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San Sebastian Talent: Sebastian Brahm on Plants, Mating and Melodrama

Chilean director’s second film world premiers at San Sebastian Sept. 21

“Sex Life of Plants” is a relationship drama that goes to the heart of the matter: Why do people form a relationship? What do they seek from others? Such questions gain an added urgency in the case of 33-year-old landscape gardener Barbara who wants to have children. She is in love with her sharp-witted boyfriend, lawyer Guille, who she’s like to be their father. But a chance climbing accident renders him a dullard, unfit for work, a near child. She meets self-condident Nils, who’s far more matter of fact, who services escalators, has a nice home, wants to settle down. But, “Sex Life of Plants’” plot runs, Barbara realizes that sometimes the best father is not the best husband.

Brahm caught attention with debut “Roman’s Circuit,” a standout at the 2009 Ventana Sur pix in post Primer Corte. But the film never quite broke out. With “Sex Life,” a “woman’s film” and “about thirty-somethings,” he once more explores passions coursing the gentile life of Chile’s middle class. Variety caught up with him just before the San Sebastian Festival, where “Sex Life of Plants” world premieres Sept. 21 in New Directors.

 

The title of the film begs the question: Is the sex life of humans – when it comes to reproduction – in any way like the sex life of plants. I think you suggest yes, but we’re not talking about pollen.

Plants have a much weirder and more diverse sex life than humans or most animals. We do share the basic fact of having been shaped by evolutionary pressure, and that pressure takes the form of natural selection and sexual selection. We are the offspring of successful forebears and what we consider “natural” or “immutable” is merely what has proved reproductively successful in a given context. Take the following situation: Plants often depend on external pollinators. That explains, for example, brightly colored flowers: They are a means to attract birds and insects that will enable the species’ reproduction. As you go up in altitude and oxygen decreases, so do the number of pollinators and, consequently, the presence of color in flowers. Likewise, physical or behavioral traits in all animal species, and certainly humans, act as cues that we unconsciously send and read and use as base for our sexual or social interactions with others. If the title serves any purpose it is that of framing us humans one step removed from our ‘unique animal’ default and as mammals with a behavioral palette that is broader than most other animals, yet limited, and that these instincts shaped by evolution condition every aspect of our lives, including sex and sexual attraction. There is no blank slate. We have a program, however flexible it may be.

The film deals with a large subject: How a woman decides who will be the father of her children and her life partner who will in part provide for her, at least for the foreseeable future. Barbara’s final choice, while made in part out of love, in the “Sex Life of Plants,” without going into details, suggests certain mercilessness, a return to instinct…

Nature is merciless (and, still, beautiful). Barbara is a small mammal furrowing away in the unfriendly savannah, trying to keep her cubs alive. Females carry on with life. Males mostly come and go. It ranges from occasional, rape-like sex and impregnation to lifelong couples, as in some birds and (some) humans. Within our species, even today, the fact remains that women bear the brunt of the exhausting child rearing process. It seems only logical that nature endows them with a little more choosiness than men. Probably, in the long run, pregnancy will be outsourced to technological devices, spawning new evolutionary pressures that will condition the lives of our post-human descendants, and the challenges that each gender faces will mutate. But for now, even as culture changes, we are stuck with the brain that we inherited from our hominid ancestors. And they did divide labor between men and women, did face different challenges and did evolve subtle psychic differences. We can nonchalantly describe most men’s sexual behavior as shallow yet if you add “woman” and “pragmatic” a big red light flashes. But why not? Why don’t women have the right to be pragmatic, if they’re the ones stuck with babies? I mean, most men (and I include myself) can’t walk a straight line without a woman nearby setting priorities right. Indeed, some biologists are saying that if there has been a change in the human species during the last 30,000 years or so is that it has self-domesticated, reducing aggression in males. We used to be even bigger jerks. Women are the civilizing force in the human species. They demand and some men provide more sophisticated performance, and we move on.

You’ve called “Sex Life” “a woman’s film.”  Could its chronicle of how someone reaches their life decisions be applied to men?

I focus on issues that distinctively impose more pressure on women than on men. I call it a “women’s film”, then, as Douglas Sirk’s melodramas were so called. It is informed more by biological than Sirk’s societal constraints (which I see as borne out of the easier, trite answers to the biological ones), but I aim at the same empathy. I understand that today quite a few people think that we men can’t attempt an empathic look at women’s struggles, limited as we are by our “male gaze.” But I see “Sex Life of Plants” as firmly rooted (pun intended) in a tradition of men directed/women starring melodramas that besides Sirk includes Von Trier (with hits and misses), Fassbinder, Almodóvar and Todd Haynes, among others. The gay presence in the list is no accident. I think if you follow down this line with an open mind and no prejudices you reach queer theory and a deconstruction of patriarchy. In that sense, yes, you could chronicle a man’s choices analogously, but the archetype will change. Tracking a man’s sexual pursuits means dealing with status-seeking, aggression, competition and risk-taking, all combined with exhibitionism, because neither competition nor risk-taking makes sense to dudes (especially younger ones) if there are no ladies around. I mean, if someone thinks “pragmatic” is bad, what can you say about this string of descriptors.

The direction is crucial in the film. Could you describe your key decisions when you set out to direct the film’s scenes?

The single most relevant factor was shooting the film almost chronologically. We did it in five “shooting bouts” between February and December 2014. The script is tight in terms of narrative events but there was much left unscripted inside scenes. By shooting chronologically, I was able to tell the story little by little to the actors, and they lived it freshly as they went along. They were also able to grab what had happened in previous scenes and build what followed with these blocks of reality, including the fact of not remembering everything perfectly because it had happened months before. This was useful since the story takes place in a few selected days over more than two years, with a lot of ellipses on the way.

Again, this is an actors’ film and performances key, especially Francisca Lewin’s as Barbara, but also Mario Horton’s as Guille. How did you rehearse?

Francisca read the script (which in itself changed a lot between segments) only once, diagonally. The basic arch was clear, but I hid most from her. The words are hers. There is much of her in the character, and the same happens with Mario, although he did handle more information. I coached him to intervene in the scenes with dialogue that was not immediately pertinent, but served to break the ice. She was forced to react to that with her own tools. I’m sure that this helped natural performances in a narratively-structured script. More than rehearsing, what we did was to create a virtual romance between them. during months before we started shooting, I took them out on “dates” where they “met” and “fell in love” and had a “first kiss”, and built a shared background with inside jokes and a complicity that transpired into the screen.

Were there any directors or films that have influenced “Sex Life of Plants”? 

As I said above, yes. Male directed /women starring melodramas. Sirk, Haynes, Von Trier. “Breaking the Waves,” definitely. I understand Emily Watson is being honored this very edition of the festival. My first application pseudonym in applications for public funding for the project was Emily Watson.

What are you working on now?

I’m producing a friend’s film called “The 34th,” about a miner who had the “bad luck” not to go to work the day the 33 Chilean miners got trapped and became world famous. and I’m planning a documentary about coaching in corporations. I am a bit exhausted and not ready for another immediate labor of love like this one.

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