execute his vision and which aspects of production and narrative to focus on so that the final product has the desired impact. Overall, I enjoyed this film. It was a clever variation on the oft-tread ‘time travel’ theme.
Dominic Barlow: I referenced Vigalondo’s consequent reputation from Timecrimes when watching his contribution to The ABCs of Death, and I’m glad to see that it’s well-founded. Like Felix and Conor, I find its mechanical plot very compelling, but I prefer to frame it as thrills found in falling action, since the climactic revelations of how events happen land early and the rest is a matter of playing them out to fruition. Rube Goldbergs also thrive on cause and effect, whereas this is a matter of lining up mirror reflections by reiterating what we’ve already seen, right down to identical camera movements. This requires a strange and dreamlike role reversal on Hector’s part and a softly surreal tone from the film, which is all the stronger for the whole plot taking place over maybe a three-hour period and never straying from the pale hues of its schlub-hero’s country home, nor the sinister nudging of Chucky Namenera’s score.
It’s for that reason that I’m not really on board with Felix’s praise of its gender politics, because while it reverses an initial boldfaced sexualisation it still treats them exclusively as elements to be shifted within the chronology, totally oblivious to what is really happening. It’s not one to make such a progressive statement, but it carries its schemes out with aplomb and is well worth checking out regardless.