Wide outdoor expanses. Static frames. Frequent cuts to black. Impassive camera subjects. The sense that humor’s hovering, but withheld, in dead, thin air. It seems we’ve heard this song before. But in his second feature, following his 2004 deadpan debut Duck Season (a pocket-sized, black-and-white coming-of-age kinda-comedy that was inexplicably picked up by a then optimistic Warner Independent), Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke retreats into this much-rehearsed visual style only to dig a little deeper, and with a color palette that, if not vibrant, at least provides the director with some new emotional hues to work with. The surprisingly touching result is as affecting as it is atmospheric, and the overall impression is less one of self-conscious mannerism than of genuine heartache, an honest attempt at conveying a young man’s necessary, if tenuous, stab at human interaction. At first, the whiff of Kaurismäki and Jarmusch is undeniably pungent, but Eimbcke keeps peeling back his layers of detachment one by one, until something pure and plangent remains onscreen.
Lake Tahoe, which takes place not in its titular tranquil getaway, but in a parched Mexican suburb (the title ends up being a tangential yet stirring Madeleine), opens with a seemingly insignificant car accident. Juan (Diego Cantaño) has slammed his red Nissan sedan into a telephone pole: we only hear the crash over a black screen, and see the resulting minor smash-up once we flash back to a still, cloudless daylight. Juan leaves his car on the side of this stretch of blank road and makes his way on foot to the nearest town. Eimbcke frames his search for assistance as a somewhat expected series of clear, head-on compositions, an immobile camera patiently peering at vacant or closed workshops as Juan makes his way across the screen, left to right. As he traverses the neighborhood, edifices at once colorfully painted and drab, buildings of aquamarine and white and slate-gray, take up nearly the entire frame, with a shadowed door opening the only way out—or in. By virtue of the camera’s placement and stillness, the Yucatán settings of Lake Tahoe, with their overgrown, weedy sidewalks, palm trees, and broken fences, are reminiscent, variously, of Kaurismaki’s Helsinki, Seidl’s suburban Vienna, or Jarmusch’s early Eighties New York—they seem to be receding away from the viewer.
Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of Lake Tahoe, which played in February’s Film Comment Selects series, and opens this week at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.