All Lucio Castro had in mind when he sat down to write a screenplay was an elegiac title – End of the Century – and a starting point: a figure arrives in a new city, in this case Barcelona. “I followed him around for a while as I wrote,” Castro says. “I thought, he’s new to the place and maybe he’s horny and he meets someone and they have sex and go for a drink and that’s when they realise they’ve met before.”
So begins a plangent gay love story with hints of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. The dominant mood, however, is elliptical and disorienting: a kind of Last Shag at Marienbad. “There should be something a bit off about the film,” explains the 44-year-old Argentinian director. “I want the audience to doubt what it sees.”
He is speaking from the terrace of his house in New York City, fighting to make himself heard over shrieking sirens. The setting seems appropriate given several crucial scenes in the movie take place on terraces or balconies. In one, the reunited lovers, Ocho (Juan Barberini) and Javi (Ramón Pujol), share a post-coital meal of wine and cheese with Barcelona spread out beneath them in the dusk. It is from here that the action flashes back to the same city two decades earlier, when the lives of both men, then in their 20s, were markedly different.
What doesn’t change is their appearance. In fact, it is one of the curious masterstrokes of End of the Century that in slipping back and forth across time it refuses the usual signifiers of such transitions, such as changes in hairstyle. “We didn’t use a sepia filter for the past,” Castro says. “When I think about my memories it’s not like, ‘Oh look, I’m having a flashback now.’ It all runs together and I wanted to do that in the movie, too.”
Castro focused instead on behavioural changes. Ocho seems physically looser as a younger man and far quicker to smile, while Javi in his 20s has a perkiness that has hardened by his 40s into something more sceptical, even wary. When I call Pujol, at home in Barcelona, he says: “If you think about how you were 20 years ago, it’s not as if you imagine yourself younger. You just see yourself as this unchanging fact. What I did was to consider how Javi related to Ocho now compared to when they first met. He still likes him and there’s the nostalgia, which is new, but it’s not the same kind of fascination he had before. He’s been through this once already with Ocho, and he’s thinking, does he recognise me?”
I wonder if Castro would have used de-ageing technology for his actors, as Scorsese did in The Irishman. “Back then, if we’d had the money, I would have said yes. That’s one of the advantages of budgetary restrictions because now I see the fact that Ocho and Javi don’t change physically as one of the strongest parts of the movie. The Irishman showed the limitations of that – while Robert De Niro’s face is youthful, his body is obviously not. It’s an old man’s body.”
It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of unforced contrasts between the separate time periods covered by End of the Century. During Ocho’s earlier visit to Barcelona, he cadges a room from the ex-girlfriend of a friend and happily shoots the breeze with her; now he stays in a characterless Airbnb and scrolls morosely through Grindr. Back then, he was so terrified of Aids that he felt nauseous after his first gay encounter; fast-forward to now and he is so blasé about taking the HIV prophylactic drug PrEP that Javi has to practically demand he wears a condom.
Whereas the sex scenes in Haigh’s Weekend built in intensity and detail as the film went on, End of the Century gets down to brass tacks. “A female friend of mine who saw the film said, ‘OK, now I understand. First, gay men have sex – then they go for wine and cheese.’ Between gay men it can sometimes be easier and less revealing to sleep together than to have a conversation.”
As someone in a long-term relationship, Castro admits he is hardly an authority on apps such as Grindr. But he argues that something valuable has been lost with their arrival. “Grindr is very practical, and a genius idea, but it’s so easy that it never fulfils you. Anything that is difficult to achieve has charm. When I first came out, the options available to me were phone sex lines and cruising areas. On the phone, you didn’t know what the person looked like. And in the park, you might get killed!” He gives a nervous laugh. “But it all made it more flavourful.”
Castro may seem rather long in the tooth to be making his feature debut, but he has already cultivated a successful career as a fashion designer. He launched his own line in 2011; these days, he designs for a Chinese company. Film, though, is in his blood. His mother was an actor who appeared in telenovelas, where she was invariably cast as a killer. “She had dark hair, and only blonde women were allowed to be nice.” The reaction of the public to her was deeply troubling to the young Castro. “She was hated in the streets wherever we went. Waiters in restaurants would make nasty remarks. There was one time I wanted a calculator watch and the shopkeeper wouldn’t sell it to us because my mother had been so evil on TV. People couldn’t tell it was fiction.” But it was from his mother that he inherited his passion for cinema. “She loved films, especially thrillers. She always said she couldn’t go to bed without watching one or two murders. I saw Hitchcock before I had seen my first Disney.”
He studied medicine and film at university in Buenos Aires, then took a detour into fashion when he went to the US. While cinematic influences have persisted in his design – one recent collection was inspired by the red-and-yellow colour scheme of Zhang Yimou’s 1990 drama Ju Dou – there isn’t a tailored suit to be seen in his film, and it’s notable that the plot hinges on a shabby black T-shirt advertising the band Kiss. “The whole fashion-in-cinema thing doesn’t move me,” he says. “When there’s a super-fancy suit or a crazy dress, it detracts from the performances.”
There is an elephant in the room, I suggest, and his name is Tom Ford. “Exactly right,” Castro says, with a giggle. “A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals are so artificial. Even if the stories had qualities I could connect to, the construct of those lives just pushed me away. I like broken things, mistakes, spontaneity.”
I relay these comments to Pujol, who gets to wear the Kiss T-shirt for some of the film, but he thinks it isn’t quite so simple. “Some of the clothes on screen are from us, some are from Lucio. He would casually say, ‘Maybe you could wear this …’ Then you realise his use of colour was very carefully thought out. It seems all along that he’s not really making these big decisions. Then you see the movie and you think, you bastard! You were paying attention to every little thing!”