Agustina San Martín brings to Guadalajara her debut feature film, tropical gothic “To Kill the Beast” – an atmospheric coming-of-age whirlwind of fear, death, and desire. When Emilia, 17, arrives to work at a hostel on the jungle borders of Brazil, she must face the truth of her brother’s disappearance, as well as the truth about herself.
“To Kill the Beast” is an emotional, erotic journey of self-discovery and plays out like a boat upon a dream, eschewing traditional plot pacing for something more ephemeral and haptic. The Party Film Sales has acquired the film, which debuted at TIFF. San Martín is not new to the festival circuit; in 2017 “The Swedish Cousin” premiered at Berlinale and her 2019 short “Monster God” took Special Mention of the Jury at Cannes.
Variety spoke with San Martín ahead of the film screening at Guadalajara.
“To Kill the Beast” is not a traditional coming-of-age story. Can you speak about your inspiration for writing the film and your approach directing it?
The main inspiration for this story was to create a context of darkness where female desire was a weapon for the main character to survive. The same desire that for us, women, has often been used against us, wired to generate guilt or to “feel dirty,” is now actually the one thing that saves this teenager. Moreover, her desire is queer. In queer narratives, the embracing of one’s desire is usually a very tumultuous path. My hypothesis here was: nothing will make you stronger than embracing your whole identity and owning your own desires.
The approach for directing it included a lot of planning. Because it was made to be more of an atmospheric film than a narrative one, where as you watched it you would feel like you were drifting through a river.
What role does fear play in the film?
Fear has always been a primitive, basic emotion that allowed us, as animals, to survive. Fear of failure, of death, rejection. The question for me is: what do we do with it? How do we manage to live with it? There are also ways in which it can expand inside of us. Like a droplet of ink in a glass of water. Too much fear can soon disable us. Can create a wall between us and the others. Can isolate us in the darkest ways, take control of who we are or who we enable ourselves to be.
Throughout the story we see this girl in almost complete alienation with the others. As she didn’t belong to the space she occupied, almost embarrassed to be present. In the end, as she learns to embrace her sexuality, she finds her strength to confront that fear. This would be a reflection of the Greek mythology of Eros vs Thanatos (desire vs death). As it explores: the opposite of death is not life, but drive. As if to be alive was not enough. In that sense, fear felt like the perfect monster for the character to fight against in her sexual awakening.
Emilia spends most of the film in a border town which feels almost dream-like in its presentation. How did you achieve this ethereal feel?
We did a lot of pictorial work with it. After many conversations with the photography and art department, I built a detailed storyboard book filled with reference images, drawings, bullet lists of cinematographic resources and so on. We had an eye on every detail: textured film lenses, water-color like art palettes, wet clothes, greasy sweat for shiny skins that feel like they trespass the screen. Because the idea of the film was for it to be an atmospheric experience of this unknown space, every little visual and musical detail had to be designed for it to feel like something different that carved its way through our skin.
In “To Kill the Beast,” the score is moody and eclectic, and serves to build tension throughout. What inspired the music for the film?
The original score of the film was inspired by Gregorian music. With O Grivo, the Brazilian musicians, we aimed to compose these church songs that were actually Gregorian sounds (the organs, the textures). Later, the idea to sort of put something heretic to it came and we ended up having this Gregorian electronic music coming through the misty churches and I was in love with it.