Director Cesc Gay adapts his own play in The People Upstairs, a dry comedy whose dialogue-heavy approach sublimely reveals shifting relationship dynamics.
The film takes place entirely in a modern, slick apartment occupied by long-time couple Ana (Griselda Siciliani) and Julio (Javier Cámara). After 15 years, their relationship has grown stale which manifests itself with bitterness buried beneath a veneer of civility. It opens on a seemingly innocuous argument that splinters into different directions, unravelling underlying resentments toward each other.
The impetus of the film begins with Ana belatedly inviting the new neighbours over without telling Julio. The neighbours’ reputation has already filtered through the apartment walls for the audible noises they make during sexual activity. While Julio is resentful about this, Ana expresses more envy, thus unveiling a chasm in their relationship the new neighbours will expose.
Before their dithering disagreement resolves, the neighbours are knocking on the door. The film introduces Laura (Belén Cuesta) and Salva (Alberto San Juan) who are framed as fundamentally antithetical to the characters already seen. Their relationship appears far newer and fresher, and they clearly have affection for one other.
As both parties indulge in social auspices early on, the conversation moves into taboo territory. Laura and Salva openly discuss their frequent group sex. The writing, though, retains a sharp wit, as Ana and Julio are visibly uncomfortable. They clamber to change the subject by interrupting each other, over-filling wine glasses, and repeatedly offering appetisers. At this juncture, Gay utilises the limited space very effectively. The evening transitions from close quarters in the living room, to the characters separating in different rooms. They continue the same discussion to symbolise a fracture in their connection.
The acting is particularly impressive, with an ensemble that feels very naturalistic and genuine in their bickering. In particular, Julio, played by Javier Cámara , perhaps demonstrates the most complex layers as he conceals emotions behind biting sarcasm. His conciliatory smile hides a latent anger that threatens to spill over into violence; “if you hit me again, I’ll deck you one” he says to Salva after a tap on the back.
The film adroitly deals with heavier subjects through its comedy, such as relationships and sex. After an eventful night, Laura, a psychologist, encourages Ana and Julio to face their issues. This results in some surprisingly poignant moments that leaves the door ajar to restore love in Ana and Julio’s relationship.
In its awkwardness, The People Upstairs flows very naturally as an entertaining and engaging comedy that nit-picks at unwritten social laws.