San Sebastian Competition: ‘Fingernails,’ ‘Royal Hotel’ Make Cut



Headlined respectively by “Sound of Metal” lead Riz Ahmed and “Matrix” stars Jessica Henwick and Hugo Weaving, Christos Nikou’s “Fingernails” and Kitty Green’s “The Royal Hotel” figure among seven newly unveiled films which will play in main competition at September’s San Sebastian Film Festival. 

Also in the running are buzz titles “A Journey in Spring,” from Taiwan’s Peng Tzu-Hui, Wang Ping-Wen, and “Kalak,” directed by Denmark’s Isabella Eklöf. 

Announced Friday, the new additions are comprised by one debut (“Spring”) and five second features from emerging talent ranging from Japan’s Kei Chica-ura to France’s Xavier Legrand, nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film for 2013’s “Just Before Losing Everything.”

The new titles confirm a 2023 main competition which, including previously announced titles, frames three feature debuts – Raven Jackson’s “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” Isabel Herguera’s “Sultana’s Dream” and  “A Journey in Spring” – and a remarkable nine sophomore outings out of a total 16 main competition contenders for San Sebastian’s Gold Shell. 

A Journey in Spring
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Compounded by a prestige New Directors’ section, the festival’s leading sidebar, San Sebastian looks this year, more than ever before, as a platform for emerging talent, balanced by a bevy of established auteurs from Europe and Latin America: Isabel Coixet, Cristi Puiu, Martín  Rejtman, Robin Campillo, Joachim Lafosse.  

Benjamin Naishtat, behind “Puan,” his fourth feature but co-director María Alche’s second, is on the cusp of consecration thanks to “Rojo,” rave reviewed at San Sebastian.    

A brief drill-down on San Sebastian’s newly announced competition titles: 

“Fingernails,” (Christos Nikou, U.K., U.S.)

Cate Blanchett-produced “Fingernails” from her Dirty Films banner along with FilmNation Ent., a sci-fi love triangle romance starring Jessie Buckley, Oscar-nominated for her performance in “The Lost Daughter,” Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White. It marks the English-language debut by Nikou, behind the critically appreciated “Apples.” Bound for Apple TV+. 

Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

“A Journey in Spring,” (Peng Tzu-Hui, Wang Ping-Wen,


Shot on Super 16, the feature debut of Peng and Wang, a Loyola Marymount University alum, starring Kuei-Mei Yang (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) and Jason King (“Ohong Village”) in the tale of a man who places his wife’s remains in the freezer, as he remembers back under a spring rain to their life, battling his regrets. 

“Great Absence,” (Kei Chica-ura, Japan)

A long estranged father-son reconciliation drama-mystery shot in 35mm, marking Chica-ura’s second feature outing after “Complicity.” World premieres at Toronto’s Platform.   

Great Absence
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

“Kalak,” (Isabella Eklöf, Denmark)

A buzz title at San Sebastian, the sophomore outing for Denmark’s Isabella Eklöf’ whose debut, “Holiday,” played Sundance in 2018. Set in Nuuk, Greenland, it turns on a male nurse who attempts to integrate with the local community, while facing the still roiling consequences of sexual abuse by his father. A pan-Scandinavia co-production, backed by its public broadcasters and film institutes. 

Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

“The Royal Hotel,” (Kitty Green, Australia)

“Matrix” stars Jessica Henwick and Hugo Weaving join “Inventing Anna’s” Julia Garner in an Australia-outback set thriller, in which two young women backpackers run foul of the toxic masculinity of a local drinking scene. Green’s second feature after breakout hit “The Assistant,” “The Royal Hotel” is produced by U.K. powerhouse See-Saw.  

“The Successor,” (“Le Successeur,” Xavier Legrand, France)

After breaking out with his debut, “Custody,” which won him a best director Venice Silver Lion, Legrand follows up with a suspense drama starring Marc-André Grondin (“C.R.A.Z.Y.”) as the newly-appointed artistic director of a famous Parisian fashion house who discovers at his estranged father’s funeral in Montreal that he may have inherited much worse than his father’s dicky heart. MK2 Films sells.  

The Successor
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival/Manuel Moutier

Previously announced San Sebastian Main Competition Titles:

“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” (Raven Jackson, U.S.)

Produced by Barry Jenkins, the debut feature of poet, photographer and filmmaker Raven Jackson, a lyrical exploration of the life down the decades of a Black woman in Mississipi. “The arrival of an arresting new talent in Raven Jackson, at the very least as the creator of the kind of cinema you do not watch as much as touch and smell and taste,” Variety wrote of “All Dirt Roads” off its Sundance world premiere.

