Relatos Salvajes: Why Seeing Bad Feels So Good
joint article with Jérémy Bernard
Warning: mad spoilers!
When we see characters in a movie escaping the clutches of everyday conformity it is impossible not to be amazed. Not to get all “we live in a society” on you, but we do. Watching characters break though the norm and act without fear of judgement or consequences is an immensely satisfying feeling. The Argentine movie Relatos Salvajes, or “Wild Tales”, by director Damián Szifron follows an anthology structure and contains six vignettes all packed with multitudes of irony, extremely emotionally distressing situations, and flawless executions of dark humor. Every story told keeps the viewer on their toes because of their utter unpredictability. You may be convinced that you know what’s going to happen only to end up completely wrong, a bit depressed, but somehow still with a smile stuck on your face because of the sheer ingenuity of the tale.
The cold opening of the movie fantastically sets the tone for the rest of the vignettes. We begin with a woman making her way through airport check-in, inquiring if her flight will earn her any frequent flyer miles. She receives a quick rejection and continues her way to her flight, which has already begun boarding. Soon after taking her seat she is met with a question by a male passenger sitting directly parallel to her, “¿Trabajo o placer?”. They begin casual conversation and soon realize they both share a relation to a man named Gabriel Pasternak. Remarkably, a woman nearby overhears their conversation and tells them about her relation to Gabriel Pasternak. After a few more minutes of bewildered chatter, every passenger on the flight is revealed to be in some shape or form associated with the man Gabriel Pasternak. A flight attendant amidst the commotion reveals that the one and only Mr. Pasternak is the pilot of the flight. Chaos shortly ensues as everyone reveals how they have personally wronged Gabriel while his money hungry therapist runs to the door of the cockpit and tells Gabriel that all of his problems are because of his parents. It is then revealed that the plane is making its way directly to his parents’ house and by the end of the story he successfully kills every person who has ever done him any wrongdoing. Now, I will preface this with saying murder is wrong, just in case I ever end up on a list, but let’s be honest here. How many of us have fantasized about this scenario? Of course, not as bloody or morbid as this exact one but about getting rid of everyone who has ever hurt us before? Although none of us would actually go through with such a gruesome act, Relatos Salvajes serves as a catharsis for our typical grievances. We laugh at this situation because we understand how common it is to hope we can get revenge on people who have caused us harm.
The crashing plane, barreling towards the pilot’s parents, starts off the credits for the movie. Presented before the audience is a series of vignettes that tackle the aggression hidden inside of us all, but the tales also tell of corruption and power. When the psychologist tries to negotiate with the pilot, insisting that the fault lies entirely on the pilot’s parents, the psychologist is trying desperately to find a scapegoat for the violent end that awaits him. This negotiation is only made possible through the power that the pilot possesses, the violence that he threatens and absolutely intends to use. A form of cynicism perceived in this scene stems from the idea that the psychologist views no other alternative than to immediately blame someone else. By blaming the pilot’s parents, the only solution comes from having the violence strike down on someone else. Even more cynicism comes from the fact that the pilot does indeed kill his parents but uses the plane full of his enemies to do so. Yet this movie is a comedy movie! Using a cynical take on modern society makes us burst out in laughter. The exaggerated stakes of life and death, the unimaginable luck of being able to combine all the people you hate onto a plane that you are piloting, allows the audience to understand that this scenario is very far-fetched. The unrealistic portrayal of power and revenge doesn’t necessarily hinder our ability to enjoy the scene from a realistic point of view. We still laugh because of how real the scenario is in our fantasies. So, the plane, as it comes crashing down, also concludes the introduction of the movie before the title appears and informs us that we will be laughing a lot, that in our laughter we’re going to find a darker part of ourselves too, one that wishes hate and violence, one that can recognize corruption and unfair stakes, but one that might not always wish this unfairness away.
This brings us to the next story, “Las Ratas”. The scene opens with a 20-something waitress and an older, tough looking cook. A man walks in and immediately begins belittling the waitress as if she's a random unqualified 10 year old. She has an intense look of shock in her gaze and shuffles to the back of the restaurant. She immediately reveals to the cook that the man who walked in is a man who is a part of a mafia and repossessed her house, causing her deeply distressed father to kill himself. After her father’s funeral the man pursues her mother so intensely that her mother and her had to move to another town. The cook instantly suggests that they should kill him with rat poison. The waitress is appalled and against such an action and proceeds to go take the man's order. She then relays the order to the cook, who makes the food and secretly contaminates it with rat poison. The waitress brings the food to the man and returns to the kitchen extremely flustered from the interaction. The cook then reveals that she poisoned the meal which causes the waitress to panic. The cook manages to calm down the waitress until the man's son walks through the door. A handful of rat poisoned fries in, the son begins to look pale, all while the waitress is trying to take the food away. She swats the plate of fries from the table which causes the man to attack her. During all of the commotion the cook comes in and stabs the man multiple times while the son volcanoes pale white vomit. The story ends with the cook being arrested and the waitress and son sitting next to each other in ER blankets, telling the police of the crime they witnessed. This vignette is much like the airplane vignette in the sense that it is something that we have all fantasized, despite not wanting to admit it. An article on espinof.com perfectly encapsulates this sentiment
“La diversión que propone Relatos salvajes es incómoda al ser el resultado de un análisis pesimista de la sociedad actual y mostrando la reacción que a muchos nos gustaría tener ante ciertos conflictos que pueden pasarnos perfectamente a nosotros.”
