Award-winning at the Gérardmer Festival, Abuela is a new film by Paco Plaza (REC, Verónica) about the terrible relationship between a woman and her grandmother. AlloCiné met with the director to discuss his vision for genre cinema.
Having won the jury prize at the Gérardmer Fantastic Film Festival, Abuela is finally coming to French cinemas. To whom we owe the first REC films and the highly successful Veronica, this terrifying new feature film from Paco Plaza follows the descent into hell of Susana (Almudena Amor), a young Spanish model about to break through in Parisian fashion. Peace.
But when her grandmother Pilar (Vera Valdes) is the victim of an accident that leaves her almost paralyzed, Susana must return to Madrid to the old apartment where she grew up to look after her only family. As their 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 director Paco Plaza about the subject matter and metaphors of this new horror film, and how Abuela fits into the complex and difficult times of the pandemic.
AlloCiné: How did the idea for the film Abuela come about?
Paco Plaza: It’s a mixture of different things. I had an aunt who had Alzheimer’s and it shocked me a lot. Looking back, I know it had a huge impact on me when I was around someone and saw the emptiness in their eyes.
I was also touched by the shooting of my film Quien a hierro mata (An Eye for an Eye), for which I spent several weeks in a geriatric hospital. I worked with everyone, and the residents not only did the extras, but also, together with the team, did the little things for the set. I was really amazed at how they enjoyed every 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 no longer look at old characters and put them aside because we think they are no longer needed. Nobody wants to get old. Getting old is considered a bad thing when it’s the only way to stay alive. This is very paradoxical to me, and above all there is a false nostalgia that I really think is making our society unhealthy. But in Mexico it’s not like that. It’s not like that in gypsy culture where you like to get old and stay with your family.
The fear of old age is ultimately stronger than the fear of death…
A lot more. Dying is like pressing a button to turn it off, that’s all. But it is painful to wait for death alone. There are periods in life when you are an adult and you have to take care of older people, and this is very painful.
And I don’t think this has happened before. Many years ago, at least in Spain, it was natural for grandparents to live with a family. Grandma and grandpa died at home. It was like that. They took care of you, so you take care of them until they die. And this is no longer the case.
You talked about how we don’t look at old characters anymore. With the pandemic, it was kind of a soul-searching as they were the hardest hit by COVID. Did that surprise you even more? And how has the pandemic affected the film?
I think that 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 now much stronger. Film doesn’t mean the same now. At the beginning of filming, there was a certain irony in the film, which is much less tangible now with all the images we have seen and the dramas we have experienced, distant or close to us. The connection between film and reality is now very different and arguably more powerful.
There is a moment when his granddaughter helps him take a shower. We talked a lot about this scene beforehand, and it’s much longer than necessary. But I wanted to make people look at the old body, and I wanted them to feel a little uncomfortable and then wonder why they feel so uncomfortable. If I decided to show the girl’s body, people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.
The fear of aging and the social pressures of old age affect women much more than men. Is that why you chose female characters for the film?
Yes, sure. And I think that this pressure and this fear will not disappear anytime soon. I think in a way the body is a prison for women. And that’s why I wanted the female characters and the character of Suzanne to be a model to show the culmination of the cult of beauty and competition between women. There will always be someone younger, prettier, more ambitious who will come and push you down the stairs. And I also wanted to show this toxicity.
You place a very old woman at the center of the story, which is very rare in movies. And you are not shy about showing him from all sides, through his strengths and weaknesses, as well as in the nude.
Yes, I wanted to reveal it. For example, there is a moment when the granddaughter helps him take a shower. We talked a lot about this scene beforehand, and it’s much longer than necessary. But I wanted to make people look at the old body, and I wanted them to feel a little uncomfortable and then wonder why they feel so uncomfortable.
If I decided to show the girl’s body, people wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. But seeing wrinkles, an old and tired body, makes you think. And I think this is what art should be for, that is, to make us think about ourselves and our way of life, look at the world and understand ourselves and the society that surrounds us. And maybe it sounds a bit pretentious, but I think that the only purpose of art is to ask us questions about who we are and how we treat other people.
Abuela reminded me a lot of Veronica with her similar build and this closed family side that goes wrong. Is this new movie part of the continuity in your theater?
I think our filmographies add up. Every film you make depends on the films you’ve done before. Veronica and Abuela share similar themes. In Veronica’s case, she was a person who doesn’t want to grow old because she is a little girl. She doesn’t want to be an adult. But 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 is a lot of darkness here, and the danger comes from your family and your safe place, which is usually your home. So I think they are somehow related.
Will you continue to explore this genre in your next films? Are there topics that interest you more than others?
I really want to keep working in horror films in general because that’s what I’ve loved since I was a kid. And I think that’s the best way to get closer to the topics that matter to you, because fantasy gives you the tools to expand the playing field and you’re not limited by the logic of reality.
I don’t like it when horror movies explain everything to you. I love it when you come out of the cinema with different theories. I want to leave room for mystery. And I still don’t know what topic I would like to touch on in the future, but I know that I always wanted to make a movie about vampires.
Do you have models or directors that inspire you in your films?
I think Buñuel and Polanski are both directors that I admire the most. And I think that through their films they taught me to approach reality. And Claire Denis is also with Trouble Every Day. This movie made my brain feel like popcorn. When I look at this, I go crazy. And the last movie that made such an impression on me was Titan. I have seen it three times.
How did it affect you?
I already loved Grave, a very good horror movie. But Titanium is a game-changer. This film is no less important than Pulp Fiction. It doesn’t matter if you like the movie or not. I know that many have reacted negatively to the film. Which says it’s a movie you can’t ignore. I went through several emotions and questions while watching the movie. 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 it’s important to explore the backstory and influence. And Julia Ducourtnot is extremely talented.
Interview with Megan Choquet February 4, 2022 in Paris.