It Snows in Benidorm: an unwieldy, unpersuasive drama

Though Timothy Spall puts in a touching performance, Isabel Coixet’s thirteenth film is awkward for all the wrong reasons.

22 August 2022

By Hannah McGill

Timothy Spall in It Snows in Benidorm (2020)
Sight and Sound

In forging a substantial body of feature films featuring highly prestigious European actors and often being granted prominent festival slots, Isabel Coixet has achieved the unusual for her native Spain, where a recent survey found female directors to represent less than 15% of their profession overall. Such scarcity value can doom an artist to over-analysis, positioning her as a representative of her entire demographic rather than an individual operating on her own behalf; this asymmetry of expectation may be a factor in the patchy critical response to Coixet’s work.

She also puts critics on edge, however, by running straight towards the uncool end of the tonal and stylistic spectrum. Coixet tends to deal in big feelings, hearts on sleeves, blunt delineations between deserving and detestable characters. Her emotional register can be gloopy, her characters on the stock side and the revelations they encounter rather pat. It Snows in Benidorm, Coixet’s thirteenth film, is a case in point. The poster tagline “Life is never short of surprises” may fit the protagonist’s experience, but it’s hard to imagine an audience scraping much surprise from a sad-sack Englishman finding his racier side abroad, or a ravishing sex club performer turning out to be a person of tremendous, untapped substance.

Timothy Spall plays Peter, who is pushed into early retirement when his innate decency becomes a bad fit with the culture of the bank for which he works. With his unsought freedom, Peter decides to visit his brother Daniel, now an expat living in Benidorm. The brothers were raised by quarrelsome drinkers, and have never been close. Daniel proves still more elusive in his new home, having seemingly vanished into a morass of dubious business interests. As hope of finding him fades, Peter forges a close connection with one of his work associates, the alluring club manager and occasional burlesque performer Alex (Sarita Chaudhury).

The idea of brothers reacting in contrasting ways to a traumatic childhood goes unexplored, with the absent Daniel gathering so little interest that Coixet might as well have named him MacGuffin. Still, Spall provides a touching incarnation of moral befuddlement, playing Peter as a man whose efforts to play straight and be nice render him a perpetually uncertain fit for a corrupt and sneaky world. Whether it’s wholly persuasive for an intelligent and personable human to have reached late middle age with so little comprehension of life’s dimmer corners – Peter appears innocent of any sexual or romantic history, and is at one point too embarrassed to admit to having a hangover – is another matter. Alex, an assertive businesswoman who also lets strangers stare at her body while she pulls objects out of it, is also strangely positioned between real human being and symbolic, stylised creature.

Chaudhury’s regal presence and stern, complex beauty make Alex a riveting screen presence, and the rationale she gives for living the way she does is stylish: “I had another life. I didn’t like it.” Nonetheless, the scene in which she performs a striptease involving the extraction of a long string of pearls from her vagina is peculiar: at once excessively graphic for the film’s otherwise cutesy tone, and strangely romanticised, as if there’s something beautiful about stuffing yourself with beads for other people’s entertainment. The trope that Coixet enlists here – sex work as at once tragic and titillating – feels suffocatingly dated; a legacy of earlier aeons in which male auteurs from Godard to Buñuel to Wenders invited their audiences to simultaneously gawp and moralise at gorgeous women brought low. Then there’s the speech in which Alex explains why she uses pearls. “I love white things,” she tells Peter. “Pearls are the whitest, most beautiful thing to exist.”

While Coixet has no more responsibility than any other artist to cleave to the language politics of the moment, these are inescapably weird lines for a white writer to give to an actress of colour. Their function in the script also points to the general unwieldiness of the writing. Alex’s “whiteness” speech is there not because it’s anything any extant human would actually say, but because it allows Coixet to combine two of her poetic ideas – Alex’s fancy for purity, and Peter’s otherwise inconsequential interest in meteorology – and force out of them a context for the film’s title. In such oppressive creative conditions, it’s hard for characters to thrive, however accomplished and appealing the people who play them may be.

► It Snows in Benidorm is in UK cinemas now.

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