Prize-winning at the Gérardmer festival, Abuela is the new film by Paco Plaza (REC, Verónica) about the horrific relationship between a woman and her grandmother. AlloCiné met the director to discuss his vision of genre cinema.
Awarded the Jury Prize at the Gérardmer Fantastic Film Festival, Abuela is finally being released in French cinemas. This horrifying new feature film from Paco Plaza, to whom we owe the first REC films and the very successful Verónica, tells the descent into hell of Susana (Almudena Amor), a young Spanish model, who is about to break through in the Parisian fashion world.
But when her grandmother Pilar (Vera Valdez) is the victim of an accident leaving her almost paralyzed, Susana must return to Madrid in the old apartment where she grew up in order to watch over her only family. As their joint anniversary approaches, old memories resurface along with strange events, and her grandmother’s behavior becomes more and more disturbing…
AlloCiné was able to speak with the director Paco Plaza on the subject and the metaphors of this new horror film and on the way in which Abuela fits into a complex and overwhelming period of pandemic.
AlloCiné: How did the idea for this film, La Abuela, come about?
Paco Plaza: It’s a mixture of different things. I had an aunt who had Alzheimer’s disease and that was really shocking to me. Looking back, I know it had a huge impact on me, being there for someone and seeing a void set in their eyes.
I was also touched by the shooting of my film Quien a hierro mata (Eye for an Eye), for which I spent several weeks in a geriatric hospital. I worked with everyone and the residents didn’t just do extras, they also worked on making little things for the set with the team. I was truly amazed at how much they enjoyed each day. And I think it’s because they know they don’t have many days left. It was a special experience.
And at that point, I started to think that in our society, we don’t look at older characters anymore and we put them aside because we think they’re no longer useful. Nobody wants to grow old. It’s seen as a bad thing to grow old when it’s the only way to stay alive. It’s very paradoxical for me and above all there is a false nostalgia which, I really think, makes our society unhealthy. And it’s not like that in Mexico. It’s not like that in gypsy culture, where you enjoy growing old and staying with your family.
The fear of old age is ultimately greater than the fear of death…
Much bigger. Dying is like pressing a button to turn off and that’s it. But it’s painful to wait for death alone. There’s a time in life when you’re the adult and you have to take care of the elderly and it’s really painful.
And I think it wasn’t like that before. Years ago, at least in Spain, it was natural for grandparents to live with the family. My grandmother and my grandfather died at home. It was like that. They took care of you, so you take care of them until they die. And it’s not like that anymore.
You were talking about the fact that we don’t look at older characters anymore. There’s been a bit of a soul-searching about that with the pandemic since they’ve been the hardest hit by COVID. Did that strike you even more? And how has the pandemic impacted the film?
I think every film establishes a kind of dialogue with the world, and the world has changed and the perception of the frailty of older people is much more supported now. The movie doesn’t mean the same thing now. At the start of filming, there was a certain irony in the film, which is much less palpable now with all the images we have seen and the dramas experienced, whether distant or close to us. The connection between film and reality is now very different and perhaps more powerful.
There is a moment when his granddaughter helps him shower. We talked a lot about this scene beforehand, which is much longer than necessary. But I wanted to force people to look at an old body, and I wanted them to feel a little uncomfortable and then wonder why they are so uncomfortable. If it was the girl’s body that I chose to show, people wouldn’t be uncomfortable.
The fear of aging and the social pressure around old age impact women much more than men. Is that why you chose female characters for the film?
Yes, absolutely. And I think that pressure and that fear is not going away anytime soon. I think in a way the body is a prison for women. And that’s why I wanted female characters and the character of Susanna to be a model to show the climax of the cult of beauty and the competition between women. There will always be someone younger, more beautiful, more ambitious, who will come and push you down the stairs. And I wanted to show that toxicity as well.
You place a very old woman at the heart of the story, which is very rare in cinema. And you don’t hesitate to show it from every angle, through its strengths, its weaknesses, but also naked.
Yes, I wanted to expose it. For example, there is a moment when his granddaughter helps him shower. We talked a lot about this scene beforehand, which is much longer than necessary. But I wanted to force people to look at an old body, and I wanted them to feel a little uncomfortable and then wonder why they are so uncomfortable.
If it was the girl’s body that I chose to show, people wouldn’t be uncomfortable. But seeing wrinkles, an old and tired body, it makes you think. And I think that’s what art should be for, that is, to make us reflect on ourselves and our way of living, to look at the world and to understand ourselves and society. that surrounds us. And maybe it sounds a little pretentious, but I think the only point of art is to question us about who we are and how we treat other human beings.
Abuela reminded me a lot of Verónica for her similar construction and this family closed-door side that goes wrong. Is this new film part of a continuity in your cinema?
I guess our filmographies are cumulative. Every movie you make depends on the movies you’ve done before. Verónica and Abuela share similar themes. In Verónica’s case, she was a person who doesn’t want to grow old because she’s a little girl. She doesn’t want to be an adult. And in Abuela, it’s the opposite, it’s an adult who wants to be a little girl again.
So in a way they mirror each other. And it’s true that they both look alike. There’s a lot of darkness involved, and the danger comes from your family and your place of safety, which is normally your home. So I think they are related in some way.
Will you continue to explore the genre in your next films? Are there any themes that interest you more than others?
I really want to continue working in horror movies in general because that’s what I’ve loved since I was little. And I think that’s the best way to approach subjects that are important to you because fantasy gives you the tools to widen the playing field and you’re not limited by the logic of reality.
I don’t like when in horror movies that explain everything to you. I love when you come out of the movie theater with different theories. I want to leave room for mystery. And I don’t know yet what theme I would like to tackle in the future, but I know that I have always wanted to make a film about vampires.
Do you have models or directors who inspire you in your cinema?
I think Buñuel and Polanski are both the directors I admire the most. And I think they taught me through their films a way to approach reality. And Claire Denis too, with Trouble Every Day. This movie made my brain feel like popcorn. When I look at it, I go crazy. And the last film that had this impact on me was Titanium. I saw it three times.
How did it impact you?
I had already loved Grave, which was a very good horror film. But Titanium is a game changer. It’s a film as important as Pulp Fiction. It doesn’t matter if you like the movie or not. I know there are many people who reacted negatively to the film. Which goes to show that this is a movie you can’t ignore. I went through several emotions and questions while watching the film. I didn’t even know if I liked it. And at the same time, it’s like asking someone if they like “Guernica”. It doesn’t matter, but studying the background and the impact is important. And Julia Ducournau is extremely talented.
Interview by Mégane Choquet on February 4, 2022 in Paris.