My education in Spanish-made and Spanish-language films started late. It began with The Others which, for me, was one of the best horror films I had ever seen. Learning that Alejandro Amenábar, a Spaniard, directed it led me to research his name, his work and, from there, I discovered Pedro Almodóvar, an equally brilliant Spaniard, and Mexican director Guillermo del Toro.
Contratiempo translates to “setback” while contra tiempo is “against time” in English. This Spanish movie was, however, given the English title “The Invisible Guest.” While the English title gives an oblique clue about a part of the story, the original Spanish title captures the pace—the sense of urgency that pervades throughout the film—more effectively.
Contratiempo is told in a series of flashbacks. In the present, Adrian Doria, a successful businessman accused of murdering his mistress, photographer and artist Laura Vidal, is visited by Virginia Goodman, a defense lawyer hired by Adrian’s company lawyer. Goodman tells Adrian that the prosecution has a last-minute witness and they have to go through Adrian’s story in detail for the next three hours as he is likely to be called to testify.
Repeatedly insisting on his innocence, Adrian recounts how an unknown blackmailer instructed him and Laura to bring 100,000 euros to a hotel 200 hundred miles from the city. In a room at the hotel, an unseen assailant strikes Adrian and he passes out. When he regains consciousness, the police were banging on the door. He discovers Laura sprawled on the bathroom floor, blood oozing from her head, and the100,000 euros scattered around her. The police break the door chain, enter and Doria is arrested.
Goodman tells Adrian that with the assailant unidentified, and the impossibility of anyone entering and leaving the room unobserved, Adrian’s story sounds like make believe. She also tells him that she is convinced he is not telling her the whole truth. Scared, Adrian starts to tell Goodman events from three months earlier that led to the blackmail.
Driving home in his BMW after an out-of-town tryst, Adrian and Laura collides with another motorist. Adrian and Laura are unhurt but the driver of the other vehicle is killed. Laura convinces Adrian that they have to get rid of the body. She says she will wait in Adrian’s stalled car for help while Adrian disposes of the victim and his car.
Adrian drives the victim’s car, with the dead man in the trunk, to the lake and pushes it into the water.
Meanwhile, a stranger stops to help Laura with the stalled car. The old man offers to tow it to his house where he could fix it. Laura agrees. In the stranger’s house, Laura meets the old man’s wife who shows her a photo of their son, Daniel. Laura recognizes the dead man from the road accident. The old man comes in and tells Laura that her car is fixed. Laura departs and picks up Adrian.
The investigation of Daniel’s disappearance leads to the discovery of debris from two vehicles on the road where a witness (Daniel’s father) says he helped a woman, towed her car to his house and fixed it there. He supplies the police with the license plate of the car and the police starts investigating Adrian.
I’ll stop narrating the story at this point so I don’t spoil it for you. Contratiempo is on Netflix so consider this a recommendation.
Why? What makes Contratiempo a notch above other crime movies?
The skill with which the story was told. It’s amazing how the real story crept into the narrative. At the start when Adrian was relating the events that led to the death of Laura Vidal, one would think the film is a whodunit not too dissimilar from Agatha Christie’s And There There Were None. In truth, the death of Laura Vidal is a catalyst but not really the meat of the story.
Contratiempo is a cat-and-mouse game between a lawyer who wants to squeeze out all the details from her client and a client who is willing to divulge more details only when caught in an obvious lie. It’s brilliant how the viewer is initially made to believe that the story is all about the death of Laura Vidal only to be led to earlier events which completely changes one’s perspective with the oft-repeated cliché that what is apparent is not always what is real. But if, as Virginia Goodman keeps insisting, you focus on the details, you will realize that the lawyer-client session has, in fact, nothing to do with the death of Laura Vidal at all.
The twists and turns are aplenty although I have to admit that not all were necessary. Still and all, I love the mind games that the director of Contratiempo plays with his viewers—the kind that I so rarely come across with in Hollywood films. And it is, perhaps, for that very reason that I have started to stray more, and more often, toward foreign language films even if it means reading subtitles which divide the attention from the visuals.
Contratiempo is not the only fascinating work of Oriol Paulo. El Cuerpo (“The Body”) is also a great watch.