The popular belief seems to be that the advent of technology – specifically, the trifecta of cell phones, the Internet, and social media – has modified our daily lives to the point where it’s created a whole bevy of new fears and anxieties. In reality, what I think is happening is that it’s magnifying and recontextualizing the fears and anxieties that we’ve already had, and have had for centuries. As inherently social beings, we are overwhelmingly concerned with impressions and signaling: we want to make sure we are facing the world with our best, most flattering angles. We fret obsessively over which parts of our lives we share with this audience. And we hide the aspects of our lives, personalities and bodies of which we’re we’re most ashamed.
The interesting aspect of this is that mobile phones can act as impression management tools for both our online personas (by being extremely selective about what we share on social media) and our real lives (by allowing us to discreetly indulge in interests and behaviors we’d be embarrassed for our friends and family to find out about). But what if this selective sharing was suddenly interrupted by another external force – let’s say, peer pressure – and all of a sudden we were forced to lay it all out on the table?
Yikes. I tense up just thinking about it.
This creeping feeling of dread – this visceral “ew, yuck, no!” reaction one gets at just the notion of having a stranger rummage through your cell phone conversations – is at the very heart of Alex de la Iglesia’s latest film, Perfectos Desconocidos (Perfect Strangers), which has recently hit Netflix. A Spanish remake of a hit Italian film from just a few years ago, De la Iglesia’s version introduces an element of dark humor into the mix, resulting in a laugh-out-loud funny, surprisingly dark story. It’s the kind of movie that would be great to watch with a significant other; you’d laugh together at the film’s more outrageous turns, while quietly wondering what they’re hiding behind that black little screen.
The movie introduces us to a group of friends, including hosts Eva and Alfonso (a wealthy older couple in a loving but troubled marriage) and guests Ana and Antonio (a pair of middle-aged lawyers with a tense relationship), Eduardo and Blanca (a younger working-class couple who are madly in love), and Pepe (an unemployed gym teacher hiding the truth about his absent partner), as they come together for dinner on a night that coincides with a rare lunar eclipse.
Taking place more or less in real time, we follow the evening as it progresses. We start to get a sense of this tightly-knit group of friends as each guest arrives, providing glimpses into their relationships (with each other as well as their respective significant others). It is a dialogue-heavy affair, feeling very much like a stage play at times. However, director Alex de la Iglesia – famous for farcical romps such as Day of the Beast and La Comunidad – turns a skillful and dynamic eye on the evening’s proceedings, keeping the whole thing from feeling stale and static.
What moves the plot forward (and what will inevitably be the film’s main draw as people listlessly scroll through Netflix’s Trending Now section) is the game in which the dinner guests decide to engage. After a few conversational disagreements, Blanca naively proposes that all dinner guests should place their phone on the table. Any text, voice message, or phone call that comes through during the course of the dinner will have to be read out loud by the whole table. If you feel yourself filling up with dread at just the notion of that, then you are exactly my kind of person (that is to say: neurotic, insecure and… maybe even slightly duplicitous?).
As you may imagine, things don’t go smoothly. A movie about a group of friends having an enjoyable and uneventful dinner wouldn’t be particularly interesting to watch. The following 90 minutes are, at times, heartbreaking, anxiety-inducing and bawdily hilarious. The backdrop of the eclipse provides a surreal, foreboding feeling to the entire affair.
In the absence of action set pieces – or, really, more than one location – this film places a lot of weight in its dialogue scenes. In order to effectively tell this story, you need actors who will sell it convincingly. Actors who will communicate the complex jumble of emotions that go through the minds of these characters as they discover intimate details of their friends’ (and partners’) lives. There are a few over-the-top moments in this film that would fall flat in the hands of the wrong performer. This is an aspect in which Perfect Strangers excels; the entire cast is solid, with standout performances from Pepón Nieto as Pepe and Dafne Fernández as the naive Blanca.
It’s far from a perfect film; I seriously question the way the story resolves, and the message that it seems to impart in viewers. I won’t spoil the ending, of course – but you may feel a bit let down by it. I certainly was. That set, sitting through this sharp, witty, startlingly poignant and relentlessly tense film is worth it.
Perfect Strangers is now streaming on Netflix. English subtitles are available.