“The Empty Hours” (“Las horas muertas”)
A May to December Romance
In Veracruz Mexico, Sebastian (Kristyan Ferrer), 17, takes over his uncle’s rent by the hour motel. There he meets Miranda (Adriana Paz), a regular customer who comes there to meets a lover who is never on time and keeps her waiting. Since they both have time to waste, they start getting to know each other and some kind of game of seduction begins between them.
May-December romances are not new to film but this is an interesting take on an old subject. Sebastian gets a good deal taking care of the motel and it is the kind of job that lets the mind wander for long periods since there does not seem to be a lot of business. In fact, the motel setting certainly encourages coming-of-age reverie. The nearby gorgeous beaches nearby and the hot illicit sex that goes on in the motel is great thought fodder for a young man. Like most motels of its kind, the uncle’s establishment is a place primarily for quick rounds of hungry impromptu lovemaking, and, of course, as we might expect, Sebastián eventually evolves from spectator to participant.
However Sebastián’s character deviates from the pattern we are used to in these kinds of relationships. Sebastian is not naïve idealist that we might expect of a hero of a summer romance. Instead, he comes across as a young man who’s seen some things, and he isn’t afraid to wield his authority at the motel. He is not intimidated by Miranda who is quite beautiful and often comes to the motel to have sex with a married man that she has been seeing. He is clever enough to control his feelings and he does not emphasize his own sexual inexperience.
Miranda’s lover is a realtor who comes to town to sell condos but because of the economy they are not moving, Miranda and Sebastian are both visitors to a way station being set apart from the lives they have been given. At least, that’s the subtext that’s meant to encourage us to believe the couple’s brief union, but we don’t need it because the chemistry between Ferrer and Paz is intensely alive and erotic. We feel as if we’re watching uncomfortably privileged encounters between them, and there’s a brief gesture that ranks as one of the sexiest moments in recent movies. Sebastián moves in to kiss Miranda for the first time, and she initially reacts ambiguously, only to direct her eyes, with the slightest tilt, toward the curtain that will make them invisible behind it.
Director Aaron Fernández’s plaintive, observational approach with his aesthetic openness is endearing. The majority of the film is seen in long and medium shots. The film allows us to take in the entire setting and also to see the little issues of motel life. His patience also informs the eventual sex story with an oddly real dimension of grand casualness: We understand the deviation from normalcy for Sebastian and Miranda and we see that sex does not always fit our expectations and other rules. We see sex as a practice and something of an art.
When the subject matter of a film has to do with a teenage boy spending tile at a rent-by-the-hour motel, expectations certainly meet reality. When the two main characters aren’t together, the film has little to offer to advance the plot and reverts to quiet introspection against the backdrop of beachside Veracruz, Mexico. The film is sparse almost to a fault yet it comes to us so delicately that it rarely feels dull. It is a slow meditation on complicated human relations.
Sebastian is bored and lonely; the guests avoid any interaction, and even the seemingly friendly coconut seller across the street is an amateur hustler. Sebastian is desperate for human interaction and latches onto Miranda who can be left waiting for hours, if not stood up, by her married boyfriend, Miranda strikes up friendly conversations with Sebastian and the two seem to recognize their mutual loneliness and develop a decidedly ambiguous relationship bordering on the sexual but often rooted in feelings of regret and inadequacy.
Fernández quickly strikes a balance between portraying Sebastian’s boredom and the derelict charm of his run-down motel. Sebastian’s loneliness is always on display and we feel it. This is a film about characters and emptiness. It is not perfect but it does show us how skillful the director is.