Adapting plays into films is always a difficult business. Since the 19th century at least the typical stage drama tends to be confined to as few locations as possible – ideally just the one if that can be achieved – and is dominated by character and dialogue. Film is, in many ways, its antithesis: ‘show, don’t tell” goes the standard screenwriting advice, except plays are pretty much designed to do nothing but tell. This makes for fairly static presentations when they are turned into movies. There have been plenty over the decades, but they – Frost/Nixon, Fences, Glengarry Glen Ross, take your pick – tend to succeed on the back of strong dialogue and performances. After all, there is little else at the filmmaker’s disposal but actors talking to one another.
Spanish director Cesc Gay adapts his own playscript in The People Upstairs. In a city apartment, music teacher Julio (Javier Cámara) returns home to discover his wife Ana (Griselda Siciliani) has bought a new rug, which he hates, and invited their neighbours over, who he also hates. The evening grows more complicated when it becomes clear the neighbours – firefighter Salva (Alberto San Juan) and psychologist Laura (Belén Cuesta) – have greater expectations of the evening than Ana and Julio do.
The People Upstairs is not a sex comedy, although it is a comedy and its conversation regularly turn to the matter of sex. It is perhaps more accurate to describe itself as a relationship comedy; if indeed such a thing exists. For the firmly heterosexual and monogamous Julio and Ana, what starts largely as an exercise in politeness turns to offers of partner swapping and group sex. For Salva and Laura, who seem at first to have got entirely the wrong idea, the evening turns into one of those disastrous social gatherings where one is so closely witnessing a domestic argument that it is too awkward to even leave the room.
The comedy is in the spaces between the dialogue. Both Ana and Julio try to play things cool, and not look or sound shocked – which of course makes them seem even more affronted by their guests. They are still sniping back and forth at one another too, having not resolved their fight that started with the new rug. Meanwhile Laura gamely tries to fix a situation for which she feels partially responsible, and Salva – essentially an amiable walking erection – seems to keep testing the edges of the conversation for opportunities to start having sex.
It could all very easily be a tacky narrative, if not an outright tawdry one, but Gay’s script pulls the encounter taut between superb comic one-liners and a properly mature and understated marriage crisis between Julio and Ana. Each character is written and developed with depth and empathy. Julio may harshly judge Laura and Salva’s polyamorous relationship, but critically the film does not.
Javier Cámara is excellent as Julio, taking superb advantage of his character’s sarcastic wit and use of humour to avoid direct confrontation. While Griselda Siciliani initially seems saddled with the generic role of ‘long-suffering wife’, later scenes build Ana tremendously as a woman loaded with love, resentment, and regret. To a large degree Salva and Laura are catalysts for Ana and Julio’s story, but each actor brings warmth and humour to their part. Alberto San Juan has a gift for understated comedy; he regularly made me smile with the smallest of actions.
Being an adaptation of a play, The People Upstairs was always going to struggle a little in sustaining its energy. Gay smartly keeps it short and sharp – just 82 minutes including credits – while a hugely talented cast keep things sparking from start to finish.