Closed Spaces, Virtual Places: Two Debut Features from the Digital Age

in 61st Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Ingeborg Bratoeva-Daraktchieva

Films in the Panorama section traditionally focus on challenging social topics. Medianeras by Gustavo Taretto (Argentina, Germany, Spain, 2011) and Suicide Room (Sala Samobójców) by Jan Komasa (Poland, 2010) perfectly fit into the provocative profile of this Berlinale section, searching as they do for innovative ways to present the dilemmas of modern people confronted with virtual reality and social networking. At first glance, the two films seem to be very different in terms of their themes and styles. Medianeras is set in Buenos Aires, and its characters are professionals in their early 30’s, struggling with career frustrations, failed relationships, and big-city phobias. Made with a light-hearted view of reality and plenty of humour, the picture develops as a romantic comedy to arrive at its appropriately happy ending. Suicide Room for its part is a grave social critique, couched as a horror movie. Its lead protagonist, the 18-year-old Dominik, a spoiled adolescent from the top tier of Polish society, dwells in a reality portrayed with visual references to German Expressionism in an emphasised, grim manner. The film moves toward a genre-typical and therefore predictably tragic conclusion. Nevertheless, both films address identical deadlocks of modern urban life — family breakdown, performance anxiety, and a main modern type of alienation — the use of virtual reality as a substitute for real-life social contacts.

Medianeras mean “the partition walls of buildings”. The film is structured around the first person narrations of Martin (Javier Drolas) and Mariana (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who are reporting on the architecture of the city of Buenos Aires. Choosing from the highly varied city imagery, the director and script-writer Taretto illustrates these narrations metaphorically. Blind walls, shaping the urban landscape with their depressing lack of windows, are used as an easily readable visual metaphor for big city isolation. The two lead protagonists are neighbours, occupying tiny apartments behind the partition walls of two opposite buildings, without being aware of each other’s existence. Martin has encapsulated himself in his cramped living space, surfing the internet day and night, and suffering sleep disorder. Marta has surrounded herself with mannequins, and never uses lifts because of her claustrophobia. Taretto prevents any communication between the characters until the very final stage of the plot. The story, which finally appears to be a soulmate search, advances in several stages, each indicated by characters’ walking out of their self-chosen incarcerations. The plot line moves forward every time Martin and Marta start to act in outside reality: first knocking down a part of their partition walls to create small windows, then coming together to watch television, and finally becoming a couple.

Suicide Room has a similar dramatic structure. Like Taretto in Medianeras, writer-director Komasa builds up the narrative of Suicide Room by keeping the protagonists apart for (almost) the entire action. Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) and Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska) communicate very intensively, but they never really come together — their intimate relationship develops entirely in virtual space. The young heroes meet first in the Suicide chat room, a virtual space for potential suicides. Dominik has chosen to withdraw from reality because of his classmates’ abusive posts and cell phone bullying. Confronted with family alienation and school mobbing, the young hero escapes into internet virtual reality. Falling in love with Sylwia and getting drawn deeper and deeper into this relationship, Dominik develops an addiction to virtual communication and Sylwia’s instructions, and moves forward in a zombie-like state. The young hero is devastated because of his failure to pull Sylwia out to the real world, and commits suicide.

Choosing opposing narrative styles — going into detail and exploring depth (Taretto in Medianeras), and putting strong emotions on show (Komasa in Suicide Room) — both directors present works which are innovative in different ways. The eclectic visual styles of the movies, built of heterogeneous images (traditional film shots, TV-images, simulations of mobile phone pictures, and imitations of web camera images) are rather unconventional. The cinematographers Leandro Martinez (Medianeras) and Radoslav Ladczuk (Suicide Room) demonstrate their professional skills, artistically playing with contemporary moving imagery. Ladczukeventakes his viewers one more step forward (or out-of-the-way) than his colleague, into the universe of computer games. The efforts of the set-designer Adam Torczynski, who has worked hard with 3D animation technology to achieve photorealistic images of the heroes’ avatars, deserve a special mention.

However, I find the most interesting achievement of both films above and beyond the visual experiments, but in the ideas, coded in the resolutions of their stories. Mariana and Martin start a happy life as a couple (Medianeras), while Dominik commits suicide (Suicide Room), but these events become “real” only after they have been captured by a camera-eye and have been posted on the internet. Happy or tragic, not a single occurrence in the modern world is recognised as “authentic” until it exists as a web-image. Modern generations don’t live within reality, they live within a virtual world of images — this is the main point of the two films. Things are present as far as they are parts of the web-reality. And what about movies?