TIFF 2020. The August Virgin – Spanish summer

7 August, 2020

Eric Rohmer’s films have successively investigated the concept of love, up until the point where nothing much was left of it, safe for a sickly, pestering memory that comes alongside a ton of prattle. That is something that we all know. But, what we do tend to gloss over is that, while we’re tied up within the assiduous contemplations of his characters, Rohmer’s uncomplicated and polished mechanism – which he had perfected in time, featuring people that would unspool their sentimental weavings in against a backdrop that was always carefully chosen – facilitates the spectator’s meeting with a series of recognizable places, but to which they have never been to. Rohmer’s films allow these spaces to breathe once they come into contact with a sum of characters that wander across them, much like tourists – meaning, actors on a set. I think that his cinema has never tried to detach itself from this vaguely artificial, vaguely documentary dimension, in spite of the pointed naturalism of the performances, in which film is quite simply a testament about the actors that took part in its construction.

I allowed myself this slightly longer introduction to say that if one is to take Jonás Trueba’s  The August Virgin / La virgen de agosto as a Rohmerian film, then that is owed primarily to the delicacy with which he embraces the intimate life of the town which acts as a setting. Eva’s (Itsaso Arana – luminous, gracious, gorgeous) decision to stay in Madrid for the month of August has a Rohmerian seed to it: accepting this status quo which says that, during peak vacation season, the town is deserted by its inhabitants, which leave on vacation, and thus the city can be seen clearer, with a sort of recoil. Any games which involve the town automatically imply taking a step backward and to slip into a pair of tourist shoes, which no longer allow you to take things for granted: thus one can explain the sequence in which Eva, a pure-blood Madrileña, jumps onto a hop on – hop off bus and then gets off at the Archaeology Museum, following an Asian tourist, and then randomly bumps into an acquaintance, and so on. Or the documentary moments of the film, those in which Eva “happens” to be around a street parade. This, here, is the inexhaustible charm of playing vacation, which opens Eva up to all the possibilities of sheer chance. The languishing state of the loser who skipped going to the beach now appears as it is: the courageous choice of a woman to abandon herself at the mercy of fate, listening closely to all the things that it whispers in her ear. So what if nothing comes out of it? The important thing is to accept the rule of the game: which is, the impossibility to plan its resolution in advance.

The August Virgin
Still from “The August Virgin”

It’s a score that is sufficiently loose to allow co-scriptwriters Jonás Trueba and Itsaso Arana free rein in creating the mini-events with which they garnish their film. Herein lies a difference from Rohmer: if in his case, any given story presented itself as a challenge that is undertaken by the protagonist (to get married, to find a partner, and so on), here, things lack any given goal, and that’s exactly why nothing is „useless”. Eva ends up bumping into former lovers and making new friends while out for a beer, without obligating the characters to take any sort of root within the fictional narrative. While paying sufficient attention to coincidences, Trueba knows however that he mustn’t try his luck – and if a character exits the scene before rounding up, there’s no tragedy in that: that’s how the chaotic law of summertime works like. Who thinks that whatever Trueba is doing here, by stringing along random conversations with strangers and provoked encounters, is in any way simple, should give things a second thought: the film’s merit is to find a good dosage for its moments, obtaining equilibrium between reactions such as „oh, of course” and „what a thing!”, showing us that this game which is like a box of surprises can never have any pre-emptive length; the chance within the script will always be there to slap our hands away.

Trueba knows the tracks in which he’s walking, and, most importantly, he isn’t hiding behind anything: just take a look at the text stills that carefully count the days, just as in Rohmer’s films – two summer weeks in which nothing much happens, and that doesn’t seem to panic anyone. I really like the way in which the film hosts within his hospitable shots recurrent moments of silence and calm. When Eva finally moves in her new rental apartment, she sits on the couch and stares into the void, while sunrays play around on her visage for a couple of long seconds, in silence. What a fabulous moment of cinema, which is capable of taking us out of the stupid logic of „efficient” fictions, and showing us the ravaging effects that exposure to films which have no idea what suspended time, quality time, time for oneself means. Just as, egged on by circumstance, we have accepted electrical cars to the detriment of gasoline, we could also understand the necessity of supporting such films, whose eco-friendly fuel is the simple act of talking, whose infallible intrinsic power lies in the exchange of gazes between two people that, perhaps for one night only, can share something between them. It’s something of a cinephile ecology, after all.

The August Virgin screens on the 8th of August at TIFF, and can also be watched on the TIFF Unlimited platform.


Avatar Victor Morozov
Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for the Dilema veche cultural magazine and collaborates with Acoperișul de Sticlă, Film Reporter, Ziarul Metropolis; enrolled in a Film Studies programme at Trinity College, Dublin.