Here’s a movie that turned out to be about four times better than I expected. Besos de gato, or Cat Kisses as it’s been Anglicized, has the plot of one of those dreadful TV movies about an estranged father and daughter. But it moves from this dreary premise through a series of surprises, all of which spring from the characters and not the mechanics of the screenplay, and ends up becoming genuinely and surprisingly moving. If this were an American film, I suspect it would have become bogged down in the tedious mechanical details of its story—but it was made in Spain, has an eye and an ear for its characters, and cares deeply about them. It’s also emblematic of how Spanish film (outside of obvious figures like Pedro Almodovar) is really on a roll.
The setup, as I mentioned, isn’t terribly promising. Fran (veteran Spanish actor Juano Puigcorbé) is a hot-shot lawyer who has started to go to seed. His marriage is sterile and bitter, his children alienated from him, and his work has degenerated into a cynical money mill. One night his daughter doesn’t come home for dinner, and his wife goads him angrily into doing something about it. “So call the cops,” he snaps, but his wife would rather he do something for himself for once. Especially something pertaining to his kids, whom he has progressively lost interest in for the sake of his career.
After extracting some information about Carlota’s possible whereabouts from his son, he climbs into his car and drives into the heart of Madrid’s club scene to find her. He doesn’t belong here, and despite being at least moderately streetwise he ends up drawing blanks. He can still throw a wicked kidney punch despite his sagging jowls, though, and he’s forced to do so more than a few times when he runs afoul of bouncers, bullies, junkies, and other creatures of the urban night. There is also something else that is faintly disturbing—that there are many people in the criminal world of Madrid who know him, all too well, and how he can never seem to keep them all that far away.
He searches, and he finds Carlota on a stairwell in a club, tears smearing the too-heavy makeup on her face. She is dressed all too provocatively for someone who is only fifteen. This feeds his anger, which balloons further when he finds out she’s been waiting for her punker boyfriend. She loves him, though, for whatever reason—and this only convinces Fran that he must help her find him, and know a little more about what sort of young man she’s wound up getting ensnared with. A junkie, most likely, given the crowd he hangs with. But as he drags her deeper and deeper into Madrid’s underground of clubs and drug hangouts, she realizes that her father is probably not much better, and entirely too comfortable about criminals for either of their own good.
What makes the story work is the beats between the plot moments—the cracks and crevices that a more conventional, lockstep movie would never bother with. There’s a moment where Fran has lost his cell and asks to use the phone behind the counter in a diner. The shopkeeper listens to his side of the conversation, and then gently tells him that he can use the phone as much as he needs to. He was in the same position once—his wife abandoned him, but he has since forgiven her. Fran is less forgiving of his daughter, but we eventually see that he is least forgiving of himself, and that his plunging into the filthy world of his former clients is as much motivated by self-hatred as anything else.
Carlota, as well, is not simply a stock teenager. She knew what she was getting into with this kid, and is more shocked by her father’s easy acceptance of his own corrupt world than what he brings to light about her boyfriend. She also still loves her father, despite everything—loves him in the way that his own wife does not, because she still remembers a time when he was nothing like this, and holds out hope that he can be like that once again. There is an extended plot element that’s both funny and sad where a sad sack of a junkie, a former client and off-again-on-again lover, tries to drag Fran away from Carlota. Yes, he slept with this wreck of a woman, but Carlota is even more stunned to find that her father never said anything to her about his own daughter that wasn’t humble praise. How come she got to hear it, she rages, and not me? The answer, from what we can tell, is that he was embarrassed to tell her. The fact that you still love your daughter should not be a source of shame.
Some of the more routine parts of the plot do eventually take over. There is a subplot that’s cashed in at the end, one involving a former client who decides Fran isn’t worth the trouble, which would seem at first to be phoned in from a million other routine thrillers. But the filmmakers add in a little something extra to it, a way of spinning that back into the story’s main concerns. Fran did bad things, but that does not keep him from being a bad person, and the end of the movie leaves him to his fate in a way that’s both ambiguous and wholly fitting. Without ruining anything, I’ll say this: in the last scenes, rather than call for help and save himself, he chooses instead to call his wife and offer one last bit of emotional connection. He doesn’t feel he deserves to be saved—instead, he makes sure the people around him know that he has never forgotten about them, that he loves them despite his flaws and maybe even because of them.
It’s very difficult to make a movie, any movie at all, and I suspect the reason so many of the movies we’re given are such lazy, auto-pilot concoctions is because that cuts out a good deal of the really difficult work for a lot of people. It’s always easier to appeal to an audience’s cynicism than almost anything else. What I liked most about Besos is how they could have at any time abandoned everything and gone for the low road, but never did.amazon-alt=41T73N4H36L
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