“Un Amor,” (Isabel Coixet, Spain)

A romantic drama and tale of an obsessive passion that forces the film’s protagonist – Nat, 30, making a new start in an isolated hamlet – to reconsider the woman she thought she was.

Based on Sara Mesa’s novel, selected by “El País” as Spain’s 2020 Book of the Year. “It dares us to rethink our perception of love and all its synonyms: Passion, despair, unease, fear and redemption,” says Coixet. Film Constellation handles sales.

“Ex-Husbands,” (Noah Pritzker,” U.S.)

Griffin Dunne (“This Is Us”) stars with his “After Hours” co-star Rosanna Arquette (“Pulp Fiction”) along with Miles Heizer (“13 Reasons Why”), James Norton (“Little Women”) and Eisa Davis (“Mare of Easttown”) in the ensemble cast of comedy “Ex-Husbands,” from U.S. writer-director Noah Pritzker (“Quitters”). Dunne plays a father overwhelmed by life – impending divorce, his father’s maybe final illness – who takes a getaway to Tulum.  

“MMXX,” (Cristi Puiu, Romania) 

The latest from Puiu, whose “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” won a Cannes Un Certain Regard Award in 2005, and is considered a foundation stone of Romania’s New Wave. An ensemble dramedy turning on a therapist, her younger brother and her husband and a police inspector of organized crime, all obsessed by personal issues But, says the synopsis, they stand “at the crossroads of history.” From Puiu, whose 2020 Berlinale Encounters opener “Malmkrog” took the strand’s best director award.

“The Practice,” (“La Práctica,” Martín Rejtman, Argentina, Chile, Brazil)

An Argentine yoga teacher living in Chile separates, loses his flat, injures his knee, gives up yoga, goes to the gym, and, typical for Rejtman, adapts to circumstance, sometimes absurd.   “It’s a comedy about the yoga world. It’s been over 20 years since I started practicing yoga so I’m pretty sure that unconsciously I’ve been preparing myself to do this film for more than two decades,” Rejtman told Variety.

“Puan,” (Maria Alche, Benjamín Naishtat, Argentina, Italy, Germany, France, Brazil)

A tale of farcical academic rivalry set at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Buenos Aires, known as “Puan,” which builds to a state of the nation take on an Argentinian “society that may finally be starting to acknowledge its own place in the world,” says Naishtat. Luxbox announced world sales rights just before Cannes. “Rojo” also took actor (Dario Grandinetti) and cinematography (Pedro Sotero) at San Sebastián. 

“Red Island,” (L’Ile Rouge,” Robin Campillo, France, Belgium)

Thrust into the limelight by 2017’s “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” a Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner, Campillo’s “Red Island,” inspired by Campillo’s personal memories, was released in France late May by Memento Distribution to some warm reviews though more limited box office. San Sebastián offers an international platform. A coming of age story set in 1960-70 Madagascar at one of the last French military bases abroad, “Red Island” turns on an eight-year-old, a fan of comic book hero “Fantômette” who gradually wakes up to the ambiguities of adult life and the realisation of that childhood and France’s colonial era are both ending. Playtime sells.  

“The Rye Horn,” (“O Corno,” Jaione Camborda, Spain, Portugal, Belgium)

Following on Camborda’s debut, 2019’s “Arima,” a New Waves best direction winner at Seville, “The Rye Horn” is set in 1971 on an island off the Galician coast, where María, a midwife, is forced after a tragedy to flee Galicia for Portugal along an old smuggling route. The film as a project also participated at the TIFF Filmmaker Lab. 

“A Silence,” (“Un Silence,” Joachim Lafosse, Belgium, France, Luxembourg)

The latest exploration of imploding family dynamics from Lafosse, one of Belgium’s best-known auteurs, whose 2021 Cannes competition contender “Restless” sparked rave reviews. Here, Lafosse turns to the theme of abuse, with Emmanuelle Devos as Astrid, the wife of a renowned lawyer (Daniel Auteuil) who has kept her silence for 25 years. Best performance award potential, if those in “A Silence” are on a par to “Restless.” Sold by Les Films du Losange.

“Sultana’s Dream,” (“El sueño de la Sultana,” Isabel Herguera, Spain, Germany)

The latest from “Unicorn Wars” producers Abano Producions and UniKo, joining El Gatoverde Producciones, Sultana Films and Fabian & Fred, a three-part animated feature, recounting the modern-day vicissitudes of a Spanish artist in India; the travails of real-life feminist thinker Rokeya Hossain; and  the story she published in 1905 about Ladyland, where women rule.


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