When Javier Fuentes-León was young, he always enjoyed a good mystery, indulging in the occasional Agatha Christie novel and often tracing clues he’d be intrigued by to wherever they might lead, something he credits now to his grandfather’s hobby of crossword puzzles. With his second feature “The Vanished Elephant,” those formative influences have added up to a doozy of a potboiler, centering on Edo Celeste (Salvador del Solar), a crime novelist whose life becomes indistinguishable from his popular series of pulpy pageturners concerning a detective named Felipe Aranda.
Still nursing the hurt of the disappearance of his fiancée seven years earlier, Edo’s wrapping up his most famous work, an event worthy of an art exhibition dedicated to the novels in his native Peru, when he’s contacted by a woman with photos that might explain what happened to his former lover. Though it becomes clear that rehashing the past may take Edo down an unpleasant path, he presses on, piecing together his fiancee’s whereabouts even as his own life starts to fall apart as a result of his obsession.
For Fuentes-León, Edo’s pursuit of the truth isn’t just an investigation into what happened, but of his creative process, in which he’s drawn upon personal pain to write fiction only to see the fiction bleed into his real life as the stories he’s constructed take the place of real memories he once had. With intricate camerawork from Mauricio Vidal and tricky art direction by Susana Torres, “The Vanished Elephant” becomes as visually byzantine as Edo’s increasingly tangled mind yet exudes an elegance that gives the film a feel of a classic noir, allowing Fuentes-León the opportunity to create a satisfying thriller and a probing character study all at once. Shortly after “The Vanished Elephant” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, the writer/director spoke about the inspiration behind the film and how he embedded the puzzle pieces into the film’s very foundation.
How did the film come about?
The inspiration was “Pearblossom Hwy.,” a photo collage by David Hockney which I had a poster of in my house. I love his collages and that one in particular is beautiful because if you see it, it looks like an abstract painting, but if you really start to study it, some objects he shot really closely and others he went on a ladder and [shot from] different heights, so basically he took a very real space, an intersection in the desert of a highway with another road, shot whatever he was interested in and created a collage that became an interpretation of reality, which is what we do when we write. You steal from reality — whatever you need from a person you love, a conversation you had with them or a personality trait — or a dream you had. You basically zoom in and out and a lot of it has to do with your imagination, but you make up stuff and then you create a story. Whether you’re writing a book, a play, a film or you’re just telling a story to a friend, even if you’re not a writer, you’re always telling a story.
So I love the idea of the collage or a puzzle being how you present the process of writing and I’m always interested in duality and alter egos. You have that little bit in “Undertow” — the lover that disappears becomes the representation of the other side of this internal dilemma that the main character, the fisherman, has. And here a writer and his most famous character start to mirror one another, so I was inspired to write a mystery, a puzzle. “The Vanished Elephant” is a meditation of writing, but it’s disguised as a very conventional mystery thriller that starts to become less conventional, a little more surreal as we get closer to the truth.
There’s a moment in the film that I wanted to ask about as a Western viewer. When Mara de Barclay, the woman who gives Edo the pictures, says, “In this country, we all appear more than we really are,” I wondered what the cultural relevance was, even though I understood there were class differences at play.
That line comes because the main character is talking to Mara about the fact that he would not believe that his fiance would have ever fallen for this guy [he considers from a lower class] and Mara says “Why not? I did.” So she says “Get off the pedestal. Everybody here pretends to be more aristocratic.” Peru’s changing, but for the longest time until not so long ago, especially in my parents’ [generation], there was a small aristocratic Spanish descendant class that were in a way the owners of the country and then there was a bigger, less economically [privileged] class that was mostly either mixed race or native Peruvians. So this upper class has always separated themselves from the other — like “we are more European, we are more worldly, we’re white, we are more cultured.” There’s a lot of people form the lower class and middle class that ended up doing very well financially, then became more accepted by the upper class and then started to reject their origins, so when [Mara] tells him to “get off the pedestal,” there’s a sting to it and a political undertone. That’s the only one in the movie but I felt like it was appropriate in that moment.
Even in its individual shot compositions, the film actually is presented in a puzzle-like way – how you’ll use mirrors, particularly in a bathroom scene early in the film, or present a staircase. Did you take your visual cues from the story?
