Argentine writer-director director Lucio Castro has chosen a familiar template for his debut feature End of the Century. Two strangers meet in a foreign land. They talk, they wander around the city, they tumble into bed and they try to figure out if this is the real thing or just a brief encounter. It's a template that works but can also use some freshening up, and Castro shakes it in a few interesting ways. First of all, Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramón Pujol) take care of the sex before sitting down for the getting-to-know-you phase, and it's during this post-coital conversation that they gradually realise they already do know each other, having met and had sex in the same city twenty years earlier.
When this realisation kicks in it triggers a long flashback, in which we see Ocho arriving in Barcelona for the first time, but you'd be forgiven for initially thinking that we're being taken back two weeks rather than two decades. Castro doesn't make any attempt to de-age his middle-aged actors, and while this effect is disconcerting it effectively establishes End of the Century as a subjective memory piece, with Ocho placing himself inside his hazy recollection of the past. Would it really be so hazy, though? During this trip, Ocho first gave in to the homosexual stirrings inside him, first following a man into the woods to receive a nerve-wracking blowjob, before hooking up with Javi (also nominally straight and attached at this point) a few nights later. Is it convincing that Ocho would have forgotten these significant first gay experiences? Even when he finds Javi wearing the same KISS t-shirt twenty years on? A film like End of the Century needs an audience to buy into it, but too many of its details just didn't ring true.
The t-shirt is one of the motifs that links past and present; we see Javi finding it in the street, presuming it has fallen from an overhead washing line, and proceeding to take it home and wear it. This is one of many echoes and ironies that Castro lays across the boundaries of his two timelines. In their youthful conversation, Ocho discusses his desire to have kids while Javi dismisses the idea, but it's Javi who ends up married with a child; when Ocho has his first sexual encounter with a man he immediately panics and fears that he has contracted AIDS, but twenty years on it is he who is happy to have sex without a condom. These connections are cute but they signify little, and Castro seems content to let them serve as character development instead of digging deeper. The two men have plenty of time to talk but their conversation is banal and the camera is too often static as it watches them. As I watched End of the Century I thought of films like In the City of Sylvia and Certified Copy, but those films had a sense of visual elegance – of the camera being in tune with the characters' rhythm – that's absent here. Bernat Mestres' cinematography in general feels rather listless.
Just when End of the Century starts to grow a little stagnant, Castro pulls his boldest manoeuvre, with a final third that falls somewhere between dream and reality. It feels reminiscent of the climax to The Last Temptation of Christ and it introduces a sense of the uncanny that elevates the film, but again I think it stops short of landing on something really resonant. There are some poignant reflections in End of the Century on time and memory, the choices we make and the countless paths not taken, but the whole film is so delicate and measured in its construction, and so determinedly quiet in its tonal register, it never cuts through the surface. For all of its formal audacity, Castro's film ends up feeling too neat, contained and self-satisfied. One unexpected side-effect of the film's unwaveringly understated approach is that an innocuous scene in which a character steps on a squeaky toy made the whole audience jump in unison –sadly, it was the only time the film provoked a genuine emotional reaction from me.