A REVIEW OF THE FILM IN YOUR ABSENCE (2008)
In Your Absence is a Spanish film written and directed by independent filmmaker Ivan Noel. It stars Gonzalo Sánchez Salas and Francisco Alfonsin and runs 95 min.
Death Takes a Sabbatical
by Sam Hall, 23 May 2022
Oscar Wilde said of The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing." Ivan Noel's first film In Your Absence might manage to evade this reaction, but only by denying his similarly spotless thirteen-year-old protagonist the grandeur and release of a tragic death. The boy Pablo's tale of woe is similar to Ophelia's in Hamlet: first love cruelly nixed, wrenched from pillar to post by Machiavellian power games beyond his ken, unbearable loss of a father. Both babes-in-the-woods are sent into life-destroying tailspins. But while Ophelia was immortalised by her lyrical, flower-bedecked death scene, Pablo is sentenced to a life of grim despair and isolation where the only certainty is the impossibility of closure or repair. Weep no tears over Pablo's outcast state, for things can only get worse.
The plot proper, though, was always at odds with the very grim emotional terrain Noel was determined to plumb. First and foremost In Your Absence is an engaging mystery. Pablo Benitez, played by novice actor Gonzalo Sanches Sala, is a sweet but sad thirteen-year-old boy living a rather lonely existence in the spectacularly beautiful countryside of southern Spain. Seemingly by chance he is befriended by Paco, a man who claims to be fond of animals and children. He shows a genial and persistent interest in the boy, gradually winning first his friendship then his love. When it emerges early on that Paco came to the rural village to track down a former friend who turns out to be Pablo's recently deceased dad -- we're off on an irresistible journey of teasing hints and possibilities as to what's really going on. The shocking razzle-dazzle reveal at the end sends re-evaluative shockwaves through the audience worthy of thrillers such as The Usual Suspects. But there's a problem at the end. The pyrotechnics of the climactic scene simply won't gel, dramatically, with the gruelling adolescent life-experience being relentlessly explored.
In Your Absence was Noel's first film, one he'd been mulling for ten years before taking the plunge, selling his house, hopscotching through various disasters and nervous breakdowns, to begin a worthy film career. He has said of his artistic process that he needs to work at a fair clip, commensurate with his mind's unprompted bubbling up of ideas. Perhaps the ten-year lead time created problems. The film has too many moving parts, doesn't quite form a unity. I think Noel as good as admits this with his second project, Brecha (2009). This film deals with a similar boy carrying a similarly too-heavy burden of guilt after a tragic parent-killing accident. The boy's character in coping has far more nuance and depth, the story arc is tighter, the reveal emerges more organically, and the climax gives a powerful and emotionally satisfying conclusion.
This is not to suggest In Your Absence needed an uplifting ending. From Hadrian's Antinous to J. M. Barrie's Michael, beautiful boys are no strangers to the sublime heights of tragedy. Where would myth, art or religion be without the regular ritualistic slaying of divine boys? Noel has said he wanted to create visual poetry, and we're certainly given a mythopoeic launch with a wonderful opening scene. After a brief glimpse-of-future-grimness prologue, we find ourselves looking down from a God-like height on an Edenic setting where young Pablo lies idling and innocent. Intrigued by a nearby mushroom -- such a delicate creation, curiously phallic and fleshy -- he tries taking a bite and -- woe unto him! -- it's a shocker, it poisons him as it sets him motion -- he's up and off and across the fields, stopping for an occasional vomit. It's our introduction to the boy and his windswept mythological precursors, the endless fields of anemones, hyacinths and narcissi, tossing in sprightly dance, such a jocund company, and forming the gorgeous foundational pallete of this visually stunning film. The boy runs and runs, but to where and to what end, who knows? Who cares? Nature's springtime energies need nothing more that their own efflorescence.
Pablo finally makes it to a precipice. With a few last heaves, he seems finally to have rid himself of the forbidden fruiting body. Standing on top of the world, caressed by sun and breeze, he has a wank, in perfect synchrony with the wind playfully fapping the untucked hem of his favourite orange T-shirt. To begin a film with a boy masturbating alone in nature is cosmogonic, an ode to spring and the eternal bloom of youth. The garden of Eden has been returned to its pagan roots and Mother Earth is given a votive offering. It's an opening that contains important Noel themes: a polemical refusal to draw a Victorian veil over adolescent sexuality, and the need to honour nature. The modern disconnect with nature, as it pertains to adolescent sexuality, is Noel's primary theme over the course of his ten-film career.
So given this fine pagan set up, the ending of In Your Absence becomes even harder to explain or accept. After the big reveal, when Pablo learns Paco was a callous, manipulative fraud and didn't care tuppence for him, guns, tears and screams quickly escalate to violence. But Pablo is disarmed -- passivity is his calling card -- and the snooping busybody postman is the one to gun Paco down. Pablo runs off across the field of flowers, now slick with pathetic-fallacy blood, and finds a convenient spot to curl into the fetal position. Fade in ten years later and Pablo as young man walks the cold concrete paths of a bleak urban setting. He's obviously not one whit moved on from his boyhood hurt. The final shot sees this mute wanderer adopting the same fetal position at a bus stop. No more flowers for Pablo, we can reflect as the credits roll.
