10 Existential Life Lessons We Learned from 'Jauja'

By
Nick Chen

Great art holds a mirror up to life. And that’s exactly what Jauja does – with a reflection falsely implying you’re as handsome as Viggo Mortensen. The philosophical puzzle, directed by Lisandro Alonso, documents the disintegration of a Danish soldier (Mortensen) when his 15-year-old daughter runs off with a local Argentinean. Now faced with a lonely search in the vast Patagonian desert, he ends up travelling through time and walking into more dreams within dreams than Inception.

Although Jauja may not make much sense at first, it patiently unlocks a few existential truths. Sometimes, to get a firm grip on life, you can’t ask your friends for advice. You need to hear it from a film.

LIFE IS A BEAUTIFUL LANDSCAPE YOU’RE TOO MISERABLE TO APPRECIATE

Timo Salminen's sensational cinematography (he's Aki Kaurismäki’s go-to guy) captures the elegant nothingness of Mortensen’s surroundings. Unlike Terrence Malick’s frequent trick of zooming in on insects continuing as normal, Jauja is a vast land where even nature has given up chasing its dreams and grass has opted not to grow. The desert devours everything. But the Patagonian scenery is still rich with wonder, untouched by mankind, and full of unpredictable twists – whether a cave that’s a time portal, or a stray dog that could be Jauja’s Rosebud.

LIFE IS ABOUT LETTING GO OF LOVED ONES
When Mortensen’s daughter runs away, he must confront the agony of empty nest syndrome: he’s no longer required as a father. Feeling obsolete, he wanders not just in search of his only child, but for a purpose. Without her the landscape is lonelier than ever. Flowing water springs are now desert rocks, and greenery is replaced by grey rocks. The truth is that real life isn’t the Boyhood moment when Mason leaves home and Patricia Arquette wails, “I thought there’d be more!” We’re not all perfectly worded Oscar-winning actresses, and Jauja is the likelier scenario of inner pain and sulking silently.

LIFE IS ABOUT ABANDONING LOVED ONES

Still, kids grow up and crave independence. A different version of Jauja documents the daughter as she elopes with a stranger, strolls along romantic hills under the stars, and promises to meet the soldier again in 13 years’ time by a giant tree. With her father, she’s miserable and trapped inside a tent, because it’s the 1800s and there’s basically nothing to do. By running away she impulsively follows her heart and becomes a real person – not a toy soldier.

LIFE IS A LONELY PUNISHMENT FOR STUBBORN PARTICIPANTS
Argentina’s local army doesn’t welcome Captain Gunnar Dinesen, who speaks in fluent Spanish (and occasional French) in a Danish accent. He persists with his heavy uniform, complete with unnecessary trinkets, even when wandering for miles without any assistance. It might be that his daughter wouldn’t have abandoned him if he wasn’t so controlling in the first place. His path into enemy territory, against all advice, is clearly doomed – think the moment in Gerry when the main duo decide to take a shortcut.

LIFE LEADS TO NOWHERE

“The Ancient Ones said that ‘Jauja’ was a fabled city of riches and happiness,” reads the opening text. “The only thing that is known for certain is that all who tried to find this earthly paradise got lost along the way.” Rather than a fabled city, it’s happiness itself that Mortensen is hunting for. But there’s no map leading the way, because nobody can confirm it exists in the first place.

LIFE MAKES MORE SENSE IN 4:3 RATIO
No one actually experiences life in widescreen (Xavier Dolan backs this up in Mommy, which reserves 1:1 for fantasy sequence). Although Jauja is a topsy-turvy mindf***, it’s still grounded by the very real locations. Shot pristinely on 35mm, obviously without any greenscreen, Patagonia is shown for all its emptiness and a genuine sense of being lost. Alonso decided during post-production that too much of the image was cut off in widescreen, and thus switched to 4:3. With the frame’s corners rounded off like an old-fashioned camera, Jauja is an authentic experience without any Hollywood sleight of hand.

LIFE INSPIRES DIFFERENT INTERPRETATIONS

Jauja is a real existential journey – not like Wild (a hiking holiday that ends in a voiceover) or Walter Mitty (a CGI holiday that ends with a postcard) – that doesn’t dictate how audiences should feel. Viewers are instead challenged to find their own deeper meaning in abstract images and elusive conversations. Personally, when he falls asleep staring at the night sky, I’m 100% sure Mortensen transforms into the echoing guitar line that floats into the soundtrack.

LIFE MAKES MORE SENSE THE SECOND TIME
Without revealing any spoilers, certain scenes towards the end shake up your entire understanding of the film; if it’s all a dream within a dream within a dream, or if Mortensen is even a human being. On repeated viewings, Jauja divulges into further dimensions, with each character and line of dialogue becoming a clue that adds new layers to each encounter – it’s a reasonable argument that Mortensen is actually a toy figurine, or perhaps a pet dog at a Danish castle. Basically, life is better the second time, which is obviously something you’ll never experience unless you believe in reincarnation... or time travel.

LIFE HAS NO EASY ANSWERS
At the New York Film Festival, when Alonso appeared for the film’s Q&A, an audience member asked, “How is the title pronounced?” He replied, “It’s pronounced ‘f*** you’.” As proven by the director, don’t expect to find answers from likely sources. Although the title is actually articulated as “how-ha”, in my mind it’s still “ya-ya”, the repetition of a single syllable that spins in an endless loop. The word is a hypnotic mantra that creates a meditative state, elucidating how life is, just maybe, totally meaningless. Thanks for pointing that out, Jauja.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @halfacanyon

‘Jauja’ opens in UK cinemas on 10 April 2015

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more