‘The Other Way Around’ Review: A Charming Madrid-Set Meta-Ode to the Optimistic Fallacy of the ‘Good Break-Up’

The dogged pursuit of the relationship unicorn that is the good break-up informs the wit and winking wisdom of Jonás Trueba’s “The Other Way Around,” a delightful showcase for the Spanish director’s lithe, airy style, here accented with glistening strands of Madrileño meta-melancholy. A hip, popular twosome decide to call it quits after 14 years, cuing a very funny yet properly grown-up portrait of the ideal couple trying to smoothe, and even to celebrate, their transition into ideal exes. It’s the celebration aspect that will prove their undoing. If the good breakup is rare, the joyous breakup is completely mythical.

Filmmaker Ale (Itsaso Arana) and her actor boyfriend of 14 years Alex (Vito Sanz) have decided — mutually, they insist — to pack their bags for Splitsville. They lie in the dark in their still-shared bed with a poignant politeness recognizable to anyone who has similarly ended a longterm relationship prior to canceling a longterm lease. Speaking softly to the curve of her back, Alex reminds Ale of an idea mooted by Ale’s father (played by Trueba’s dad Fernando, director of such films as ” Belle Époque” and “Year of Enlightenment”), whereby people should celebrate their separations and not their unions. Ale suggests they throw a break-up party.

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“That’s a good idea for a film,” replies Ale, “not real life.” But in the Trueba cinematic universe most recently visited in the lovely “You Have to Come and See It,” there is little divide between the two. So the pair is soon plunged into party organization, issuing invitations to confused friends and baffled family members, to their landlords and the plumber and the English teacher who now has to give them separate private lessons. At first, it seems an inspired plan; when you’re busy discussing venues, music and outfits, you’re likely too busy to dwell on sadder matters. But however generous the impulse to fast-forward through the anguish to get to the best-friends-with-history place, we cannot cheat our broken hearts of the time they need to heal.

“It’s all good.” “We’re OK.” “It’s the right decision.” Alex and Ale’s repeated assurances to skeptical, acquaintances are only the most obvious repetitions in this silvery, end-of-summer-y film. But like all the offbeat formal echoes, these repeated affirmations mostly serve to undermine the idea that a break-up can ever be “all good”, as in: perfectly balanced and entirely without one participant causing the other pain. And so the most frequent response from their friends is that surely they’ll get back together again, a possibility enhanced by this movie-literate film’s invocation of the Holy Trinity of Cary Grant comedies — “His Girl Friday,” “The Awful Truth” and “The Philadelphia Story” — all classics in which a divorced or divorcing couple end up reconciling. On the other hand, Ingmar Bergman, whose “Scenes from a Marriage” remains a touchstone break-up text of a bleaker order, is also present in a “Bergman Tarot” deck of cards that Alex and Ale consult, and in their references to the Swedish master’s fraught relationship with Liv Ullmann. Such homages contribute to the early-Woody Allen vibe; at times the film feels one “La-di-dah” away from “Annie Hall.”

Arana and Sanz have superbly believable chemistry as the longtime lovers whose minds may be made up but whose bodies have not yet forgotten their old intimacy, present in how they automatically sit closely on a sofa, or navigate with unconscious grace their neatly dovetailing morning coffee routine. And as the Brechtian elements multiply — Ale’s film, which stars Alex, and is currently at edit stage is inventively conflated with the one we’re watching — Trueba, co-writing with his leads, finds funny-sad new angles of attack on the gentle hubris that is their belief that they are going to be the ones to beat the odds on a break-up minus the bitterness.

DP Santiago Racaj, a frequent Trueba collaborator, uses a fresh, breezy visual vernacular, with the pleasant streets of a local’s Madrid providing the casually cool backdrop. Along with Marta Velasco’s conversational editing rhythms and the lived-in, light-stepping performances, the film’s formal virtues make even the most self-reflexive flourishes go down easy. One such moment happens late, when Ale is showing the first cut of her film to some friends and asks for their critiques. “Is it circular or linear?” asks one pompous acquaintance, but “The Other Way Around” knows that a film, like a relationship, can be both. It can move in rounded arcs, while also coming to a point, while also sending piercing insights directly into the core of things, and well, would you look at that, Trueba has drawn a funny little valentine, shot through by a bright, sharp arrow of feeling.

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