Seattle 2024 review: Un Amor (Isabel Coixet)

“A mature and daring film that celebrates womanhood with all its beautiful contradictions.”

Seeking an escape from a series of emotionally draining experiences in her professional life, a beautiful young woman rents a cabin in rural Spain and starts a new chapter filled with unexpected romantic encounters. If this premise reads like a glossy Nancy Meyers romantic comedy or a new Reese Witherspoon vehicle with a picturesque European backdrop, think again. In Isabel Coixet’s thought-provoking and sensitive new film Un Amor, this familiar narrative of a city girl’s extended detour in a small village takes several unexpected turns. Benefitting immensely from the nuanced performances of a first-rate cast headlined by the magnetic Laia Costa, this rewarding new work marks a return to form for one of the most decorated female directors in European cinema. Having premiered in competition at last year’s San Sebastián Film Festival and already racked up a handful of Goya nominations, Un Amor recently celebrated its US premiere at the Seattle Film Festival, which concluded its 50th (or “Sifftieth,” as Seattleites would like to call it) edition last week.

Coixet opens the film with the recording of a hearing in which a Sudanese refugee recounts the harrowing story of her escape from the war-torn country. Her experiences could easily form the starting point of an altogether different film; however, Coixet’s focus eventually settles on Nat (Costa), whose job is to provide simultaneous interpretation for the testimony. It’s not difficult to understand why she needs a break after such a challenging assignment, but when she arrives at a derelict villa in a gloomy, isolated corner of northern Spain, her prospects don’t appear all that much brighter. The film takes a while to establish Nat’s strong personality and admirable determination while also providing an immersive portrayal of the strangely hostile countryside. When she is finally forced to interact with a few locals (including her dismissive landlord and an overweight handyman named Andreas) due to a massive leak in her roof, Coixet’s patience in carefully depicting the milieu pays off dividends. The patriarchal structure of this small community and the veiled misogyny of the men who claim to offer help quickly become apparent. If the muted color palette is effective in dismantling any romanticized image of a relaxing country getaway, the problematic behavior of the village men puts the final nail in the coffin; this is clearly not a simple tale of healing set in a welcoming rural paradise.

The villagers find it odd, even disturbing, that an independent woman chooses to live alone without needing male company (or supervision). There is plenty of gossip about who Nat is and why she came to the village, and it is obvious that half-hearted suggestions of help barely conceal the locals’ hostility. All this would be sufficient to make Un Amor a powerful, if predictable, exploration of the urban-rural divide and its intersection with gender. But Coixet goes another step further and presents Nat in a surprising, almost paradoxical manner. When she accepts Andreas’ unexpectedly forward proposal of a sexual encounter, some audience members may find it difficult to fully comprehend Nat’s motivations. Yet this is precisely the point; Un Amor is at its most fascinating when it deals with the seemingly incomprehensible urges, desires, and emotions that shape one’s choices in love. Is this love or a purely physical connection? What is it that propels Nat to pursue this affair with someone like Andreas: her passion or affection for him, a need to heal from a past trauma, or maybe an attempt to measure her own self-worth? The simple title (which is also the name of Sara Mesa’s bestselling novel, adapted for the screen by Coixet and Laura Ferrero) has an ambiguity that allows for all these varied definitions of love and the complex nature of human relationships. What makes this character (and Costa’s extraordinary interpretation) so compelling is the fact that Nat has the autonomy to make her own choices, go to dark places, and refuse any restrictive moral standard that the villagers try to impose on her.

Un Amor has a raw, almost abrasive quality that distinguishes the film from the more mainstream variations of Nat’s story. There is a striking lack of sentimentality in Coixet’s vision; instead of presenting the protagonist as a mere victim of outdated patriarchy, the filmmaker emphasizes how resilience and fragility can co-exist within this complex, unpredictable, multilayered character. Nat is confronted with many micro-aggressions (not only by the villagers, but also by a seemingly more progressive young couple who only come to the countryside during the weekends) and faces near-complete isolation from the community, but Un Amor never turns into a mawkish tale about a vulnerable young woman somehow overcoming patriarchal oppression. Nat maintains her strength and dignity even when the story takes a number of turns that put her in uncomfortable positions.

Despite the constant rain, dark clouds, and the overwhelming harshness of the natural landscape, Un Amor is not without its moments of lightness. Nat’s psychological arc may be quite unsettling, but Coixet manages to create a lovely scene of emotional release and catharsis near the end of the film. As she drives away from the village and all the darkness it represents, Nat starts to dance almost uncontrollably. It’s not a neat resolution to this thorny story, perhaps, but it is a fitting end to a mature and daring film that celebrates womanhood with all its beautiful contradictions.