As I wrote the screenplay — and I had a lot of help from Michel Ruben, one of the producers of the film [who’s] very good at dissecting story, especially in a story like this one where we’re creating a puzzle — a lot of the visuals were already written. As we get closer to the end and closer to the truth, reality becomes more surreal and in a way, we are entering the mind of the writer, so the stairwells, the hallways, the spaces behind doors — even though they’re realistic and you see the character going through all of these, we’re entering all these corners and hallways that we have in our minds when we’re creating story.
A lot of it had also to do with my collaboration with Mauricio Vidal, the same [cinematographer] from “Undertow” and because the main character is trapped in this obsession [as well as] this past and this mystery, we wanted to shoot him so it was not always very clear. If he’s in a car, you see him from behind outside, or through the window with a reflection covering him. We were always trying to shoot him through something that was framing him in a way that would subconsciously give you this idea that this man is not free, even in the open. It’s only when he goes to the desert by the ocean that we see the sun because that place will bring him clarity. Maybe not a hundred percent clarity, but that’s what we find out what’s going on, not only in terms of the love of his life who disappeared seven years ago but in terms of his own life. That’s why I got excited to shoot in Lima during October and November because Lima in the winter gets very gray and very foggy.
[Also] I chose that bathroom [you mention]. That bathroom doesn’t have those checkered [tiles], but when I started to look at locations, I wanted the walls and the floors to either have a checkered texture or building blocks like a puzzle. Some of the walls in [the writer’s] house have this puzzle, the floor in the museum is checkered, and the bathroom at the museum is checkered because it’s a chess game that he’s playing with the antagonist in a way, so there was a lot of thought [put into it] both with Susana Torres, the art director and with Mauricio Vidal about constantly [created] visual clues that might help give us a tone that we are in labyrinth somehow.
When you create a mystery like this with such individually intriguing clues, do you start at the end and work backwards or do you create the clues first and see how it adds up?
I didn’t feel like I had to sit down and say, “What’s going to be the clue.” But what was actually more of a challenge was how do we make these clues move the story forward, being intriguing but at the same time not so cryptic that people would be like, “Well, I don’t give a fuck anymore.” That balance between mystery and clarity was the hard one and how do you show it visually? Because this movie is a mystery in itself, you have to own up to the fact that not everything can be completely spelled out because audiences would be bored. It’s usually one of the big challenges when you’re editing a movie — how much information do I give to an audience and how much do I let them just make their own connections? It happened with “Undertow” too, and [in that film] we took out a lot of scenes that I love because it’s like, “Do I want to give them a scene that will give this character more depth but then I’m asking them to spend three more minutes in this movie?”
You actually have a sizable art exhibit in the film. Was that fun to create out of whole cloth?
Our biggest reference for the photos in the exhibit were classic film noir. We looked at photos from “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” and “Double Indemnity” and [we weren’t exactly] trying to imitate the style, because if you go back to see the movie, all the photos we did are hinting at something that is going to happen in the movie but in a very vague, subtle way. You’ll see [the writer] playing chess, then you’ll see the floors [that look like a chess board] and you’ll see him in front of a mirror and then you see a scene with a mirror that will become important later. That’s something that I wanted to do constantly. Even lines that are being said will hopefully come back again and sometimes even whole sequences with a different context or a different character, so it has new meaning now. There’s a short story by Julio Cortázar called “The Continuity of Parks,” which is one-and-a-half pages, but it was a big time inspiration.
Was it fun to take certain conventions of noir and subvert them for your own purposes?
That was my hope. Of course, Hitchcock and Polanski’s “Chinatown” and Lynch’s “Mullholland Drive” were big inspirations for this and when you have clear inspirations like those, you want to do a homage but at the same time, you don’t want to be a copycat. It’s not for me to say, but hopefully that’s what people would take. There’s a scene between the photographer and the lead character at the photographer’s house and we have this wide shot where both of them are sitting facing each other at the edge of the frame. It’s a master shot and there’s a table behind them [with] a falcon on it, which is my little tip of the hat to “The Maltese Falcon.” These are little things that are very fun to play with, but hopefully we did a good enough job that it’s its own film and not just a rehash.