Who’s in control — the killer or his potential victim?
Spain / 88 minutes / color / Castelao, Filmax, TVE, Via Digital, ICAA, ICF Dir & Scr: Miguel Alcantud Pr: Julio Fernández Cine: Tote Trenas Cast: Ana Risueño, Daniel Freire, Walter Moreno, Miquel García Borda, Liz Lobato, Ruth Puebla, Michaela Brízová, Paloma Ruiz de Alda, Ricardo Gómez, Carmen Andrés Urtasun. New State Band: Horacio Icasto (piano), Pablo Martín (double bass), Noah Shaye (drums), Antonio Serrano (harmonica), Paloma Berganza (vocals), joined by Christian Howes (electric violin).
When you learn that one of the two principal characters in a movie is a serial killer, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the movie’s just another serial-killer chiller. Like Felicia’s Journey (1999), Impulsos takes those elements and uses them to make something very much more interesting. It’s the portrait of a relationship that develops between a young woman and a serial killer . . . and of course that description can easily give rise to another false assumption, that somehow she’s going to melt his heart. No: As in real life, the psychopath remains a psychopath, and the relationship between them isn’t a sexual one—at least in any ordinary interpretation of that term.
The pre-credits setup is that beautiful young Madrid violinist and videographer Lola Millán (Risueño) and her artist lover Mario (Moreno) are in the bath, with a videocamera set up to observe them. They’re smiling and laughing together, but then we see Lola withdraw as Mario’s blood spreads across the water.
Lola spends much of the movie’s running time under the false name Sara, so for the sake of convenience that’s what we’ll call her from here on.
Months pass, and Sara clearly hasn’t gotten over Mario. The only reason she’s still alive is that she can’t bring herself to commit suicide. Time and again she sits in the bath and puts a razor blade to her wrist, but finds herself incapable of making the fatal hack. We sense (correctly) that she’s trying to fulfill her side of the bargain that she and Mario made, that the video of them killing themselves in the bath was to be their last and greatest artwork.
Mario (Walter Moreno) and Sara (Ana Risueño) prepare to make their “artwork.”
Sara (Ana Risueño) tries to make a video of her own suicide.
Meanwhile, we encounter a primary schoolteacher whom we’ll learn to call Jaime (Freire). He’s on the prowl in a shopping mall. He sees a pretty girl (Ruiz de Alda) leave her boyfriend (Gómez) for a moment to pop into the restroom. Jaime follows her, and what we learn of her fate is that a short while later he tosses her distinctive hair tie into one of the mall’s litter bins.
One night, perhaps that very same night, Sara and Jaime find themselves in the same bar. One of the guys there (Borda) comes on very strong to Sara, and after an initial lack of interest she allows herself to be picked up. At the same time, Jaime has spotted a pretty girl (Puebla), and with his good looks and charm has no difficulty in persuading her to take him back to her place. We see the two sexual encounters in parallel. Jaime’s with the girl is passionate and engaged, but ends with him killing her. Sara finds herself so distanced from the guy that she looks as if she might fall asleep as he grunts away on top of her. Clearly any hopes she might have had that a night of meaningless sex could banish her yearnings for Mario were direly misplaced.
Sara (Ana Risueño) allows herself to be picked up in a bar . . .
. . . but the sex leaves her cold.
One day, perhaps the very next day, Sara is waiting on a crowded subway platform when she quite clearly sees Jaime push a young man under an incoming train. Rather than call the cops on him, she thrusts her cellphone at him then phones him from a callbox. She tells him she was videoing on the platform and will take the tape to the cops unless he does what she tells him.
Jaime (Daniel Freire) shoves a stranger off the subway platform.
We learn that Jaime kills sometimes just for kicks, simply because he can, but sometimes as a means of anger management, as when he converts the rage he feels over being under Sara’s thumb into the brutal murder of the driver of the cab he’s in. He keeps a collection of online “newspaper cuttings” about his murders on his computer, and admires it from time to time.
Outwardly Jaime (Daniel Freire) seems completely civilized . . .
. . . but sometimes he kills as a means of releasing his crazed fury.
It’s not hard to guess that what Sara is planning to blackmail him into doing is the task that she’s unable to bring herself to do—i.e., kill her—but she becomes fascinated by him, and defers the moment. In the meantime she carries on performing as the violinist of the New State Band, a very good jazz combo.
The band’s members are genuine musicians of distinction, with the exception of Sara/Risueño, and they provide almost all the soundtrack—the movie would be worth watching for the soundtrack alone. At one point the electric violinist Christian Howes joins the combo for a jam.
Electric violinist Christian Howes jams with the combo.
