2019

Tribeca Film Festival Review: Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s ‘Initials S.G.’

French pop culture, like any country’s pop culture, has varied and changed through the years. Yet the image that persists (especially for those who aren’t actually French) is the country during the 1960s — hip, artsy, melancholy, existential and sexually free. In short, it’s an image of “cool” that, in terms of idolatry, tends to attract people who don’t have their own personal definition of “cool.” Sergio Garces (Diego Peretti), the antihero of Initials S.G., is this type of person. A background actor and sometime porn performer, his biggest accomplishment is once recording an album of Serge Gainsbourg cover songs in his native Spanish, piggybacking onto a French celebrity whom he not only shares initials with, but resembles. His superstition and genuinely bad luck combine to make him the type of person to use nouvelle vague iconography to romanticize his average, haggard life. And that’s before he’s got to deal with a dead body in his apartment.

Writers-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia give their fourth feature a unique and distinctive a tone like their previous films. Initials S.G. is set in Buenos Aires, and as the film chronicles the (mis)adventures of Sergio, the city moves from appearing functional to mundane to ominous to downright surreal. It’s a perfect indication of the shape of the movie, starting as an indie-ish character drama with an ironic sense of humor, then getting steadily bleaker, ending up as a dark (dark as in noir) comedy. With a narration voice over that’s delivered with the right amount of dryness, the film seems episodic at first, as Sergio visits film sets, watches football at bars, tries to get laid (or half-tries, in the case of the American Jane, played by Julianne Nicholson), suffers a disfiguring bicycle accident and gets hired for a virtual reality porn shoot during which he accidentally bleeds all over the star. The bizarre circumstances and bad luck pile up until an altercation goes awry, and he’s dragging the body of a drug dealer that he’s murdered (ostensibly in self defense) into his apartment… just as Jane happens by. From there, Initials S.G. plumbs darker depths as Sergio strives to salvage the mess his life has become and find some semblance of happiness — if happiness is what he’s even looking for.

Sergio is that special kind of narcissist who loathes himself while raging against the world for not giving him his proper due, a mixture of an underdog and martyr complex. It’s for this reason that Attieh and Garcia set the film in 2014, when the Argentine football team, perpetual underdogs themselves, were hoping to win the World Cup. As the narration indicates, Sergio believes himself to be magically connected to the team, so much so that if he fails to wear a specific jersey or watch the game at the right venue, he’s directly jeopardizing the team’s chances. One of the most delightful elements of Initials S.G. is Peretti’s performance, which is charmingly hangdog enough to make Sergio watchable and likable, while at the same time never worrying about vanity. Whether wandering the dark streets or lounging around his apartment in tighty whities, Peretti evokes a blend of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Elliott Gould, a perpetually grody bandage on his hangdog face. It’s a perfectly pitched performance that is in step with the film, never fully romanticizing or un-romanticizing the man. Nicholson’s Jane is well matched with him, sporting a Jean Seberg haircut (further eliciting the connection to Godard’s 1960 A Bout De Souffle) and a desperation for romantic connection that’s equal parts adorable and pitiable. When Initials S.G. seems about to shift gears once more into “criminal lovers on the run” pulp, it subverts expectations yet again, and it’s in large part due to the work from Peretti and Nicholson that all the awkward stops and starts pay off rather than frustrate.

What’s most impressive about Attieh and Garcia’s film is how they’re able to blend a variety of tones and genres that all feel of a piece. Rather than use references to Godard and Billy Wilder (the first time Sergio is seen, he’s face down in a pool) as superficial high fives to those in the know, they’re able to take these images and tropes and put them together thanks to their clear definition of their lead character. In addition to French New Wave and film noir, there are scenes that evoke Lynch-like tension rising out of absurdity, McDonagh-esque gallows humor and even Cronenbergian body horror. Rather than feeling uneven, these scenes make Initials S.G. that much more uniquely odd, couching everything under the character study of Sergio, who appropriately is an actor and movie lover. Attieh and Garcia put forth the notion early on that the film could go absolutely anywhere, fulfill that promise by taking it to wild new places and yet never drive Initials S.G. completely off the rails.

As Initials S.G. goes on, it becomes clear that Sergio is both a legend in his own mind as well as aware that he’ll never be an actual legend, and it’s that central melancholy, ironic notion that the movie explores and evokes so well. He’s an extra who can be seen in 16 films at the local film festival, yet only in the background — a person who, despite all he does, offers relatively little. Initials S.G. is both a tribute to and a satire on his character, a movie that evokes the range of films Sergio probably wishes he could be in, yet never will be. With a film that should only serve to further their reputation for originality, Attieh and Garcia have ironically made a movie that metatextually gives Sergio the respect he doesn’t deserve. If he were real, he’d be absolutely thrilled to be the star of a movie that’s so unique, and so genuinely cool.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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