Quartet for the End of Time (1983)


Alfonso Cuarón
Alfonso Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Ariel Velázquez
Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Cuarteto para el Fin del Tiempo

Alfonso Cuarón handles comedy much better than drama and as he would show with many of his greatest achievements, he is in total control when he has free reign to do both. But his student film, Quartet for the End of Time, about a guy who lives alone in an apartment and never speaks to anyone, provides no entertainment and left me as bored as the tortoise that serves as the only thing the main character speaks to.

“Quartet for the End of Time” is the title of a famous composition by the twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, and indeed the main character plays a few chords from the piece’s third movement, “Abyss of the Birds”, on his clarinet. According to Messiaen: “The Abyss is Time, with all its sadness, its weariness. Birds are the opposite of time; it’s our desire for light, stars, rainbows and jubilant vocals.” Such sadness and weariness are certainly well conveyed by this particular short film, but beyond an expression of such dismal tedium, there is little else of note.

The cinematography is also a let-down. Besides the very few tracking shots, all of which reveal some bit of information, the staging is quite simple and the visuals simply lack imagination.

The very first scene shows some promise: lying in the bathtub, while a very small pet tortoise, hidden in its shell, balances on the edge, the main character reads out loud about tortoises. The protection that the shell offers to the little animal is not an uninteresting point, and its potential for meaning is hinted at by the subsequent dedication in the opening credits: Mariana and her belly. At the time, director Alfonso Cuarón (here billed as Alfonso Cuarón Orozco) was married to Mariana Elizondo, whose belly, we can surmise, was the protective shell to their child, Jonás, born in 1981. But the film does nothing to develop this idea in any shape or form.

Instead, we get a loose assortment of scenes, mostly taking place inside the apartment. Fortunately, with one or two exceptions, we are spared the prospect of listening to explanatory interior monologues, but watching the main character sit at his window (with a sticker for the “Paiste 2002” brand of cymbals) is far from exciting, nor does it substantially contribute to our impression of him as someone completely isolated – what the reasons for this isolations are, however, remain a mystery.

The apartment is clearly his shell, the space in which he feels comfortable and protected, and when he does leave the apartment – even though some of these excursions seem to be illusory – we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief. When a film takes place in one setting, our attention needs to be focused, as the Cuarón-produced Duck Season so admirably managed to accomplish.

At the time he made the film, Cuarón had little filmmaking experience and this lack of understanding the form shows very well in his failure to properly direct his main actor (we get a comically amateurish scene in which this character fries a sausage in ten seconds) and the sound effects are completely atrocious. I could easily have ignored these points, were it not for the film’s unwillingness to provide some kind of plot. Granted, we see some transformation from beginning to end, but the reasons for this transformation are never even suggested. A mass of balloons that the character releases from his window might have something to do with it, but such symbolism obscures the plot even more.

It would take Cuarón eight years, and some experience in the field of television, before he undertook another film project, the delightful Love in the Time of Hysteria, and he needed that time to mature, for this student film is an uninteresting, tiresome disgrace that doesn’t even look good.

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