Jaime, for his part, carries on teaching kids at the Amador de los Rios School during working hours and killing people during his leisure time. The one overt implausibility of the movie is how prolific a serial killer Jaime is. Even though he varies his method from one murder to the next, and sometimes disguises the deaths as accidents (and seems to make judicious use of an acid bath on occasion), Madrid is a relatively small city—a little over three million people—and you’d expect there to be something of a panic afoot concerning all these murders that are going on. But we see nothing of that—no sign of increased police presence, no sign of people being terrified to walk in the park or keeping the kids protectively close.
The relationship that develops between Sara and Jaime is a distanced one, carried out first over the phone and later through some precursor of Skype. By then Sara has rented a room on the other side of the street from Jaime’s so that she can spy on him through her window. It’s this proximity that eventually leads to her downfall in the cat-and-mouse game she’s been playing, because one night when they’re “skyping” he notices that the police siren he can hear through his window matches the one he can hear from behind her. He tracks her to her room by sending her a video he’s made of his vicious murder of a prostitute (Brízová), and then listening for Sara’s cries of disgust . . .
Sara (Ana Risueño) spies on Jaime (Daniel Freire) from the flat opposite.
At this point, if this were a serial-killer chiller, there’d be a protracted struggle between the two principals before, in the closing moments, the embattled babe (or her boyfriend) would manage to skewer the bad guy—not at the first attempt, because it’s the convention that he has to be, in effect, killed twice. But, to repeat, this isn’t a serial-killer chiller. There’s indeed a fight, and Jaime does indeed come off the worse, but he’s still very much alive when Sara flees.
What has happened is that Jaime’s position of dominance has been only brief, although he doesn’t yet know it. He takes her violin. He raids the apartment she once shared with Mario, and so is able to find out her real name—Lola Martín—and even attend one of the New State Band’s gigs (sans violin, she skips it), all the while thinking that she’s the hunted animal. In reality, though, she’s regained control of the reins; the stolen violin, although he doesn’t know it, is not something that gives him power over her but in fact a liability, something she can use to make him do what she wishes. Which has changed a little since the outset . . .
In horror and revulsion, Sara (Ana Risueño) watches Jaime’s video record of his murdering a prostitute (Michaela Brízová).
Aside from the two principals, the only players to have more than the briefest of roles are the musicians, and even they don’t really have speaking parts (Berganza sings). To be honest, I don’t think there’s a single line of audible dialogue from anyone here except the two leads. (In a couple of cases it’s almost artificial that a character doesn’t speak, as with a young woman [Lobato] whom Jaime picks up in the park.). This is very much as it should be: the world that Sara and Jaime have come to inhabit is one of their own creation, each focused entirely upon the other with everyone else having become extraneous.
The performances of the two principals are quite exceptional. Risueño, it has to be said, is extraordinarily lovely, but it’s not for this reason that her screen presence is so riveting. She brings to the part of Sara an intelligence and a vulnerability that instantly spark sympathy in the viewer. At a late stage in the movie Sara confesses that the reason she can afford all her cameras and hi-tech gadgets is that she only ever bothers making the down payment, and I found myself chuckling indulgently as if at an incorrigible niece, so much had Risueño managed to draw me into Sara’s world. Risueño has quite an extensive filmography (plus a lot of TV work), and it’s surprising she’s not far better known in the anglophone world.
If Risueño is tremendous, Freire is arguably even better. His superficially charming, sensitive, likeable killer is far more chilling than the monsters we normally see on screen in the role of the psychopath; his depiction of Jaime makes most other screen sociopaths—Hannibal Lecter and the like—seem about as subtle as a hole in the road—and quite a large hole at that. Only once does his mask slip; as he strangles the taxi driver we briefly see the savage beast he really is. We suspect that some of the kids whom Jaime teaches sense the emptiness inside him, but to everyone else—with the obvious exception of Sara—he seems like an ideal neighbor. Freire’s in fact an Argentinean, but has lived in Spain for many years. Like Risueño, he’s done a fair deal of TV work as well as a good number of movies.
As noted, the soundtrack’s great. So too is Trenas’s often consciously noirish cinematography. My favorite little sequence comes at about the 47.5-minute mark. We look down into the street at a steep angle from the vantage point of Sara’s window to see Jaime emerge from his building on the far side of the road. The camera pans further downward and sideways to follow him briefly as he sets off for his daily jog. The same pan continues until we’re looking vertically downward to see the top of Sara’s hat as she comes out onto the street from her own building. It’s one of those sequences that you wouldn’t notice if it weren’t there but that justifies its inclusion simply through its being a thing of beauty.
This is the first of just three feature movies that director Miguel Alcantud has made (he too has done his share of TV work), the others being Anastezsi (2007) and Diamantes Negros (2013). The latter’s cast includes Risueño, albeit in a minor role; the former’s a thriller that, to judge by Impulsos, I’d very much like to see.