The central paradox of so much recent technology — why do devices meant to enable human communication wind up hindering it? — is sensitively and movingly explored within the context of a thoroughly modern relationship in “Long Distance.” With the exception of two lengthy bookend sequences, this beautifully acted love story — about an artist who moves to Los Angeles for a year, leaving behind her boyfriend in Barcelona — is mediated entirely through video-chat sessions, text messages, Facebook updates and the occasional phone call, offering a resonant contempo angle on the age-old dilemma of lovers separated by geography and by their own dreams and desires. A rigorously controlled two-hander that never feels airless or minimalist, Carlos Marques-Marcet’s bittersweet debut feature is a natural for further fest play and international arthouse exposure.
Spanish multihyphenate Marques-Marcet has numerous editing credits and a handful of shorts to his name, and in “Long Distance,” the sense of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing is evident from the first frame — an image of two attractive thirtysomethings, Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer), making love in their cramped Barcelona apartment. The sex is over in due course but the shot keeps going, lasting an extraordinary 18 minutes total; the camera follows the characters from room to room in neatly choreographed movements, establishing an intimacy that stems as much from its silent observation of their morning rituals — brushing teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast — as it does from all the dreamy pillow talk and casual nudity.
That intimacy will soon slip away, as becomes clear when Alex checks her email and finds out she’s been offered a fully paid yearlong artist’s residency in Los Angeles — and, after some weighing of pros and cons, they decide to give the long-distance thing a try. This means postponing their decision to start a family, to Sergi’s initial disappointment, although Alex, who moved from the U.K. to Barcelona to be with him, isn’t quite so ready to be tied down. Cut to black: In the next scene (“Day 1”), Alex has arrived in L.A., where she gives Sergi a virtual tour of her small studio apartment in Silver Lake. Just a few moments later, it’s Day 16, and Alex and Sergi are lying in their respective beds, communing affectionately through their laptop screens.
By Day 59, Alex still hasn’t fully adjusted to her new surroundings, and Sergi encourages her to go outside and embrace whatever adventures L.A. has to offer. And so she does: Within a few weeks, she’s making new friends, taking salsa lessons and finding artistic inspiration in her photography of a city she’s slowly learning to love. The world seems full of excitement and possibility — but not for Sergi, who finds himself an increasingly marginal presence in his girlfriend’s life. Her Facebook profile is a puzzle of new faces and unfamiliar references; her texts and phone calls become more and more erratic. Sergi is jealous of the fulfillment she seems to have discovered without him, and frustrated by the fact that his own life has stalled in the meantime.
From first frame to last, the filmmaking exudes intelligence and control, with none of the chilly emotional distance those qualities can imply. Form and content are in near-perfect balance: That remarkable opening sequence, with its seamless flow and visual continuity, emphasizes the characters’ harmony and connectedness; the rest of the picture, consisting of short, quick exchanges taking place across two continents, is all about disruption and separation. These formal strategies are also reflected in the cinematography, as d.p. Dagmar Weaver-Madsen’s exquisite interior lensing frequently gives way to low-grade Skype footage, as well as by the editing, as the traditional pattern of shot-reverse-shot further serves to underscore the growing distance between the two characters.
While it’s become fairly common for a movie to show characters sending emails and text messages, or using Facebook and Google Maps (which gets a particularly extended cameo here), this one has a particularly versatile understanding of how ordinary couples use the technology at their disposal. There’s an amusing scene early on when Alex makes a valiant stab at cooking dinner for friends, with Sergi directing and mocking her every move from the laptop screen; later, the film quite candidly addresses the awkward pleasures of cybersex, in a scene that manages to be funny, tender and erotic all at once. But the key achievement of “Long Distance,” apart from the extraordinary subtlety with which it orchestrates the gradual breakdown of a loving, long-term union, is that it reveals how our phones and computers can actually leave us feeling more isolated than we might have otherwise.
As the picture progresses, bringing Alex and Sergi’s relationship through its painful stages to a hopeful yet ambiguous moment of reckoning, it becomes clear that Marques-Marcet (who wrote the script with Clara Roquet) is operating by a careful set of ground rules. Alex and Sergi will be the only characters we see or spend time with, and the action will be confined entirely to their respective apartments; other locations and people will be glimpsed only in photographs. Some audiences may well object to the dramatic limitations of such a method, arguing that to view characters in such isolation — particularly Sergi, a handsome, likable guy who doesn’t seem to have too many friends — can only yield a partial view of the story.
But for those who don’t mind — indeed, who freely accept — that a movie can only ever offer a partial view, the emotional immediacy and understated insight of “Long Distance” are strong enough to belie the film’s modest origins. Skillful as Marques-Marcet’s aesthetic choices are, they wouldn’t be half as effective without two such well-matched performances: Darkly handsome Verdaguer breaks down the Latin lover stereotype to reveal the needy, wounded man beneath, while fair-skinned beauty Tena makes a virtue of her character’s indecision, doing justice to Alex’s guilt as well as her joy. In a film so perceptive about the difficulties of human interaction in the modern era, this is acting that never fails to hold the viewer close.