Isabel Coixet recounts that she vowed to never to do another literary adaptation after her 2017 English-language feature The Bookshop based on Penelope Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed 1978 novel of the same name.
Then the Spanish director read compatriot writer Sara Mesa’s dark 2021 novel Un Amor at the tail-end of the pandemic.
The unsettling work follows troubled translator Nat who quits life in the city for a dilapidated, leaky house in a remote village in Spain’s depopulated rural interior.
It is not exactly clear what prompted the move but she appears to be suffering from some sort of vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder connected to the harrowing refugee accounts she translates for her job.
A figure of curiosity as a lone woman, Nat lives as an outsider and then embarks on an unexpected and inexplicable passionate affair with a local social outcast.
“Sara Mesa is one of the most powerful voices in young Spanish literature. I was mesmerized by the book, and I also felt a very deep connection with Nat,” says Coixet. “I thought I’ve been this person in moments of my life and maybe underneath I still am.”
The resulting feature world premieres in Competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival on Tuesday in a first for the director who has never been in the running for its Golden Shell before. Bteam Pictures is planning a wide release in Spain on November 10,
Outsiders crop up throughout Coixet’s work in characters such as Emily Mortimer’s embattled bookstore owner in the The Bookshop, or Timothy Spall’s bank clerk in her last feature It Snows In Benidorm.
“It’s very present in my life that feeling of being an outsider, not in a bad way, I think some people we’re, you know, we’re outsiders even in familiar places,” says Coixet.
Un Amor unites Coixet with top Spanish actress Laia Costa and also features boxing champion turned actor and writer Hovik Keuchkerian as Andreas, a hulk of a man known locally as the German, even though he has no German blood.
“The difference between Nat and Andreas is that he’s an outsider who’s very happy with being an outsider. He doesn’t need other people. The drama is when you are an outsider, like Nat, and deep down you really want to belong,” says Coixet.
At the heart of the film is the pair’s sexual relationship, which is initiated in a shockingly transactional manner, and then takes off with unexpected abandon.
“The sex becomes very important for these two characters, because it’s the only thing they share,” says Coixet.
“I really wanted to show how two people who are from different planets, different shapes, different sizes, can find a way to be together, not necessarily in a beautiful way, but in a really passionate and sexy way, as well as in a very clumsy and dirty way… because sex is dirty.”
Coixet reveals she did not have an intimacy coordinator on set, although she offered the actors the option.
“I said we’re going to have a very adult conversation about what we want and what we have to achieve. I’m going to say exactly what I want, movement by movement, and if you have any problems with that and you don’t want to do, let’s not do it,” she recounts.
“At the same time, you have to be very aware as a director because some people express themselves easily, and others don’t. You have to be very present and very open.”
Coixet who is notoriously prolific as a director already has another three projects on the boil, including an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Days Of Abandonment, which is set to star Penélope Cruz. She is currently co-writing with French screenwriter Laurence Coriat (McMafia, Wonderland).
“Movies help me create my place in the world. They’re my landscape. My drama is that I’m really only happy when I’m shooting a film,” she says. “I am not happy when it comes to raising the money to make a film and now another hell starts, you know, the hell of talking about the film. Sometimes I feel like I’m raping my baby.”
“But being on set, it’s like having this kind of Rubik’s Cube in my head, where I know every shot is and what order the scenes are going to be in the editing. Everything makes sense. You’re creating a world where everything makes sense. Outside of that I’m very unhappy. That’s my drama.”
Un Amor is produced by Marisa Fernández Armenteros (Buena Pinta Media) and Sandra Hermida (Perdición Films). Films Constellation handles international sales.
The San Sebastian Film Festival runs from September 22 to 30.