KVIFF 2019: Stargazing – On Jonás Trueba’s ‘The August Virgin’

by Hugo Emmerzael

“Man is his own star; and the soul that can Render an honest and a perfect man, Commands all light, all influence, all fate; Nothing to him falls early or too late.”
– John Fletcher

“[I]t is surprising that the word ‘actor’ keeps on being used in place of the more beautiful and more accurate word ‘star’; the stars are only to gaze at, after the fact, and their actions divine our projects.”
– Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed

On the night of August the twelfth, Eva finds herself alone in Madrid, gazing at the stars. It’s the moment when the Perseids meteor showers reach their apex with little bursts of light generously flashing across the stratosphere. If all these shooting stars – meteors, actually – really grant wishes, Eva can get everything she desires. The tragic irony of The August Virgin is that this young woman doesn’t know what she wants in life.

Written by and starring Itsaso Arana in the lead role, Jonás Trueba’s latest feature is about discovery. It mostly deals with Eva’s road to self-discovery, which she paradoxically traverses by not travelling at all. Whereas many Madrileños and Madrileñas flee the city during the scorching weeks of August, she has decided to stay and face the weather, tourists, festivities and uncertainties of a lonesome summer in Madrid. She is a tourist (or a stranger) in her own town, planning on “doing nothing at all.”

It’s suggested that Eva’s decision to stay has to do with a painful break-up, but The August Virgin doesn’t dwell on this past. Eva is no victim. She’s rather just another person in need of readjusting her self-worth. Most importantly, she has to see herself in new perspectives again by re-examining her relationship with others. There’s a reason The August Virgin quotes philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. One of the most important texts by the American individualist is about the need for self-reliance and self-worth; life skills Evan needs to master again.

Arana beautifully embodies what it takes to accomplish this subtle, but life-altering transformation. Although her intentions seem obtuse, she actually veers on a keen moral and social compass that increasingly allows for many interesting life events to happen. Arana’s intriguing and multi-layered performance breathes life in this challenging and understated role. Eva is a complex human being, without ever steering into the cliché of the complicated and damaged woman. Here’s where Stanley Cavell also comes into play. In the opening scene of The August Virgin, Eva is given a tour through the flat she’ll be staying in for the month. The sympathetic owner quotes both Emerson and Stanley Cavell, sharing an affinity with the latter’s appreciation of true Hollywood actresses like Garbo and Monroe. In spirit of Cavell’s love for true performing, we might say that Arana is the genuine star of this film.

Even though Eva is its radiant center, The August Virgin is not only about her. This is an ode to her peers, friends and the strangers she meets along the way. It is Arana’s and Trueba’s intimate, loving portrait of Madrid, the city where they’re based. Together with his favored cinematographer Santiago Racaj, Trueba wittingly captures how this tumultuous and festive city overflows with the potential of meaningful chance encounters.

The August Virgin holds discoveries for the filmmaker too. Although all of his films are set in Madrid and frequent similar faces and places, Trueba keeps finding new ways of approaching them. His previous feature La Reconquista (2016), for example, also starred Arana as an enigmatic young woman in Madrid, again in an uncertain stage of life after a relationship goes south. It shares many of The August Virgin’s traits, yet it’s unmistakable that Trueba has made a lot of progress since.

The most important improvement might be how time is allowed to flow through these familiar spaces. The chronological diary entries written by Eva create a seemingly predictable structure, but Trueba and Arana employ this narrative device to surprisingly humorous effect. An illuminating scene plays after Eva catches up with a longtime acquaintance and they spend the rest of the day drinking and catching up. When they leave the café at night, Eva is struck by an artist giving an experimental performance on the street. A red title card follows, informing us that a day has passed, but in the next scene we’re with Eva again, still intrigued by that experimental performance. It’s only a second after midnight. The clock merely struck twelve between the moment before and after the title.

This play with time yields results similar to those of the films of Hong Sang-soo. Films like Night and Day (2008), Right Now, Wrong Then (2015) and On the Beach at Night Alone (2017) have a way of making seemingly everyday encounters significant and extraordinary, because they effectively dictate and morph the passage of time. This subjective experience of time is especially fitting for The August Virgin. Set during the summer in a city, some of its days seem so short and perfectly redundant, while their nightly counterparts can be sprawling, endless and brimming with possibilities.

Not entirely surprising, Eva’s plan to do nothing really works. Over the course of these summer days she slowly reclaims what might have been lost before. What’s then the most appreciable about this film, is that even though it has an almost hermetic, pre-planned structure, life is allowed to seep through and fill its spaces with authentic moments. As John Fletcher says, cited by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his text on self-reliance: nothing in The August Virgin really “falls early or too late.” For a brief moment in time, things just are; as beautiful and meaningful to gaze at as a meteor shower on a summer night.

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Hugo Emmerzael is a film and music critic based in Amsterdam. He is an editor of monthly independent Dutch film magazine, De Filmkrant, with other writings published in Senses of CinemaGonzo (circus)Beneficial ShockFrame.Land and on the Berlinale Talent Press platform, of which Hugo is a 2019 alumnus.

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