J and C and the director makes three

Made with her own money, Isabel Coixet’s emotional latest features a cast of just two

Javier Cámara and Candela Peña in Isabel Coixet’s Ayer no termina nunca, scheduled for release in Spain on April 26.
Javier Cámara and Candela Peña in Isabel Coixet’s Ayer no termina nunca, scheduled for release in Spain on April 26.

Javier Cámara and Candela Peña aren’t just the stars of Ayer no termina nunca (or, Yesterday never ends), they are the only actors in the film. The new movie from The Secret Life of Words director Isabel Coixet, it stars the pair as a couple who meet up after five years apart, carrying all their grudges and regrets. The action takes place in 2017, in a futuristic Barcelona cemetery designed by architect Enric Miralles and also involves a child, but he is dead.

As you’ve no doubt already guessed, it’s no romantic comedy. If you’re one of those people who hates Coixet’s movies for being too lyrical, too sad and too theatrical, be warned: this is her most lyrical, sad and theatrical movie yet.

All her obsessions are here in their purest form — from the books of critic John Berger to the most basic: pain — supported by two actors in a state of grace. So how did she manage to convince a producer to give her money for a film about two people talking about their feelings in a graveyard?

“I financed it myself,” she explains. “I had to do it. It is more than a film; it was something personal.”

Back in 2007, Coixet was driving her friend Cristina to Cannes for a presentation for the film Paris, je t’aime, to which she contributed a segment. In the middle of the journey, she received a phone call. “Tell Cristina that her 18-year-old son Jaime has died,” the voice on the other end of the line told her. “There has been an accident.”

Knowing she couldn’t say anything in the middle of the highway doing 120 km/h, she waited. They stopped for gas, had lunch, took several more roads, all the time Coixet repeating to herself the same thing, “As soon as I tell this woman what has happened, her life will never be the same again.”

The incident stayed bubbling in her brain for a long time. In order to get it out, she brought the rights to the play Gif (Poison), by Dutch writer Lot Vekemans and freely adapted it to the Spain of the crisis, of her crisis. She trembles with emotion as she tells the story today, in a photography studio on Barcelona’s Gracia neighborhood. The film is dedicated “To Jaime and Cristina,” while its two characters are called J and C.

What’s more, J and C are also the initials of the two stars of Ayer no termina nunca. Both Javier Cámara and Candela Peña experienced personal breakups and tragedies during the making of the film. Tragedies they will not be revealing today. However, Cámara admits they incorporated their stories into the rehearsals. “J is like me in many ways,” he says. “He thinks he can run away from his problems, that he can survive independently from his past. There is a masculine aspect to that. I think that we men think more about ourselves and women have more contact with the people surrounding them. If a pack of wild animals attacked, the man would go out to fight and want to be a hero. But the woman would protect her young, which is what is really important.”

A film about a man and a woman confronting their demons and their grief, Ayer no termina nunca would have been impossible to make if the chemistry between the starring pair hadn’t been perfect. “When I said yes to the film, Isabel asked me which actress I would feel the most intimacy with on camera,” Cámara remembers. “And with Candela, I had made Torremolinos 73. If you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

In that movie the pair play a middle-class married couple who start to shoot homemade porn films during the 1970s. Their scenes together were comic, but also very explicit. And when Peña enters the room, the effects of that experience become very clear. The pair don’t say hello, they’re all over each other. A hand here, another there, kiss, hug, a dirty joke. It’s like Torremolinos 73, but with clothes.

Peña says she doesn’t want to talk about the movie: “I’ll just tell you one thing: this film marks a turning point in my life.”

It makes sense. Up until 2005, Peña was huge star. She had worked with Almodóvar, Iciar Bollain and Fernando León de Aranoa. She had won two Goya Awards for Take My Eyes and Princesses. Then suddenly she disappeared. The Internet Movie Database has her starring in five small films around 2008, before she disappears again, reappearing with this film and in Cesc Gay’s recent Una pistola en cada mano.

What was she doing in the intervening years? “Living. Sometimes life takes you to unexpected places.” And how did she find it stopping living to go work with Coixet?

“I had a mistaken idea about her, with that strange look she has,” Peña admits. “I thought she would never call me. [...] But in the end, she was the most generous director I have had. She let me create, and respected my vision of the character.”

Like C, Peña says she finds it tough to put the bad things in life behind her. It’s not surprising. It’s clear that she is an extremely sensitive actress. After swearing she wouldn’t say anything about the film, she is now doing so with an open heart. Talking about Coixet, she gets so emotional she sheds a tear. It’s not that this woman’s mood changes during the course of a morning; it changes in the course of a sentence.

Cámara also considers his relationship with Coixet a special one that goes beyond work. “Before I didn’t make friends with directors. I thought it wasn’t necessary, that the professional relationship was enough. But now there are some, such as Cesc Gay and Isabel, who tell me things that have a profound effect on me, because of our age, our affinity.” Since the whole process of making the film has been so intensely personal for the trio, what do they expect of it after it is unveiled at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday and released in Spain on April 26?

“It depends what your barometer is for measuring success,” responds Cámara. “Awards? Money? Fame? Reviews? [For me it’s about] how much I have evolved with each work. How much I have changed and learned. In those terms, this film is already a success.”

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