Into the woods go the lovelorn loners and sexual thrill seekers of “Everlasting Love,” an eerie little arthouse chiller set in and around a secluded Barcelona cruising spot where forbidden desires are expressed but not always successfully contained. Observing the dangerous bond that forms between a bearish professor and his much younger male student, writer-director Marcal Fores’ ironically titled mood piece employs a disorienting visual and narrative style whose overall effect suggests a voyeur’s partially obstructed gaze. The technique often impresses; the facile ideas and grotesque denouement, not so much. Well traveled at LGBT and genre festivals, this TLA pickup (set to open Stateside in November) should benefit from its 69-minute running time, and from word-of-mouth comparisons to Alain Guiraudie’s more fully realized gay-cruising thriller “Stranger by the Lake.”
While there are no talking stuffed animals in evidence, as there were in Fores’ “Donnie Darko”-esque debut feature, “Animals” (2012), “Everlasting Love” similarly taps into a vein of confused adolescent longing. The opening sequence features several young adults in a classroom, discussing their views on the possibility of love at first sight and the fleeting nature of romantic desire; it’s a breezy, efficient introduction to some of Fores’ thematic concerns, even though it bears little resemblance to the increasingly grim, oneiric drama that follows. Indeed, much of the early action (lensed in mostly oblique, distancing long shots by Elias M. Felix, relying mostly on natural light) defies comprehension: A girl is abandoned and then violently abducted near a heavily wooded area, not far from where a middle-aged regular visitor, Carlos (Joan Bentalle), has come in search of his latest hook-up.
As he wanders through the shadowy undergrowth — which, as we see, is frequented by not only gay men, but also lesbian couples, suspicious-looking teenagers and the occasional innocent passerby — Carlos is recognized from afar by shy teenager Toni (Aimar Vega), who happens to be a student in the language class he teaches. Emboldened and aroused, Toni pays his stern, grizzled professor a visit after hours, and a hot-and-heavy tryst ensues in Carlos’ car, framed in a lengthy single take that prioritizes real-time duration over nighttime visibility. From that moment onward, a certain sordid, nocturnal vibe persists even during the daytime sequences, as Fores and co-writer Vicente de la Torre (aided by the fragmentary editing of Nahuel G. Rebollar) conspire to keep the viewer figuratively and sometimes literally in the dark about exactly what’s going on.
Suffice it to say that while Toni seems to develop a naive romantic attachment to Carlos, the professor rebuffs him, suggesting it’s best if they don’t repeat their one-night stand — at which point you can just about feel the tension constrict ever so slightly, as the usual perceptions of predator vs. prey begin to shuffle and realign themselves. Playing out in the story’s margins, to largely mystifying effect, are the less-than-benign activities of Toni’s friends, who seem to take his betrayal by Carlos rather personally and arrange for payback in kind. Because the characters are observed with such detachment, and with little in the way of individuation, it’s hard not to read “Everlasting Love” in broadly metaphorical terms, yet the message that its blood-smeared denouement leaves us with — that young people, with their tender feelings and volatile hormones, are not to be crossed or trifled with — somehow manages to feel at once obvious and unpersuasive.
Making Carlos a figure of both lecherous appetite and authoritarian gravitas, Bentalle easily sustains interest over the course of the film, whose length seems precisely in keeping with the modesty of its intentions. Where Fores’ work is most impressive is in his ability to conjure and sustain atmosphere, using Don the Tiger’s spare but arresting synth compositions to punctuate an aural track already abuzz with the sounds of nature. He also plays skillfully on the imagistic extremes in Felix’s lensing, alternating between intense closeups and long shots in which the characters are sometimes obscured by shadows and foliage as they go about their clandestine business — effectively visualizing a world where it’s hard to really see the forest, or even the person in front of you, for the trees.