Martín Rejtman’s Dos disparos (Two Shots Fired) opens on a shot of a teenager dancing by himself at a nightclub. At dawn, he rides the bus home, alone and expressionless. Once there he swims laps in the garden pool, timing himself each round. Then he mows the lawn. Then he finds a gun in the shed. Then he goes up to his room and shoots himself twice.
“It was very hot,” is the boy’s explanation when later asked why he almost killed himself. Whether they’re attempting suicide, dropping acid, or engaging in threesomes—all sensational events in this consummately anti-sensational film—Rejtman’s characters go at it with the same enthusiasm afforded to the insipid hamburgers that comprise almost every one of their meals. That is to say: none.
If all this sounds depressing, it’s because it doesn’t account for Rejtman’s singular and exquisite brand of humor. In his four fictional features, released at intervals of up to a decade following his 1992 debut Rapado, the Argentine director has painted a highly idiosyncratic portrait of urban alienation in his native Buenos Aires, a portrait of a middle class mired in meaningless cycles of repetition and wholly insouciant about it. Rejtman gets great comic mileage out of his urbanites’ deadpan obliviousness, leaving them stranded in a world governed by absurdity and limiting their conversations to exchanges of non-sequiturs like the one above.
This thematic outlook extends to the cinematography, which traps the characters in stifling, carefully composed shots, all the while providing an abundance of visual gags that prevent the films from ever becoming oppressive. In Dos disparos, the camera almost never moves, and it’s truly remarkable how much laughter a simple, well-timed pan can elicit in an otherwise static world.
Rejtman is a central figure of the New Argentine Cinema that emerged in the 1990s. Like those of his peers, his films are widely considered to address the societal ills ushered in by the neoliberal economic policies of the time. Despite his estimation as one of his country’s most eloquent filmmakers in this regard, when I met him at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival after the premiere of his film, I was interested to find that he rejected such a reading. He also rejected all philosophical readings right at the outset. Nevertheless, what transpired was a discussion on cinema both insightful and thoroughly philosophical.
I find your characters so fascinating. If their lives weren’t anchored in a specific economic reality, the film would feel existential. Does that reflect your personal philosophy?
My personal philosophy? (laughter) I don’t think I have a personal philosophy. I am a little bit like my characters, in a way. I just go along. I think my characters are a reflection of whom I am. In a lesser way of course: I’m a little bit more conscious of myself than my characters. What happens to them is that they don’t reflect on themselves, they don’t reflect on what they do. They are atravesados—what’s the word in English? Atravesados por las circunstancias—the situations pass through them.
They’re spectators, passengers?
They just go through life not being affected by what happens to them. Psychologically too, because factually they do things, but they don’t really suffer, because they don’t think about what’s going on. Only Susanna, in this film, is more affected by what Mariano did, but Mariano is exactly the same before and after. He shoots himself and survives, but nothing seems to have changed with him. It’s the same in all my films, and you can call that my philosophy if you want to, but philosophy is such a pretentious term. I don’t think I have a philosophy. We should leave philosophy to the philosophers, maybe? (laughter) That’s the way I build fictions, with these characters who go through life in this way. It helps me construct stories and build up situations. It’s just a way of working for me. Again, in this way I’m not reflective, I don’t care what it means that they’re not affected by what happens to them.
You’ve tended to focus on youth in your films. Here the parent generation also has a very central role. Could you elaborate on this generational divide?
I made a thirty-minute film in black and white a long time ago about sixteen-year-old kids. Then I made a feature, Rapado, which is about teenagers. Then I made Silvia Prieto (1999), which is about twenty-somethings, and The Magic Gloves (2003) about people in their late thirties. I wanted to break this pattern, because otherwise I’d be making films like Cocoon or a film in a retirement home or something, so I wanted to mix everything up. That’s why here I have characters who are very young and characters who are older: the parents and the kids. I wanted that mix.
Although career-wise, the older generation is better off—the mother is a lawyer, for example—they seem afflicted by the same apathy. The mother hides the knives, but still she doesn’t go through the emotions you’d expect from a mother following her son’s suicide attempt. Do you think they live the same experience?
Yes, probably. She reacts, but she doesn’t suffer. It’s an ideal way of living, no? It’s almost like a yogic way of life: in yoga you have to suppress your thoughts. In a way, it’s the key to happiness. (laughter)
It’s not unhappiness. You go through a dramatic situation and you don’t suffer, you just go through it. I’m not saying it’s a perfect way of living, but it could be. (laughter)
This is an excerpt of my interview published by BOMB Daily. You can read the full interview here.