The film starts with a voiceover which explains: if a man were to have had a mental breakdown, and if a woman had taken him to a psychiatric hospital, then this story would start now. As the voiceover rolls, we see a woman leaving a psychiatric hospital and emerging onto a train. The language is both precise and hypothetical. It lets us know that we are about to be told a story. But also that we should not necessarily trust what we are being told.
The woman, Helga, is shaken from her on-train reveries when the man sitting opposite asks if she wants him to tell a story. He introduces himself as Angel Sanagustin, says he’s a psychiatrist at the hospital where he saw her earlier. He explains that telling stories helps fill the long journey to Madrid, and starts to talk about a patient of his called Martin, which had been related to him by Martin’s sister Amelia.
Martin had signed up a soldier and went to fight in Bosnia, where he lost an arm. He got a job at a hospital where he became friendly with a paediatrician. She told him that, frustrated at the lack of resources at the hospital, she had started working as a prostitute, channelling the money into saving lives. Then one of her clients told her that a cabal of NGOs, the clergy and big business was willing to donate untold money to the hospital. It would only cost a child a month.
The next time she sees the client, he is distressed. He had been told that the children were being sold to childless families. But recently his contacts had shown him the pornographic snuff movies they were making with the kids. That’s not all. When the children had been killed, their body parts were fed to geese or sold to avant-garde artists for their latest exhibition.
The way in which which we are shown a Russian doll of unreliable narrators telling us increasingly unbelievable stories has an elegance that stands in noticeable contrast to Christopher Nolan’s gauche and self-aggrandizing kids’ games with time and narration. Move aside Christopher, the professionals are in town, and they’re doing it with a style and wit that you can only dream of.
There are more stories to come. Helga explains her own story, living with a man who literally treated her like a dog. He only had sex with her from behind, and served her a goulash which looked suspiciously like Pedigree Chum on a plate and without cutlery. Eventually he banished her to sleeping in a kennel outside. You really don’t want to know what happened when he suggested having children.
Helga cracks, and finds the most brutal – and hilarious – way of killing her oppressor. Or does she? As well as some unreliable narrators deliberately lying to us, we also see occasional dream or fantasy sequences which run their course before snapping back to reality. In the end, Helga has to find a different way of disposing with her problem.
While her fellow traveller slips off, Helga looks at his folder of case studies. She reads of the man who was born with an unstable bone structure who would have fallen in love with a woman with a pronounced limp, but society had told him only to love people who are symmetrical. They do end up sleeping together, but again because his social behaviour has been learned from the media, she leaves in disgust at how he behaves.
I’ve barely started to explain the intricacies of this astounding film. There’s the suburban house with a mountain of rubbish in front, which the binmen refuse to remove as they say its the property of the previous owner, there’s another character who is scared that binmen are running the world, and there is a shocking Norman Bates moment. And that’s just some of the jokes. This is also a film which has something to say.
I’ve held off from watching this film as the preview called it “surrealistic” which is normally a polite way of saying that the plot goes AWOL half way through. But this is intricately plotted and – unlike the superfluousness of many so-called surreal films – it wants to address all sorts of serious subjects from the degradation of women to to meaning of art .Towards the end, someone asks why audiences get annoyed by characters lying in films and novels, when films and novels are by their very nature an artifice?
Advantages of Travelling by Train is a film where you could just sit back and enjoy the jokes. Or you can accompany a quite profound discussion of the extent to which art should be “truthful”, and what that truth should be. As well as apparently being “surrealistic” I’ve also seen it described as “Post Modern”. But in truth it’s much better than that. Go out and see it now.