English translation: The fun that Relatos Salvajes proposes is uncomfortable because it is a result of a pessimistic analysis of today's society and shows us the reaction that a lot of us would like to have during certain conflicts that can easily happen to us.
We have all imagined having the person who has hurt us the most in a vulnerable position, such as serving them at a restaurant. Of course, this film embellishes this in the form of murder but when you think about it more plainly, how many times have you wished to spit in the food of someone you hated? Or perhaps serve them a normal coke instead of a diet? All of these petty revenges serve the same purpose as the waitress and the cook. We have a deep desire for the vulnerability of our enemies and given the chance we wish to right their wrongs, despite not always having the balls to do so. Another take on “Las Ratas” can be taken in favor of the waitress. While the waitress is panicking shortly after the cook reveals that she has poisoned the man, she says "Así está el pais, todos quieren que alguien le de su medicina a Estos personajes pero nadie se pone a mover un dedo." which roughly translates to “This is how this country is, everyone wants to give these people the taste of their own medicine, but no one wants to lift a finger.” This can be comparable with a vast majority of human “outrage” behavior. How many times have we seen someone post the typical Instagram activism post or share their outrage of “the system” on Facebook, only to give up past simply sharing a post. People have an extremely easy time showing how virtuous they truly are without actually trying to change any wickedness in the world. To be transparent, I am on no moral high ground on this topic. I speak louder than my actions like most. I am simply pointing out this hypocrisy and trying to explain this murderous cook's feelings towards society.
We can even dive into the way that the movie translates the relationship between the waitress and the mob man through the way the camera frames both characters at any given shot. Relatos Salvajes manages to incorporate a very strict frame that encases many of the vignettes, as certain characters become isolated and set firmly in the background, pushing the more moral or powerful character to the forefront. As Elis pointed out, the vulnerability of the mafioso who murdered the entire family of the waitress can be something akin to having the mosquito that bit you lying wingless in your hand, how could you not squish it? What’s interesting is that the male character almost exclusively stays seated throughout the scene, having the waitress perform an active and dynamic role in contrast to his imposing unmoving seated position. The negotiation of power between the two characters constantly comes to the attention of the audience as the camera shows the mafioso beneath her at all times, or shoved in the back of the shot, framed through the slit of sight connecting the kitchen to the customer’s tables. His presence is reduced, but his covert power creeps into the shot. He still orders the waitress around and is always in sight. Though the chef declares that no one is willing to lift a finger to change the world, the audience might be able to infer that one of the reasons why it's difficult to make changes, no matter how badly they are needed or wanted, comes from the forces of power maintaining their control over others, no matter how subtly, no matter how far removed. Unsettling to think that these people can control and torture other people’s lives and incredibly satisfying when, the moment the mafioso gets up to enact a direct assertion of his power, the chef’s knife plunges into the Mafioso’s back and bleeds onto the waitress. Even after his death he manages to stay in the frame, to be present within the waitress’ final moments of the vignette.
The next scene we will be discussing is a gut wrenchingly intense story about two men who both go too far, concluding with a calamitous end for both parties. A man in a pristine Audi speeds his way down a highway, only to be halted by a scrappy vehicle. The more affluent man curses disgusting obscenities at him and cruises by, continuing on his merry way. Further down the road the Audi breaks down prompting a quick call to a car repair service and an ill attempt at fixing the tire. As the Audi breaks down, the driver is caught up by the man he had yelled at. What proceeds is a caveman-esque battle filled with defecation, destruction of property, blunt force trauma, executionary (I don’t think that’s a word) hanging, and eventually the death of both parties. The lack of compassion displayed by these men is a disgustingly perfect metaphor for how all of us act in certain situations. It is hard, god so hard, to let things go and much like the diner story, this is over the top, but not unrelatable. We have all gotten so angry at a person for doing something that we deemed stupid, yet, we have all been in the position of the stupid person too. We have all accidentally biked on the wrong path or sat in the wrong seat. We have all wanted to scream at the idiot or scream at the abuser. Even if it is something as benign as an Instagram DM argument, we have all struggled at letting go at our own expenses. This story capitalizes on the all true human feeling of empathy lacking rage. Rage that is expressed without thought and would be much more simply ignored, essentially taking the highroad.
