Año Uña

Año Uña (Year of the Nail) (2007)

Año Uña (Year of the Nail) first published by Film4

Summary: This feature debut from writer/director Jonás (son of Alfonso) Cuarón traces an impossible romance in still pictures.

Review: “Photography is truth,” declares the protagonist of Jean-Luc Godard‘s Le Petit Soldat (1963), “and cinema is truth at 24 frames per second.” It is an idea both tested and reaffirmed by Año Uña, in which a year’s worth of candid photographs taken by Jonás Cuarón of his American girlfriend Eireann Harper and his extended Mexican family are reorganised into a narrative fiction that serves a greater truth. 

The events that Cuarón’s photographs enshrine (birthdays and funerals, vistits to hospitals and veterinary surgeries, trips to the Mexican beach and to Coney Island) are all real, unstaged moments, but the narrative subsequently inspired by and imposed on these images is entirely of Cuarón’s invention. Likewise all the voices heard in this film belong to the actual people seen in the stills (apart from ‘Grandpa’ Salvador Elizondo, whose death during the year necessitated the use of a separate voice actor, Fernando Becerril) – although their words and even their characters have been scripted for them by Cuarón. 

Molly (Harper) is a 21-year-old sociology student from New York, unable to settle on a decent boyfriend, uncomfortable with her American-ness, and currently lost in translation in Mexico. Diego (Diego Cataño, Cuarón’s half-brother) is a horny 14-year-old Mexican boy in the throes of puberty, focusing all his masturbatory fantasies on his cousin Emilia (Emilia García) – but when one autumn Molly rents a room with his family, Diego quickly transfers his attentions to the older gringa. The holiday ends, Molly leaves, and time passes. Molly’s parents separate, Diego’s cat gets spayed and his grandfather loses his struggle against cancer. By spring, all that remains unchanged is Diego’s painful ingrown toenail and his ever-optimistic lust for Molly – and so he travels alone to New York to be reunited with her, whether for an eternity, or just for a day.

“Everything needs to end, that way it’s more special.” It is a line delivered (with minor variations) three times in Año Uña – and indeed the bittersweet nature of ephemerality forms a recurrent theme in the film, with its passing seasons and shifting affections. Like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), Cuarón’s feature debut is a slideshow of still images fashioned into a story through voice-overs and an elaborate soundscape, and concerned with time travel – but here, the chronological drift is very much in one direction. 

Separated by age, culture and location, Molly and Diego flirt with an impossible romance, all unfulfilled desires and unexpressed longings, establishing just the right tone of melancholy for a film in which everything is captured in artifically frozen moments, and yet nothing stays the same for long. “How quickly time passes,” declares Diego’s (and Cuarón’s) mother (Mariana Elizondo) – and after this film’s breezy 79 minutes have elapsed, you will be left in utter agreement, wishing Año Uña could last forever, while knowing that its carefully bounded brevity is part of what makes it so sweet.

Cuarón’s film is concerned not only with the impermanence of time, but with the inexact, fragmentary manner in which we measure and record it. When we first meet Molly, she is in Mexico City reciting the names of the subway stations that break up any journey. Later, looking at a display in a museum of torture with her friend Katie (Katie Hegarty), Molly comments: “The drops of water are his constant reminder of all the time he’s spent in prison.” The continuum of a train journey, or of human suffering, can be comprehended only if broken up into periodic stages, and much the same purpose is served by cinema itself, where the illusion of continuity is established by a rapid succession of celluloid pictures. Cuarón heightens our awareness of this illusion by using photographic stills as a means to slow down the more usual frame rate – and yet for all its interest in its own form, Año Uña never feels like a dry intellectual exercise in reflexivity, thanks largely to Cuarón’s playful refusal to let his characters ever engage in blandly academic ruminations. 

Yes, Molly is a devoted photographer, but her attempts (unlike the filmmaker’s) to take snaps are always being thwarted as life keeps getting in the way. The one character who gives voice to anything like a critical theory of photography, Molly’s ‘aspiring professor’ boyfriend (Max Schmookler), is unceremoniously dumped by her for his pretentious and patronising efforts. So while Cuarón’s photographic medium may be an essential part of his message, he packages both of these in a charming human story full of vivid characters and domestic dramas. The result is that, within a few minutes of Año Uña‘s beginning, its one frame per second feels like 24 again, and this most experimental of films ceases in any way to seem so. It is the miracle of cinema, rearranging and transforming slices of life into a new, but equally compelling, reality.  

Verdict: A charming and intimate photo album of the imagination, in which time and memory, though up to all their usual tricks, still offer snapshots of a singular truth.    

Anton Bitel