There’s something about films that take place in the summertime that manage to perfectly capture a beaming adrenaline, a desire for a new beginning, and an incessant —almost cruel— melancholy that longs for the undecipherable, the unknown.
With The August Virgin, director Jonás Trueba accomplishes the Herculean task of carving just the right amount of introspection, melancholia, and serendipity to render the story of a woman getting in touch with her body and soul, to reconstruct the meaning of her being.
The main character Eva (played by Itsaso Arana, who’s also the film’s co-writer) decides to break norm and stay in Madrid during August, a time many in the city escape to the coast to get away from the sweltering, beachless city. When we first meet Eva, she’s scoping out an apartment she plans to sublet for the month. Even though the man whose apartment she’ll be renting is trying to chat her up, she’s aloof, offering nothing but a vacant look. But don’t confuse that with detachment or apathy; those adjectives don’t apply to her.
Once settled in the insufferably hot apartment, we follow her completing mundane tasks like showering, lying in bed or lying on her couch eating watermelon, and people watching from her window, where she catches a first glimpse of the traditional Saint’s Days festivities. Throughout the film, the director decides to include scenes of the very active processions for different saints like San Cayetano and San Lorenzo.
Because all of the action we see is taking place within the month of August, Trueba decides to illustrate the passage of time by introducing title cards stating the specific date we’re about to watch, which aside from obviously letting the audience know how much time has passed, it raises the stakes, building up anticipation for the final moments of the film. We’re conditioned to think that this will pay off at the end—and it does.
But before we get there, we see Eva in multiple encounters with old friends and past lovers. She reconnects with Sofía, a former roommate and really good friend, who’s now a young mother. Their seemingly banal conversation turns into a deeper one where both come to an understanding as to why they drifted apart, and how motherhood and general life phases have a lot to do with the status of a friendship. Their exchange isn’t dramatic or melodramatic. It’s calm, but serving facts about the multiple reasons two people just lose interest in each other. How people grow to not become important anymore, and it’s not because you dislike them, but because life takes you in different directions.
She also bumps into a previous boyfriend who clearly is still sad about how they ended their relationship. Their exchange is sweet, but mostly awkward. There’s still residual pain coming from both ends. It would take time to close that chapter.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a summer tale without the introduction of new characters that will, in some way or another, reshape our main character’s understanding of self. There’s a Welsh singer of anti-fascist songs, a Reiki therapist who aligns Eva’s female energies and enables her to be more in touch with her body, and a new possible love interest, whom she pursues from the start, perhaps the only time we see her go after something so decisively. All of these rendezvous and chance encounters push Eva to acknowledge that she might not be too far off from discovering what she wants.
And that’s exactly the thing. For the first few scenes, Eva is alone with her thoughts, wanting to reach out to anybody, hungry for conversation, a type of human connection, and not necessarily romantic, or sexual, or sisterly, but just the simple act of human socializing. She practices such clinical restraint that it becomes an almost impossible challenge to overcome. She’s fighting with herself.
Throughout the film Eva mentions that she wants to renew herself. She’s an actress by profession, but wants a career change. Our main character’s love interest Agos (Vito Sanz) turns out to be an actor himself. With him she finds an extension of herself, or somebody she believes can understand where she’s coming from. Like our protagonist, we see him roam streets alone, meander into late night bars by himself after his own shift as a bartender ends. Perhaps Eva sees in Agos somebody who seems to be content with where he’s at, with who he is—somebody who isn’t afraid of himself and his thoughts. But he harbors dark emotions that come from dark places, as evidenced in the first scene we see him in. However, she’s also the same way.
Cinematographer Santiago Racaj manages to balance the right amount of moody close ups and wide angle shots where we see Eva adrift. But if we ever want to get a sense of Eva, of who she is, one just needs to look at all the scenes where she’s by herself. Cinematic language says that if you want to really get to know a character, where they’re not putting a front and where they are at their most vulnerable, take a look at a scene that features them alone. You’ll know the good, the bad, and the ugly.
One of the many things going for The August Virgin is Itsaso Arana’s involvement in the script. As a co-writer, she offers an invaluable female perspective. Throughout the film, we see Eva in conversation with other women dissecting female menstruation; they talk about it so freely, with facts and humor, and how if men had la regla, companies worldwide would just give them sick days without prying, fishing for a reason as to why they need time off. But there’s also an earlier scene where Eva talks with her new friend Olka about the notion of motherhood, the thought about conceiving a child, and if it’s a wish that they must let go of due to age. Even if Trueba had written the script solo and included those scenes, they wouldn’t carry the same weight and significance as they do now.
It’s easy to compare this film to those of French auteur Eric Rohmer, more specifically his Tales of Four Seasons. In that collection, we see slice-of-life films centering around characters exploring their dissatisfaction with oneself, questioning their relationships, and getting in endless conversations about the meaning of life, friendships, and love.
And while I can see why comparisons come off so naturally, I’d say that Trueba, at least in The August Virgin, transcends the seemingly detached and philosophical—and at times cloying— conversations in Rohmer’s work. He grounds this film, reimagines the abstract and delivers an accessible product that seems, sounds, and feels more familiar.
Yes, this is not a perfect film—some scenes warranted more follow up to capture Eva’s various degrees of mental agony and joy, and the introduction of diary entries and voice overs by Eva don’t really go anywhere—but the overall execution and rich characters make this an immersive film, one that explores womanhood, dark clouds that sometimes loom over oneself, and how some summers are not in vain.
The August Virgin opens in virtual cinemas on Friday, August 21. Find the complete list here.