A Gun In Each Hand, which opens this year's Spanish Film Festival before a commercial release on July 4, is described in its publicity material as “Spain's all-star comedy smash hit!” This suggests an uproarious Spanish camp-fest in the vein of early Almodovar or Bigas Luna. Add the title to a lazy half-glimpse at the poster, which features several male characters, one of them apparently holding a pistol in each hand, as in the title, and it's hard not to gain the sense this is not only a farcical hoot-fest but a flamboyant comedy western.
I think men in the audience felt like they were like those characters on the screen
Look again, though, and those 'guns' reveal themselves to be somewhat less threatening. Could they be, erm, shoes? Start watching the film and it swiftly becomes apparent the publicity has prepared us for an entirely different film to the one unfolding – a collection of six short stories of middle-aged male crisis that, in its calm and densely conversational style, is arguably closer to the dialogue-driven “comedies and proverbs” of France's Eric Rohmer than to broad farce.
Quickly establishing the sober, unsensational tone is an opening tale about an unexpected meeting in a lift of two old male acquaintances (Eduard Fernandez and Leonardo Sparaglia), one arranging a divorce, the other visiting his psychotherapist and trying to hide his tear-strained eyes. This and the remaining five stories add up to an insightfully sensitive and occasionally wry look at men in dire straits, often as a result of infidelity and relationship break-ups. A rewarding and intelligent film, one producing the occasional smile; yet not quite the side-splitter we'd been prepared for. (Despite the title, it features not a single moment of violence –that line about guns is a sexual double entendre.)
Or does this apparent seriousness follow from this writer's viewing the film alone at home, while comedy best flourishes in the social environment of a cinema, with strangers laughing together in the dark? When I speak to the film's Catalan director and co-writer, Cesc Gay, he quickly reveals that he has always intended it to be funny, yet understands the point I'm making. “Well, I think you describe it very well,” he says. “Okay, it is more of a drama in a way, but all the time for me, when I wrote the dialogue and the way they [the male characters] act, they are expressing that they are hurt and trying to hide it. I thought, let's try to do it in a comedy way.”
Promoting the film in Germany the previous week, he'd observed that “people were laughing a lot and I was very happy about that. I thought, that's what I wanted, they are very close to the characters and they feel some kind of tenderness about them, but they laughed a lot and had a good time. There was a combination.”
The overturning of traditional gender roles, bringing cheer for women and confusion and pain for men, is the unifying theme. In one of the stories, a shy man (Eduardo Noriega) nervously comes on to an attractive woman at an office party, confessing he's often watched her admiringly from afar. His attempted pick up is disastrously embarrassing for him, but for this confident woman (Candela Pena) a source of amusement. What makes the scene work is that the would-be Lothario is far from the usual smooth-talking pants man, but a timid character whose sexual approach is almost squirm-inducingly awkward.
Gay, who in his previous features has made the exploration of middle-class Catalan lifestyles something of a specialty, explains that “with all my movies I try to write, and have the actors act, in a very natural and realistic way. So probably that Casanova style is more something that happens in the movies. But in your real life, when you try to approach a woman, you are talking like Eduardo, with nerves. So I think my actors and their characters express and act like normal people.” This, he feels, helps to explain the film's popularity in Spain. “I think men in the audience felt like they were like those characters on the screen.”
But women viewers, he says, loved it even more. “That's something that doesn't surprise me, because I wrote the movie with women [in mind] as a first audience, because I thought that was interesting for women to see the men – like, 'stupid men!'”
This is one of the interesting things about the film. The macho stereotype of Spanish men – embodied by the iconic figure of the bullfighter – has little correspondence with reality. “That's not the way we are,” he says. “Not in Barcelona. And in Europe we are all more or less the same.”
Yet while 21st century men are still burdened by interiorised expectations of male virility and physical toughness that are no longer socially validated, I suggest, we're also wrestling with the way to behave, with how to define who we are. “Yeah, I agree with that,” says the filmmaker, “and that was the original idea when I started writing the movie. One thing is the image that men used to have in movies. We grow up as a child, playing with a gun and trying to be like John Wayne or Robert Mitchum, but that is not the way it is [in life]. A lot has changed in the way we live and in our relationships with women. And it's something that's not shown in the movies.”
And, I suggest, not much discussed by men. Take the way women newspaper columnists often write about family and gender politics while their male peers shy away. “We don't talk about important things, we prefer to talk about football,” he says. “Sometimes it happens that a good friend of mine has this (emotional) situation and never talked to me (about it). Probably it's because they're all shy. I don't know. Probably it all ends with pride.”
A Gun in Each Hand opens the 2013 Spanish Film Festival, which begins in Melbourne and Perth on June 12, with Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney and Byron Bay to follow. Visit the official website for more information. The film is released in cinemas nationwide July 4.