This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.
The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.
There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.
This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.
The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.
In most years ¡Viva! features comedies and some, like The Weasel’s Tale, are major productions in CinemaScope with a running time of over 2 hours. I’m often wary of comedies since as the convention in the film industry has it, subtitles don’t always do justice to witty dialogue and many gags and comic situations are based around local cultural conventions. For the first 20 or 30 minutes of this film I wasn’t completely sure about it even though I was starting to enjoy it. I turned to look at the brochure blurb and realised that it was co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella, whose big international success was El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, Argentina-Spain 2009) and that encouraged me further. Eventually it kicked into full gear for me.
The film’s English title is a direct translation of the Spanish, so what does it mean? Four now elderly filmmakers live in a large rural mansion in its own extensive grounds. Mara Ordaz (Graciela Borges) was once a leading lady, a star of romantic pictures in the 1960s. She owns the house along with her husband Pedro (Luis Brandoni) a fellow actor, although in smaller parts. Now he is in a wheelchair and spends his time painting. There are two permanent house guests, Norberto (Oscar Martínez) who was once Mara’s director and Martín (Marcos Mundstock) who was the unit’s scriptwriter. Both men have lost their wives, one of whom was Mara’s sister. The film’s title is explained on one level by Norberto’s penchant for firing his shotgun at random moments, claiming to be hunting weasels in the grounds. (The weasel we see looks larger and very different to a British weasel and I can’t find them amongst Argentinian mammals, perhaps they are an imported species.) The quartet of filmmakers appears to live in some sort of phoney war. The three men are friends but Mara mistrusts them.
One day, a young couple appear claiming to be lost and unable to phone Buenos Aires where they have a meeting. They inveigle themselves into the house to use the landline and claim to recognise Mara as a great star of the past. The trio of old men are suspicious but soon the couple have wooed Mara and convinced her that she should sell the house and move back to the city. We immediately suspect that they are crooks (or lawyers! – weasels?) and we look forward to the battle of wits, especially between Norberto and Martín on one side and the young woman, Bárbara (Clara Lago) on the other. Mara and Pedro are involved in some deep retrospection about their marriage.
The last section is all out war. There are only two sets of locations in the film, the house and grounds and an upmarket restaurant and the office of the couple in the city. The ‘action’ then depends on the performances and the mise en scène. The film is theatrical and plays around with the house as a location. According to The Hollywood Reporter review, it’s actually a remake of a 1976 Argentinian comedy with the English title Yesterday’s Guys Used No Arsenic. The same review suggests it shares something with Ealing comedies and in a way it does draw on both Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. All six actors are well cast and and give terrific performances. For me the key scenes are the direct conflicts between Clara Lago and Oscar Martínez.
The house is full of the props from Mara’s films and she watches her old films just like the heroines of classic Hollywood. Norberto and Martín play games of pool and chess and plot. The triumph of the script is to construct scenes as if they are being written for a classic movie to be made. It works well and because these filmmakers made mainstream genre films, not art films, the script ideas they create are easily accessible. I suppose one of the issues is the appeal of a film like this to older audiences. The villains are the young, characterised her as being concerned only about ‘winning’ and not the ‘morality’ found in the classic movie scripts. This age divide is also reflected in the choice of popular songs on the soundtrack, all from the 1950s/early 1960s and featuring Brenda Lee, The Platters, Chuck Berry and Perry Como. These are played by Norberto and Martín as a backdrop to their activities. The songs also help to emphasise that presence of American popular music and Hollywood’s impact on Latin American cinema in the 1950s/60s. Otherwise the only political dimension is the revelation that Norberto lost studio support when he made a documentary about the ‘peasantry’ and Martín joined him in a form of exile during the political conflict in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. The film could lose a few minutes but otherwise it works well.
I’m not sure if this is likely to get a UK release but it should be attractive to streaming sites and it’s exactly the kind of diverting entertainment we need right now. Here is the Spanish trailer (no English subs):
Writer-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have produced an interesting portrait of a self-centred, self-absorbed male, not unlike the character in Cowboy who dreams of Hollywood success. Sergio’s (Diego Peretti) dreams are less ambitious: he wants to move out of porn and into ‘straight’ acting. So far he’s never gone beyond being an extra and although he hustles effectively his volatile temperament is a problem. As is his male ego: in between his hustling for roles he cruises for women, particularly ones much younger than he.
Unsurprisingly there is undoubtedly a Latino bent to the character but the film doesn’t offer him sympathy. He is a man not acting his age and whilst there are times when age should be ignored, so as not to become a burden upon life by restricting opportunity, imagining a fiftysomething can continue to act as if 20 years younger is likely to end badly. American film distributor Jane (Julianne Nicholson, also seen in Monos) is on the rebound from a failing marriage and fancies some ‘Latin lust’ and although she gets some she also is on the receiving end of events everyone would rather avoid. The latter refers to a narrative turn in the last third of the film which isn’t entirely convincing although Sergio’s attempts to seduce the girlfriend of a missing young man are truly excruciating.
The title refers to an album Sergio made trading on the similarity of his looks to Serge Gainsbourg; a poster for the album is prominent in his flat and at first seems to be referring to the film we are watching. Such disorientation would have been interesting if it had been developed because it is hard to make an engaging film where the protagonist is an arsehole. To an extent, and Peretti’s performance is remorseless in its misoygny, it succeeds in being watchable but, unlike Cowboy, I didn’t feel there was much point in seeing an idiot behaving like an idiot.
The backdrop of the film is the World Cup of 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany in the final; the losers element reflects Sergio’s trajectory balefully anchored by the occasional omnipotent narrator (whose tone sounds like that of the one in Y tu mama tambien). Thus there is an attempt to give the film a wider social resonance: is fanatic fandom symptomatic of people who have lost, if not their moral compass, their sense of proportion about what is important? Given the current crisis about Coronavirus, which in the UK seemed only to be taken seriously by the government after league football was postponed, they may have a point.
Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.
Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.
The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.