As Viggo Mortensen approaches from the wings of a London cinema lobby, we’re agog when we see he’s wearing a suit. Onscreen, Mortensen often sports long mud-matted hair, casual duds (at best) and can often be found atop a horse. When we meet him, his haircut is tight, he’s in a handsome grey check suit, and there’s nary a nag to be seen. Proffering a strong handshake, he settles down into a brown leather seat before quizzically inspecting the PR cheat sheet we’ve been given with his picture. We reassure him the stock photo is fine; he has a defiantly-handsome face, with a jaw so well-defined you could carve a roast with it. He’s full of enthusiasm and talk; as star, composer and producer of Jauja, he’d have to be. Again, the image is subverted. Mortensen doesn’t play chatterboxes. His stock in trade is classic strong, silent types; it’s probably why you find him in many period pieces.
On the surface, Jauja fits that period mould, but Lisandro Alonso’s film challenges expectations from the off. We meet Mortensen ahead of the film’s screening at the London Film Festival, and expectations are high. Presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it’s a meditative piece, with Mortensen in typically commanding form as Gunnar Diensen, a Danish army captain who has been drafted in to offer his expertise to the Argentine army in 1880s Patagonia during the later stages of the ‘Conquest of the Desert’. Mortensen’s father was Danish, and he grew up in Argentina, so this role seemed tailor-made. “On a personal level, it was interesting as an actor to play in Danish for the first time, which I expected to do with a Danish director. But here I am in Patagonia doing it for Lisandro Alonso!” We note the badge depicting crossed Danish and Argentine flags pinned to Mortensen’s suit jacket, and the match of actor and material feels increasingly serendipitous. “Because I was raised in Argentina for most of the first decade of my life, it was nice to be down there in those landscapes that were somewhat familiar, even though I was playing a character who was very much a fish out of water. On a personal level, it was fun to ride a horse in those places where I’d ridden before as a child.”
The film blends not only Mortensen’s own roots, but the complex histories of both Argentina and Denmark. As Mortensen explains, Diensen is a veteran of the First and Second Schleswig Wars. “The uniform this character wears has service medals from these two wars. It was something I knew about, but I learned more about it, as you can when you want to make this sort of story. In Argentine history it’s an important period too, with the genocidal conquest of the frontier.” The Conquest of the Desert saw the deaths of hundreds of native Patagonians and the displacement or enslavement of thousands more. With this weighty history on its shoulders, is Jauja a movie with a message? Mortensen is emphatic, “No, it’s not an ideological movie, and I don’t Lisandro really thinks in those terms. But you could certainly extrapolate and make connections if you want to with any colonial experience, with any imperialistic situation.”
Jauja is purely artistic in intent, and Mortensen is full of praise for Alonso, who channels his talent for telling tales of solitary, driven men into his first period piece. “The first thing I liked [about Jauja] was that it was Lisandro Alonso directing. His movies, I think they’re interesting; they’re not like anyone else’s. He’s truly a singular voice in cinema. Then, I liked the story because even on the page I could see that it was as Danish as it was Argentine, that sensibility. And especially once we got the translations right, as far as the Danish, because it was written by an Argentine poet (Fabian Casas) with Lisandro, neither of whom had ever been to Denmark. They didn’t understand Danish; most people don’t!”
That sensibility Mortensen mentions, whether Argentine or Danish, is poetic and measured. Jauja’s plot sees Diensen search for his daughter after she’s seduced and elopes with a young Argentinian soldier. Mortensen is quick to dispel the obvious comparisons to John Ford and The Searchers. “I can see why, with the man going off to find this young girl, and the landscape, and it is an existential Western, or whatever you want to call it. People look to compare and compartmentalise things that they can’t get their head around, and I think humans do that naturally. So, as someone who loves watching all kinds of movies, I can immediately see a connection to Sokurov or Tarkovsky or certain off-the-beaten-track Westerns from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. But it’s not really like any other movie. That being said you can make these comparisons, but I don’t think it’s like anything else that I’ve seen, really.”
He has a point. Individual shots and scenes can recall various filmmakers, from Tarkovsky to Lynch, but Jauja’s woozy atmosphere and unlikely twists render such comparisons moot. “What I think is special about Lisandro is that he’s able to make a truly original movie, remarkably original, without referencing other filmmakers or other movies, without drawing attention to what he’s doing, without showing off. My feeling is that the film is not in any way pretentious, and yet it stands out from all other movies. That’s a hard thing to do.” The film does draw on many film sources for inspiration, albeit never explicitly. Mortensen posits influences even older than film itself; “I think the way the movie turned out is very much as Danish as it is Argentine. It’s as much like a strange Hans Christian Andersen story as it is a Borges kind of story, a very unusual hybrid.” The Andersen comparison is apt; as the film goes on, it becomes more dreamlike and unusual, until a final act that blends a fairytale with elements of Beckett. It’s a potential audience-splitter, but then Mortensen’s never surrendered to any kind of commercial instincts, even after a lead role in the Lord of the Rings juggernaut.
Alonso’s method of shooting, a back-to-basics approach, appealed to this outdoorsy leading man. “It was really fun. We were hundreds of kilometres from any telephone or Internet. Sometimes we were sleeping outdoors and not in the greatest conditions, improvising what to eat and transport and things like that. It was very much a family affair. It was a crew that was at most a little over a dozen, and by the end when we were shooting scenes in a cave in the far south, we were about nine or ten people altogether. Everybody’s doing different jobs.”
Mortensen and Lisandro are obviously more concerned with art than commerce. Even the way Jauja is presented could alienate, the 4:3 ratio looming like a relic of a bygone age. “The Academy frame was something that happened in the process,” explains Mortensen. “When [Lisandro] started looking at the footage the lab had cropped it strangely. He wanted to see more of the sky, and he was concerned about that. So he said, ‘Just send it to me so I can edit it.’ As soon as he saw it, he realised that’s the way it should look, and so he put it together that way.” Mortensen clearly appreciates the role chance plays in filmmaking. “There are a lot of things like that when you make a film like Lisandro does, when you’re open to good fortune and accidents happening, and being prepared to use them and make the most of them, then it’s helpful.”