Absent / Interview with Marco Berger

By - 03 April, 2012

“There is sexuality in everything but sometimes, as an adult, we don’t want to see it in children. We hope people have sexuality once they are over 18. This film is about the existence of that desire and how a teacher has to manage it.” Marco Berger’s Absent is an unusual type of thriller, which tackles some very unique themes, namely, that of a sexually tense relationship between teacher and student where the student is the predator and responsible for the abuse.

While in a swimming lesson, Martin (Javier De Pietro) complains about something being trapped in his eye. Sebastian (Carlos Echevarría), the ever-diligent teacher, agrees to take him to hospital. On the way back, it transpires that Martin was supposed to stay at a friend’s house that night; that he doesn’t have his phone; that he can’t remember where his friend lives; that his Grandma, who he normally lives with, is away, and that he doesn’t have a key. This leaves Sebastian no choice but to go beyond the call of a teacher’s usual duty:

“You can stay over. You know I could get in trouble, right? But I can’t leave you outside or go to the police because you’d have a hard time and it would be a mistake. But I’m asking you not to tell anybody because you’re underage.”

The night passes with a few creepy manoeuvres from Martin, but Sebastian notices nothing so obvious that he couldn’t pass them off as the awkward manner of a youth outside of his comfort zone. To the audience however, the way Martin delivers his almost too convenient story is rather unsettling. We have a good idea of dramatic irony, and so we watch Sebastian walk right into Martin’s trap.

In the first half of the film, the music’s shifting intensity adds a layer of horror to the proceedings. This must mirror the dread which Sebastian feels when his neighbours see him with a student in his apartment. This represents something of a change of style for Berger, whose last film, Plan B, was a romantic comedy about an unlikely but ever-so-slightly sexually-enhanced bromance.

“Actually, I didn’t want to be confident about the success of Plan B. It was a comedy and it was working. And I was sure that I didn’t want to repeat the recipe: ‘Ok, if you put these two boys in these scenes like this and you get a laugh, and everything is gay, and blah blah blah.’ I wanted to do the opposite, take a risk and show some different colours.

So, Absent is almost a horror film, not about monsters or murderers, but about relationships and regretful actions. When Sebastian is in the staffroom the next morning he overhears some colleagues talking about an angry and distraught parent who had waited outside the school all night with the police, worrying about the whereabouts of her son. The look on Sebastian’s face and the dark, droning soundtrack make us think about the situations where we have all done stupid or dangerous things which we wish we could go back in time to change: a mixture of burning hot guilt and the fear that we are going to be found out. The use of shots and sounds to add fear to what would otherwise be a drama is quite original, and comes, in part, from his love of Japanese cinema:

“From the start, I was talking with the musician about making a Japanese horror film. So I’d say: ‘Peter, you have to work with the idea of terror.’”

Berger cites many Asian movies as major influences, but his favourite film is the British Cement Garden. Based on an Ian McEwan novel, it explores transvestism and sexuality between siblings after the death of their mother.

Absent has gained Berger some welcome notoriety, winning him the The Teddy Award for best feature film of 2011, an international award given to works which explore LGBT themes, as part of the Berlin International Film festival.

“I said it was impossible. I said that this is not the kind of film which is going to represent the gay idea; so it was surprising to win and I was really happy and honoured, because as they awarded me the prize they remarked on the style of the shoot and the way I used the cinema system [as opposed to documentary] to talk about a gay subject. That’s why I was really happy.”

The film manages to tackle the gay subject well because of Berger’s obsession with taking into account different points of view on the same situation. The end of the film involves Sebastian looking back over the events of that night with pangs of guilt and neurosis as he tries to work out whether he was in some way giving off signals or was to blame for the seduction. We see different portions of the early storyline and almost start to doubt Sebastian’s motive ourselves.

Berger sees this taking different points of view into account as important for all communities and situations in life, especially for the gay community because of the perceived danger posed by gay men historically:

“When you see it from the other side it’s the same desire you have for a woman; but we are gay and we have the same desire, but for men. There’s not actually any danger, you just have to change the point of view.”

The film is a clever telling of a very original premise about a daring subject. Fortunately for Berger, the well-considered style has caused a potentially dangerous subject to be tackled in a very grown-up way. There is no cliché in the relationship between the teacher and student, nor is it far-fetched to have the child leading the abuse. For example, we see Martin hanging out with a female companion, but he clearly isn’t interested in her. He is using her as a kind of cover, and also because he clearly enjoys manipulation. So the role reversal between teacher and student is justified. But nothing is as clear as that because of Berger’s emphasis on possibility:

“I wanted both the audience and the teacher to see the same things in the beginning. You have seen everything with your society eye, with your prejudiced eye. It’s not that Sebastian is going to be gay or that he is going to be in love or something. It’s just that he realises the possibility. It’s a film about understanding but also about possibility. In the end Sebastian at least asks himself if it could have been possible, or he realises that Martin wasn’t this monster. When he thinks through again he realises that Martin’s motive was actually love. So if somebody loves him, he has to open his eyes and at least recognise that. That’s the point.”

Absent is showing as part of the 1st Argentine Film Festival of London, which will be taking place between April 19th-22nd at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton. See argentinefilmfestival.com for more details.

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