An intelligently conceived, delicately wrought follow-up to 1996’s “Things I Never Told You,” Isabel Coixet’s “To Those Who Love” makes an ambitious stab at affecting auds’ hearts and minds, and result only narrowly fails. Plot and structure are thought-provoking, and perfs are generally strong, but there is simply too much story for 97 minutes. The effect, frustratingly, is of a precious exercise in style, of a film about romance that is not itself romantic. Still, pic has charm and originality, and Coixet’s daring, at least in Spanish terms, makes it a qualified pleasure that should show up on the fest circuit.
In an unspecified location, sometime in the 18th century — the movie’s claim on universality is emphasized by the fact that no actual historical event is mentioned — an old man, called simply the Teacher (Julio Nunez), is called to the house of a young man, Martin (Gary Piquer), whose wife is ill. Many years before, the Teacher had a relationship with the sister of the ill woman’s mother. Most of pic is in flashback as the Teacher remembers.
Some 60 years earlier, the Teacher, still a child, accompanies his father, a doctor, to the bedside of Matilde, a young girl. There is an exchange of glances between the two children, recounted in voiceover by the old Teacher in absurdly grandiose terms.
Pic now flashes forward 20 years to find the Teacher (Patxi Freitez) still in love with Matilde (Olalla Moreno), who’s still as innocent as when she was a child. She marries a French messenger, Leon (Christopher Thompson), who then falls for the sultry Valeria (Monica Bellucci), daughter of a fencing master. They start a relationship whose animal nature is symbolized by some sexy sparring.
When the Teacher returns to the neighborhood after being away several years, he finds an unhappy Matilde, who asks him to take her to the fencing room to see what is happening between Valeria and Leon. The Teacher refuses but she makes it there anyway, with tragic consequences.
The sheer quantity of events, characters and time-shifting means character development is minimal. Pic would have benefited if as much attention had been paid to characterization as to the complex web of intelligent ideas — about memory, about how love is a function of the imagination, about romance itself — that are behind the story.
At times, the protagonists are like dummies demonstrating the thesis that love hurts: There’s the Forlorn Lover, the Mysterious Other Woman and the Tragically Inexperienced Innocent, all thrown together. The use of the Teacher’s voiceover throughout the film frustratingly calms things down whenever the passion meter threatens to rise: The controlling hand of Coixet is ever present.
Still, there are plenty of compensations. Lensing is a perpetual homage to light and shade, landscapes are sumptuous, and performances are convincing, particularly that of Albert Pla as Jonas, the Teacher’s eccentric, Dante-quoting brother. As the pivotal Matilde, however, Moreno is weak, lacking the intensity and charisma to be a plausible object of desire throughout a man’s lifetime.