Berlinale 2024 review: You Burn Me (Matías Piñeiro)

“A challenging and thought-provoking glimpse into the subject of romance, designed as a series of moments curated by a filmmaker whose passion for challenging conventions is evident in every frame of this film.”

For as long as we have been a sentient species, we have relied on stories – they contain our history, conceal our secrets and often define who we are, culturally and linguistically. One of the great poets in history and someone whose work we still find influencing modern literature is Sappho, the Ancient Greek poet whose writings from nearly 1500 years ago have withstood the test of time. She is also one of the sources of inspiration for Matías Piñeiro, who uses her story (or at least a close approximation of it) in You Burn Me (Tú me abrasas), an experimental drama that is based around a specific passage in the book Dialogues with Leucò by Cesare Pavese. The Italian novelist explores the relationship between various figures from classical mythology, this particular chapter focusing on the relationship between Sappho and the siren Britomartis. Updating the source material to the present day, and featuring non-linear storytelling and an abundance of peculiar elements, You Burn Me is a challenging and thought-provoking glimpse into the subject of romance, designed as a series of moments curated by a filmmaker whose passion for challenging conventions is evident in every frame of this film.

You Burn Me is perhaps most appropriately described as a visual poem. Much like Sappho’s writings, the film is told in short, seemingly jagged fragments that don’t initially make much sense when placed across from each other, but soon come to create a particular tone from which the film garners a fascinating story. Sappho’s poetry is often considered to be best delivered as songs – their lyricism evokes a kind of ancient musicality, and many see her as more of a bard of antiquity than as a traditional poet. The film develops a specific atmosphere that hearkens back to her writing – the distinctive musical score mainly consists of a gentle acoustic guitar accompanied by vocals delivered by actors Gabriela Saidon and María Villar, inducing a state of blissful hypnosis as we navigate this story. The music and narration are accompanied by some truly stunning images, many shots entirely vacant of human life, yet telling a story of their own. Purely on a creative level, You Burn Me is immediately distinctive, with the director using very simple visual and auditory cues to create this expansive and complex blend of ambitious ideas.

Yet, what does all of this mean? It would appear that Piñeiro is the rare kind of filmmaker who intentionally makes his films hard to comprehend at first glance, and relishes his ability to stir some confusion, since this is usually where the most profound commentary is found. Yet, there is not a moment in You Burn Me in which we feel frustrated or unsatisfied with what we are seeing on screen. This is primarily because the director manages to touch on some universal concepts relating to the intimidating themes of love and death, two of the most significant parts of life we all inevitably face. The relationships between Sappho’s writings, this chapter in Pavese’s book, and the director’s contemporary version of both are not clear at first, and we can even argue the connections are left ambiguous on purpose. However, explanation was not a priority for those involved in this story. Instead, the focus was on drawing our attention to the smaller, seemingly inconsequential details that we may miss at first glance, and how they contribute to the wider story in obscure but fascinating ways.

There is an abundance of repetition throughout this film, and at first it can seem to be purely arbitrary, until we start to see that there is a pattern to the story. Throughout the film we see a rhythm starting to develop, which carries over into the narrative – it may not be entirely clear what the plot represents at first, but the further we allow ourselves to follow this film and its unorthodox methods of storytelling, the more we begin to understand. Arguably, we need to be willing to surrender to the peculiar charms of the film – patience is essential (even if the film runs for just over an hour), as is abandoning any expectation of a clear resolution. The film is propelled mainly by its atmosphere, which manifests through a series of lingering moments that recur as part of Piñeiro’s desire to revive antiquity from a modern perspective, extracting the concepts that bear the most relevance to contemporary life. Through challenging both the source texts and the audience, the director manages to use history to discuss identity and sexuality, drawing fascinating correlations between different perceptions of these themes. Bold and unconventional, but mentally stimulating and visually striking, You Burn Me is a remarkable piece of experimental filmmaking that seeks answers to some philosophical and existential questions we have been asking ourselves for thousands of years, and for which we still have not found a clear solution. 

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