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Fresh from the San Sebastian Film Festival, Javier Rebollo’s  La Mujer sin piano received one of its very first international premieres this weekend courtesy of the AFI Festival. It was introduced as drawing  on a tradition from Keaton to Tati; that is, dialogue-free, absurdist, deadpan comedy, which was more or less true, though I would have much preferred not to have had it so built-up, as the humour and absurdity turned out to be so deadpan as to be almost non-existent.

The comparison with Tati is most apt, however, in the highly detailed sound design. From the beginning we’re bombarded with a barrage of household noises, from the the microwave to simultaneous radio and TV broadcasts, ticking clocks and a rattling depilatory device the eponymous woman uses on her clients at home. She has a slight hearing problem and the doctor has told her to listen to the radio loud; she has a constant ringing in her ears which is shared with us at some moments (she is the woman without pianissimo). For long stretches, however, the most constant sound is that of her heels clacking through the deserted nighttime streets of Madrid, which creates a pleasantly hypnotic effect that chimes with the film’s unhurried unfolding.

The central character Rosa is played by Carmen Machi, a wonderful presence of few words but able to convey her thoughts through the slightest of facial movements. To start off with, at home, she looks drab and tired, apparently stuck in quasi-Jeanne Dielman territory; but later on, despite pockmarks, middle-age and slight portliness, with a good wig and neat make-up, strong Spanish profile and a hip-swinging walk, she’s surprisingly sexy. The funniest element of the film is the constant Tati-esque trickle of little obstacles thrown in her way by banal services: the blind logic of a post office employee or a cafe counter waitress, ticket booths that abruptly close, even closed toilets (and she has a lot of trouble finding somewhere to smoke). But she takes them all with as much equanimity as she does the various slightly odd figures she encounters throughout the course of the night (to a well-cast array of background extra faces). These characters and situations epitomise the movie’s tone: slightly off-kilter rather than actually absurd.

It’s carefully crafted, interestingly conceived and gently amusing, but so down-played as to make Kaurismaki look like slapstick and without the marvelously poised central performance would wither into complete inconsequentiality.

Rating: 7.21

Watch the trailer.