Art wins out over heart in “V.O.S.,” a self-conscious and distinctive romantic comedy about a quartet of Barcelona soul-seekers. Film-within-film exercise shuttles between the story and the set, with the characters taking time off to comment on the story they’re in: Not the newest of devices, this generates some striking moments but always keeps events at a remove from real emotion. Helmer Cesc Gay’s reputation as an acute observer of emotional foibles will provoke fest interest, and the project’s exquisite sense of taste could have arthouse appeal, but this first foray into comedy is unlikely to generate any new acolytes.
Fast approaching 40, Clara (Agata Roca) is going to have a baby with her easygoing best friend, Manu (Paul Berrondo). Manu’s close friend, slightly slobbish Anders (Andres Herrera), meanwhile, is a university prof who dreams of becoming a full-time screenwriter. Naturally, what he’s writing is what we’re watching.
Anders lives with Vicky (Vicente Ndongo), who has just set up an alternative kids’ school in which Anders shows too little interest. Following a trip to a country house, the character dynamics start to shift, though the consequences that play out feel more self-conscious than real.
“V.O.S.” is based on a play by Carol Lopez, and it shows in the wordiness of the text and the reliance on interiors, though occasional shots of the Barcelona cityscape allow the film to breathe. The picture is talky but never dull, with the thesps, all of whom appeared in the stage production, obviously relaxed and comfortable in their roles. The women have the edge over the men in terms of character shadings: Herrera struggles to make Anders both an emotional illiterate and a credible object of Clara’s attentions, while Manu is just too nice to be interesting.
Rehashing Gay’s usual themes, such as commitment, the decision to have kids or not, and the fine line between companionship and friendship, the script’s obvious cleverness sometimes feels too self-regarding. At moments of crisis, the film pulls back to reveal the artifice, and though this generates some beautifully cinematic moments — Clara, for example, standing in a living room under a fall of snow, or the use of the pic’s real crew as its cinematic crew — it’s debatable whether repeatedly bringing down the fourth wall delivers enough compelling ideas to justify the lack of emotional undercurrents.
As always, Gay draws on his CD collection to fine effect, with Etta James’ “Jingle Bells” just one highlight in an all-around terrific soundtrack. Title is the Spanish acronym for “original version with subtitles.”