But the blood spattering the flowers earlier on is a mocking lie. Pablo, a boy worthy of the interest of the great tusked boar of fate, is, to the very end, coldly sidelined from the great mysteries of life, left to hug and rock himself in a cocoon of pain. The ghastly end of this film reeks of biblical expulsion. Only Yahweh, the first deity to insist on his own complete and ferociously unarguable goodness, could have sentenced one of his little ones to such cruel and everlasting punishment. The film's opening witnessed a delightful invitation for sex to stop slithering about sinisterly in the shadows and re-join the human condition. The conclusion savagely rejects the invitation and the fruitful landscape is concreted over and made safe for future demons and hissing serpents.
If a Goliath-slaying happy-ending was out of the question, and it probably was, then I contend this film had to give Pablo an awful, tragic, profound, cathartic, religious death. Pablo should have been deified in the manner of Leo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic. A blazingly beautiful icon to weep over rather than a generic nod to nihilism. In the beginning of In Your Absence, the actor Gonzalo, as he masturbates, shows momentarily a striking similarity to a young Keanu Reeves. The camera was prepared to love this boy and promote him to starry immortality. But, at the end, all that remained was the soul-crushing forces of suffocation and repression. A tragedy, certainly, but not of the inspirationally dramatic variety.
One could argue, of course, that the ending is a deliberate comment on the world we live in. That could work, but it would require assessing the film as a political tract rather than a work of art -- and Noel's work is far too original and interesting for such a mouse-hole approach. He recognised and corrected his error with Brecha -- something only a serious artist would bother doing -- so we can leave it at that.
By far the most thought-provoking element of this film is the pederastic phantom at the heart of the mystery. From the moment Paco "accidentally" stumbles upon the boy, he displays a keenness to befriend him that seems blatantly pederastic in intent. There's not many cultures outside the Judeo-Christian that wouldn't immediately recognise this as a man wooing a boy. Certainly the locals think so, and suspicious frowns pop up quicker than toadstools after a thunderstorm. More importantly, Pablo starts to believe it, or at least intuits it as much as a thirteen-year-old boy can in a world that so fastidiously censures his sexuality. Noel quite beautifully captures the emotional and sexual confusion of a boy in this particular situation in this particular culture.
But as Pablo's affections start to skyrocket, we're given odd, discordant hints from Paco. On one of the pair's many walks through the beautiful countryside, Paco attempts to work some psychological healing on a boy carrying a terrible burden of guilt. It's a fairly banal bit of psychobabble -- lie back, relax, and learn to love your inner you -- but the importance of it for Pablo was the hint this man not only liked him and understood him, but might even like him despite the awful secret of patricide he carried. After the guided meditation session, Pablo flings his arms around Paco to hug him passionately. But at what should be love's traditional music-swelling moment, the camera suddenly pulls back to a cool calculating distance, and we see Paco react stiffly, returning the hug with an awkward pat. A man being cautious in a world so fanatically hostile to this form of love? It really is the only straw to grasp at right now.
The next hint comes to the brink of shattering Paco's deceitful act. After a swim, Pablo strips off his swimming trunks and makes a shy but fairly obvious attempt to engage Paco sexually. The way Noel built to this moment was another of his visual poetry successes. The boy's recently awakened sexuality was shown to be in a typically polymorphous and hyperactive state. He was shown to be easily aroused by, in no particular order, his fifteen-year-old friend Julia, a breast-feeding mum, himself, Paco, a tree, and the open air. The way in which he chose Paco as a preferred first partner made sense pragmatically and romantically. Earlier fumblings with Julia never went anywhere because Julia had her own adolescent obstacle course to run. Paco seemed to be offering the sort of whole-of-life deal the boy sorely needed.
But Pablo's attempt to explore this possibility is curtly cut short when Paco tells him to get dressed. The scene packs added punch by mirroring the earlier warm and successful counselling session. Trust me, Paco had said earlier, as Pablo lay before him and opened his deepest fears to the man's guidance. Now, by the lake, the boy seeks to replay and build on that trust by going to a next-level sexual intimacy, which he intuits, entirely justifiably, to be both appropriate and mutually desired.
Straight after this, though, the postman, snooping representative of village suspicions, walks up to say he was just passing by. So the possibility Paco is again showing wise caution is impossible to completely dismiss. Although there's now a callousness to his caution that is seriously throwing first-impressions into doubt.
It's only a short time after this scene that Pablo discovers Paco in bed with his mum, talking about how easy the boy was to win over, even though, ha ha, he sure is a bit of a weirdo -- an obvious reference to the boy's recent sexual overture. There follows the calamitous climax: Paco shot and badly wounded, the boy launched upon a sea of endless pain. After his first three films, Noel moved into the horror and post-apocalyptic dystopia genres. I think it was a wise move, his more natural home. While he was inspired by the gritty realism of Francois Truffaut and Ken Loach, he found the lure of fantastic emotional extremes irresistible.
