A youthful movie made by, about, and largely for youthful hipsters, Alexis Dos Santos’s Unmade Beds is an ambitious neo–new wave portrait of wayfaring Europeans looking for love and identity in the bohemian nooks of East London. With its inventive mix of freeze frames, eclectic music, and soft-focus gossamer images—beautifully shot in HD and Super 8 film—Unmade Beds revels in its art-pop sensibility, bursting with the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar-wai.
Told as two interweaving stories, Unmade Beds alternates between the daffily tender tale of a wild-haired, frequently drunk Spaniard, Axl (The Devil’s Backbone‘s Fernando Tielve, all grown up and likeably dazed and confused), searching for his long-lost British father, and the emo-inflected travails of heartbroken French fille, Vera (The Page Turner‘s Déborah François), navigating a new romance.
Defined, it seems, by Naomi Klein’s No Logo and post-punk (rather than Godard’s kids of Marx and Coca-Cola), Dos Santos’s characters take their anti-establishmentarianism as a given. Both Axl and Vera end up sleeping (separately) in the same arty U.K. squat—a labyrinthine space of shared mattresses, lofts, drum sets, graffiti, bric-a-brac, and idealized bohemian bliss. As Axl laxly engages in sexual threesomes and Vera un-alphabetizes bookshelves, each strives for spontaneity in their lives. Their pastiche fashion sense is equally alterna, with a yellow-striped purple private-school jacket serving as a uniting garment for the characters.
The film’s ever-present soundtrack is also über-hip. Axl frequently finds comfort in a local underground club. “I like this music,” he often says in his sweet, lispy Spanish accent. But it’s outside the bar where Dos Santos really pumps up the volume: Black Moustache’s thumping electroclash ditty “Hot Monkey, Hot Ass!” emerges as Axl’s theme, a party-fun anthem that belies the young man’s pain (“Hot monkey, hot ass, cheap thrills, live fast”). There’s lots of random dancing, too. In a superb brief clip, Axl’s vigorous Dance Dance Revolution moves become a sweaty emotional purge. Dos Santos’s affection for Axl is palpable, and the character’s inevitable coming-of-age arrives subtly, with a slight touch of humor and poignancy involving big, fuzzy animal costumes.
Vera’s moody romantic interludes with a Danish expat, on the other hand, are accompanied by the Tindersticks’ spoken-word track “Cherry Blossoms,” a precious piece of tinkly piano and mumbled poetry (“An orange and its peel . . . Star in a night sky . . . A gentle beauty . . .”) that does little to downplay the borderline pretension. Here, Dos Santos pulls out all the art-film stops: voices overlaid upon discontinuous images, luminous shots of boy and girl strolling around an ocean pier. Dos Santos is a smarter filmmaker than a writer, and while the scenes contribute to the movie’s airy sensibility, contemplative voiceover together with song feel a wee bit ponderous, surely evocative for young dreamers in love, but not so enlightening for the rest of us. If Axl’s story shows Dos Santos’s incredible promise as a filmmaker, Vera’s reflects his potential pitfalls. And yet, despite some missteps (a parachute metaphor is particularly belabored), the film has an intoxicating quality. It’s not unlike the strange sensation voiced by one of the story’s transient Euro-hipsters: “Like I’m a teenager again,” he says. “It’s a good feeling, this teenager feeling.”