An exquisitely tender tale of two young Euro immigrants trying to find themselves (but not each other) in contempo London, “Unmade Beds” has a lively, romantic spirit that recalls the playfulness and spontaneity of the French New Wave. Alexis Dos Santos’ follow-up to his 2006 debut feature, “Glue,” is a lyrical neo-Godardian riff on questions of memory, identity and belonging, and as such, it may be too elusive and fragmentary to find auds outside Europe. But it’s a work of such supple yet delicate feeling that a promiscuous fest career, starting with a Sundance/Rotterdam/Berlin three-way, seems assured.
A more narrative-driven film might have been imprisoned by the story’s central hook: Axl (Fernando Tielve), a 20-year-old slacker from Spain, treks to London in search of the dad he never knew. But Dos Santos, who encouraged his young actors to improvise over the five-week shoot, is after more than family-reunion catharsis in this admirably loose-limbed film.
“Unmade Beds” — which opens with a blast of strobe-lit, dance-club energy that peters out when Axl awakens in the latest of many unfamiliar beds — means to evoke the heat, vitality and restless confusion of modern youth adrift in a foreign city.
Axl is welcomed in by squatters at a large industrial warehouse in London’s East End (nicely designed by Kristian Milsted). There, he befriends older Mike (an excellent Iddo Goldberg), who lends a sympathetic ear as Axl talks about his mission to find the Brit who fathered him two decades ago in Spain, probably on a trip not too different from Axl’s. When he finally tracks down his dad, Anthony (Richard Lintern), a realtor, he pretends to be a customer looking for a flat, leading to a series of long drives and flat visits in which he gets to know Anthony, a polite, professional type who’s married with two daughters.
In a handheld shot skillfully choreographed by d.p. Jakob Ihre, Axl nearly crosses paths with a fellow squatter, Vera (Deborah Francois), who hails from France, and whose peregrinations around London form the film’s secondary arc. Still haunted by memories of her ex-boyfriend, Vera soon meets and takes a liking to a handsome stranger (Michiel Huisman), but her new emotional guardedness leads her to lie about her real name and job (she works at a bookshop).
Characterized by lyrical flashbacks, melancholy voiceover from Axl and Vera, some steamy group sex and cheeky intertitles that not only isolate the characters but also keep track of all the rampant bed-hopping, “Unmade Beds” honors its New Wave touchstones with remarkable freshness and vibrancy. Moving to its own narrative and thematic rhythms, the film seems especially invested in questions of identity and vulnerability; both Axl and Vera withhold crucial details from people as a means of shielding themselves from further pain.
Tielve emanates a callow-young-Eurotrash vibe that threatens to turn irritating at first but suffuses his mellow, watchful performance with quiet emotion, while Francois is a wistful charmer in a much less high-strung role than she had in thrillers such as “L’enfant” and “The Page Turner.”
Costumes and environs are suitably grubby. Soundtrack uses tracks by Brit bands including (We Are) Performance, Connan Mockasin and Plaster of Paris, and also features a guitar performance by Huisman that dovetails with Vera’s story.