Noel's twisting of the knife -- a big glinting butcher's knife -- happens with Halloween-like regularity in In Your Absence. And don't bother asking for whom the knife twists, it twists for Pablo, you can take it to the bank. Paco's betrayal was gruesome enough, but to have Pablo's mum laughing along with Paco's description of her son as a weirdo was a disorienting bit of nastiness. And the loading up of loveable Pablo as a packhorse of pain was girt with overkill. For instance, Pablo's Dad's penchent for creatively cruel punishments. The long, drawn-out scene of the boy being forced to murder his own dog was more Stephen King than Truffaut or Loach.
And the final kicker was Pablo's meeting ten years later with Paco. Just in case you thought you might be allowed one quick breath free of the searing knife pain. Paco's big news for the boy is to tell him, "I don't blame you for what happened." Magnanimously forgives him. For how could the boy have known what it was like to have loved and lost? I guess if Pablo were capable of speech, he might have said something about now. Even an inaudible "Huh?" might have been nice. But no, he was far too lost and gone for the shaping of syllables. The very cleverly constructed mystery-plot was hopelessly dissolved in this acid bath of misery.
Noel favours a script-free, improvisational approach. With novice actors like the twelve-year-old Gonzalo, his aim is to bring a naturalistic performance to the screen. In this he certainly succeeds, but it doesn't automatically follow that he's created a good or interesting character. Certainly Pablo's natural charm and good looks win the audience's heart, but he isn't a boy with anything like the three-dimensional complexity of Antoine from The 400 Blows or Billy from Kes. The flashback scenes of cruel punishment were flat-out mistakes and missed opportunities. We ended up with a too-sentimental Blakean chimney sweep of a boy. Little lamb, one is constantly tempted to ask, who made thee?
But there remains plenty to enjoy in this film. Paco's fake pederasty, for instance, is a fascinating phenomenon to reflect on. Pablo receives many warnings that Paco is not to be trusted. The irony is, this turns out to be good advice, but for exactly the opposite reason to that hinted at by the good villagers. There's no doubt a Paco of good character and good pederastic intentions would have been a godsend for the boy. His faking it, for his own amorous aims elsewhere, unleashed a disaster that he never came close to comprehending, not even after ten years of having nothing more to do than sit in his wheelchair and mull it.
But what is the correct verdict of the villagers, both Andalusian and global, when it comes to Paco's behaviour? Was he wrong to deceive the boy? Did he in fact deceive the boy at all? If he's not a pederast and he had no pederastic intentions whatsoever, hasn't he, in fact, acted admirably, selflessly? Look at the care and attention he extended to a needy boy. Why, it's the very model of the way a good modern man will act toward boys that may come into his orbit of influence. Paco is the ultimate benevolent professional care-giver, dedicated to seeing his current client develop good healthy attitudes toward himself and the world. So what if, deep down, Paco has some peculiar personal motives. Paco's feelings for the boy are as pure as a Protestant picnic; his actions, his attempts to provide help, his carefully tailored encouragement -- for he genuinely does want the boy to prosper -- are beyond reproach, and that's why he will always see himself as a blameless victim. The only absence in Paco's relationship with Pablo is love. And that, we're told, is vastly to the man's credit.
I think this a brilliant, wickedly subversive bit of filmmaking. It prompts one to ask: What might today's benevolent care-givers -- all the abuse tsars and memory whisperers and victim worshippers -- what might their secret motives be? What secret consummation might they be, just quietly, devoutly wishing for? Despite modern care-givers' avowedly secular, progressive values, I think one would need the help of Yahweh himself to even begin to grasp that Manichean mystery.
The Paco-Pablo friendship also fires a cheeky satirical arrow or two at cinema's time-honoured Special Friendship, the man-boy friendship subgenre so wonderfully collated and commented upon by Steven Freeman. Paco's jumping out of his car to begin chatting up the boy reminds us of the tortuous complications that must be employed to render a Special Friendship free of pederastic taint. Aren't all these intricate pederasty-shunning plot devices just another version of Paco's self-serving duplicity? Spinning webs of deceit in order to render boys harmless and compliant -- for nothing is more harmless and compliant than a de-sexed minion, the ultimate client of the state.
Paco's story highlights the Promethean stealing of fire from Greek love which is always present to some extent in these Special Friendships. Paco's ignorance of the true nature of his skulduggery is what causes the tragedy to unfold. Whereas in Noel's film a fitting liver-shredding punishment is meted out to Paco, the Special Friendship film exists to insist there's nothing to see here -- certainly nothing to feel. The benevolent care-giver can watch the Special Friendship film and know that all is right in the world. Little Nell never died, she was magically transported to an abuse shelter.
Ivan Noel made it his life-work to explore the dangerous disconnect with nature all this benevolent surface-smiling requires. It's a disconnect that is starting to take on black-hole proportions, growing big on what it swallows and destroys as it careens on its all too familiar path. It even caught up with Ivan Noel himself recently, although he gave it the slip with a cheeky laugh that put the gravity-crusher somewhat in its place. All-devouring black holes tend to drone on for billions upon billions of years, but it's the briefest flashes of beauty, as captured by Noel's cinematographic brilliance, that are truly worth the test of time.