THE PEOPLE UPSTAIRS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Cesc Gay

Stars: Javier Camara, Belen Cuesta, Griselda Siciliana, Alberto San Juan.

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After fifteen years of marriage the relationship between Laura (Belen Cuesta, from Kiki, Love To Love, etc) and Julio (Javier Camara, from Truman, etc) has grown a little stale and the couple have grown apart. Julio is a music teacher who is frustrated that his early ambitions of becoming a musician have largely stalled, while the more passionate and creative Laura works in retail. Julio is something of a curmudgeon and he is less than thrilled to learn that Laura has invited their younger upstairs neighbours in for drinks and nibbles in a belated attempt to thank them for helping out with renovation works six months earlier.

When Ana (Griselda Siciliana, from The Last Elvis, etc), a psychologist, and her fire fighter husband Slava (Alberto San Juan, from A Gun In Each Hand, etc) arrive the conversation soon grows tense and heated and increasingly awkward. Julio voices his annoyance that he and Laura have often been disturbed by the frequency and loudness of the couple’s love making. This is followed by some discussions about sexuality and open relationships that shake the more conservative Julio, especially as Slava and Ana invite him and Laura to participate in a group sex session. As the evening continues, more drinks are consumed, and the discussions become more personal and awkward. This encounter further exposes the cracks in Julio and Laura’s marriage. The veneer of politeness dissipates and eventually we see each partner turn on the other.

The People Upstairs is a lean and tightly scripted 82-minute dialogue heavy feature. It is essentially a four handed chamber piece and contains many of the tropes familiar to similar theatre dramas in which two couples gather for a social get together and begin vicious word games and tearing strips off each other in heated exchanges – such as Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf or Carnage. This Spanish comic drama deals frankly with issues of sex, marriage, relationships, and it challenges the more conservative attitudes of many middle-aged Spanish people. The material is provocative and risqué, and often bitingly funny, and the dialogue is often caustic.

The People Upstairs is based on Los veccinos de arriba, a play written by writer/director Cesc Gay (Truman) in 2016 and which was subsequently staged in the theatre in Barcelona to great acclaim. He has adapted the material for the screen, but it retains much of its claustrophobic nature and theatrical setting and feel as the action is confined to Laura and Julio’s modern apartment.

However, Gay and his regular cinematographer Andreu Rebes attempt to open up the material by trawling through their spacious apartment. Gay uses the limitations of the apartment effectively to illustrate the way that the relationships are beginning to fracture, with discussions between the characters taking place in different rooms. Liana Artigal’s production design for the sprawling apartment is impressive and makes it a fifth character.

Gay has cast actors with whom he has worked previously, and this familiarity pays off. The performances from the ensemble are spot on and their bickering feels natural. Camara in particular has worked with Gay on several films, and he is good as a man frustrated with the direction his life has taken. His bitterness often threatens to explode into something more physical. He is well supported by the other three, particularly Cuesta who brings passion and warmth to her performance as a woman wanting more from her relationship.

The People Upstairs is a bit like a European Woody Allen comedy in its outlook and sensibility, but its themes and quirky characters should have broad appeal.

★★★☆

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