The next scene is a type of anger much too common for probably every human in existence, bureaucratic anger. If you are past the age of 20 you have probably been ticketed at one point or another. Whether that ticket was justified or not it most likely instilled a form of anger. In this vignette a man misses his daughter's birthday party because he is too busy arguing with the municipality over his ticket, which he believes was unjustified. He ends up berating and assaulting a government worker, losing his wife, losing his job, and once again, losing his car. His story concludes in the bombing of the tow truck agency which lands him in jail, but also lands him a spot in the heart of the nation. When I watched this vignette it left me with a justice boner but also with a bitter taste in my mouth. Why is it that people only cared about who they dubbed “Bombita” after his attack on the city building? Norm breaking in our modern society seems to only be celebrated after radical expression. It wasn’t enough that he was speaking, attempting to get his word out, and partaking in an act of violence that did not physically injure anyone. He had to actually bomb a location in order to garner support. He is a sufferer of martyrdom. People were blind to what he was saying until the extreme measure was taken and then he became a mini celebrity/ a local hero.
Shielded by a glass wall, the people collecting the money from the fine are at first seen as untouchable. Each complaint that the main character has is left with a complete dismissal and the other people waiting in line tell him that they’re all in the same situation but that he should just hurry up and leave. Everyone involved in the process, whether they be victims of the mandatory payments or the pencil pushers who collect the fine, no longer wants to see any change but rather passively accept the situation. Even though no one stands up against the DMV there is also the clear separation between those that work there and those that have to pick up money at an ATM to pay their fines in cash. After having lost so much to this system and to his own inability to cope with the unjustness of his case, the main character blows it all up. He breaches the glass and shatters it. People celebrate him but ultimately the system stays the same and the glass is undoubtedly rebuilt.
The next vignette is probably equal parts unrelatable as it is understandable. A “child” from an affluent family comes home and reveals he has committed a hit and run while under the influence. The father calls the family lawyer and begins to attempt to absolve the “child” from the crime and consults the family gardener to take the fall in exchange for money. Complications ensue as the lawyer, the gardener, and the investigator become a mixture of greed and opportunism and attempt to extort the father of the “child” for the most money possible. In the end the gardener agrees to take the blame and goes into the crowd of enraged protesters, only to be immediately murdered by the husband and father of the hit and run victims. The moral of this story can be taken in the stance of two interpretations: the rich can get away with everything and everyone in life is trying to fuck you over. While the first is a lot less relatable the second tugs the heartstrings of most. Much like the previous vignette this story illustrates the sheer corruption of humans and how your best interest is never at heart because the people around you will always try to squeeze any dime or resource they can from you. Although everyone in this story tries to swindle the father in any way they can, the gardener cannot be taken for blame. The gardener wants to take the deal in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty for his family. If he lays low and accepts the prison time he can perhaps give his child a better life and not force them to fall for the same trap that many other penniless people are forced into.
And once again the framing of the camera illustrates both how trapped the gardener is as well as the power that the lawyer and his employer have over him. When discussing the plan to scapegoat the gardener, the lawyer and the father of the fuck up son move to another room and discuss in private. These two characters are in the forefront of the frame whereas the gardener is left behind, sitting down in a room filled to the brim with his employer’s many fancy possessions. This frame allows the director to convey the imbalance of power present in the scene as well as a form of entrapment. Perhaps the gardener can also be viewed as another commodity of the rich man, who treats the gardener like another expensive piece in his collection, this time best used to show off to the inquisitive and easily corruptible police.
The final Vignette takes place at a seemingly lovely wedding. The bride and groom are having an incredible night until the bride discovers that her unfaithful groom has invited a woman who he has cheated with to the event, devastating her so severely that she has a monumental, but well deserved, meltdown. As the wedding progresses chaos ensues when the bride has sex with a random man, intensely injures the mistress, and essentially destroys the entire wedding. Amongst this carnivalesque destruction the groom screams to the bride "No te hice nada comparado con lo que me estas haciendo vos'' which roughly translates to “I haven’t done anything compared to what you are doing to me”.
The emotional weight in this vignette drives the scene. A wedding carries along its shoulders the entire past of a relationship and the hope for a fruitful future. How insanely awful it is that the husband-to-be literally brings his mistress to the wedding. As the couple comes back together in a passionate embrace all of the damage, all of the violence, fades into the background. Throughout the movie, acts of passion have dictated the destructive chaos of each vignette. What the final vignette offers us is the possibility that our emotions can surpass the physical boundaries of violence. How can love be filmed in the midst of rubble? How can we laugh at the most frustrating and painful experiences of human life? That is what the movie forces us to ask ourselves all while having a twistedly good time doing it.
The reason that it is so easy to resonate with the characters of this film is because we have all been in the same situations or have fantasized about what we would do in these situations. All of the vignettes are clear cut examples of vengeance. Whether it be killing everyone who has ever negatively affected your life, having sex with another man to get back at your cheating husband, bombing a tow truck ticket booth, or getting into a row out of road rage, we have all experienced intensely petty affairs which we attempted to justify with our anger. Relatos Salvajes attempts to creep out the ugly parts of our existences by displaying our grievances and hypocrisies in the form of flowing vignettes. Relatability in film is one of the strongest driving forces in existence and Relatos Salvajes is a modern day masterclass on understanding our communal angers and our communal phoniness.