Film critics may at times fancy themselves to be heroic figures, like Michael Fassbender’s dashing spy-cum-cinephile Lt Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, a debonair, gun-toting journalist recruited by Churchill himself to help assassinate Hitler and end the War – and recruited precisely for his expertise in German film history. For most, though, the reality probably comes closer to Jay Sherman, the dyspeptic New York semi-celebrity broadcast reviewer who featured in the animated TV series The Critic(1994-95) – and occasionally cameos in The Simpsons. Chubby, schlubby and absurdly human, Sherman is too busy trying (and mostly failing) to save his job and his dignity for saving the world to get much of a look in.
Somewhere in between these extremes comes Víctor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), both the star, and also chief critic (in more than one sense), of Hernán Gerschuny’s wonderfully metacinematic The Film Critic (El Critíco).
“I see the world like a huge movie,” declares the saturnine Buenos Aires reviewer – and the kind of movie in which he sees himself as protagonist is something from the (now ossified) French New Wave, which is why he is introduced to us via a black-and-white photomontage reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), and why later, in conversation with his younger ex Roxana (Ana Katz), he freely (if surreally) appropriates lines from his favourite director Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless (1960). Even his voice-over narration is in French – because, as he explains with hilariously clueless irony, Spanish “sounds very artificial and judgmental.”
Like so many (though not all) in his profession, Tellez is a white, middle-class, middle-aged male, and inclined to dismiss the views of, say, his 18-year-old niece (Telma Crisanti) – even if, in her first scene, she brilliantly skewers his pretensions and snobbish tastes by tricking him into thinking that CCTV footage of the concrete stairwell outside is in fact a Taiwanese “experimental short film”.
Like so many professional critics, Tellez is wont to proclaim cinema “dead”, reserving a special hatred for the populist formulae of comic genres. And like so many professional critics, he is under threat of losing his job, has very little money, and lives in a squalid apartment that is, both literally and symbolically, being demolished all around him. Something has to give.
Change comes in the form of Sofía (Dolores Fonzi), a sensuous visiting Spaniard prone to borrowing lines from Amélie (2001) and reenacting scenes from Titanic (1997). As Tellez, in spite of himself, starts falling for Sofía, his life – and the film that he is in – start to resemble one of the romantic comedies that he so singularly despises, until soon he is seeing Sofía in slow motion, kissing her amidst fireworks, and even running through the rain in her pursuit.
The boundaries between reality and film break down in other way too. For, much as the kleptomaniac Sofía compulsively filches items from shops and stalls, Tellez steals scenes and characters from his own experiences for a screenplay that he is writing, literally turning his life into a movie. Meanwhile he discovers that someone else is covertly filming his every move, and he will even, in a climactic sequence that exposes cinematic cliché for all its artifice, inadvertently encroach upon a location shoot. Here the world truly is a movie – and determined to find a happy (or not so happy) medium between the wish-fulfilment rules of genre and his more jaundiced view of real life, Tellez edges towards an ending of compromise for both his script and his Argentine existence.
The result is a knowingly reflexive, postmodern piece in which a critic truly is at the centre of the film on which he keeps commenting. As Tellez finds himself “trapped in a genre where [he] do[es]n’t belong”, he is both an everyman (in a world where everyone is a critic) alienated within and from his own human condition, and a comic foil whose many all-too-human shortcomings make him a figure of awkwardly honest identification for any genuine critics in the audience. It may get to have its cake and eat it too, but The Film Critic gets away with all the filmic tropes and clichés that it deploys, parodies and wildly mixes precisely by maintaining a critical distance and repeatedly subjecting its own chosen form(s) to examination and appraisal.