Growing Up Observed with New Eyes

in 73rd Venice International Film Festival

by Nil Kural

The FIPRESCI award winner at the 73rd Venice Film Festival for Best First Feature is Kékszakállú, by the Argentinean director Gastón Solnicki. This film, shown in the Orizzonti section, takes its name and inspiration from Béla Bartók’s 1911 one-act opera Kékszakállú (Bluebeard’s Castle).

Solnicki’s perfectly executed opening scene hints at what will come. The film is set in present-day Argentina at a summer residence, where a group of teenagers are jumping into a pool from the diving board. The rhythm of this activity, which seems so effortless, continues until one girl hesitates, she cannot find the courage to jump, and she turns around. What we witness is familiar. Growing up is not the same for all. It comes easy for some. But others hesitate, and some are afraid.

Coming of age have been a topic of many films, though never quite like in Kékszakállú. The opening also hints at the carefully and unconventionally constructed film which lies ahead. Solnicki does not provide us with a classical narrative to follow and feel comfortable in. The film consists of fragments. They resemble memories. The connections may seem loose at first, but, like memories, they find a way to leave a mark.

The shots of this summer house and its young residents will ring a bell for many viewers. They evoke a feeling of easiness of a time passing but also the uneasiness of a void, and also a sense of emptiness. The uncertain future for the characters is felt also in the perfectly constructed mise-en-scène.

The heroines are young women without focus, living in the limbo between childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. In following these adolescents through their summer, the film slowly finds its connections with Bartók’s only operatic work. Some passages from Kékszakállú interrupt these ordinary moments and transform them. The filmmaker utilizes Bartók’s great music to magnify the mundane dramas of the young heroines, giving the film its unique humor and providing sympathy at the same time.

Connections between Bartók’s masterpiece and the film are not only musical. The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival catalogue appropriately describes the opera as “a dark story of youthful female curiosity penetrating a forbidding new world.” These themes, though hidden below the surface, also fit the film perfectly, with its protagonists struggling to negotiate their way.

The filmmaker’s point-of-view about his mostly female ensemble lies heavily in these scenes. It is a distant gaze: non-judgmental, observational, ironical but not cynical, not intimate and yet compassionate. Solnicki, who previously directed two feature-length documentaries, Papirosen (2011) and Süden (2008), shows here his alienated heroines in existential crisis through a strong personal vision, breaking ground in cinematic language.  

It is true that Solnicki gets the attention of the film’s spectators by capturing the universal feeling and the essence of coming of age. But Kékszakállú has its roots in Argentina. The uncertain future of the film’s heroines is tied to the fragile economic situation of their country. The film is about characters who are privileged but not privileged enough not to worry. The uncanny feeling of the film comes from this information hidden in the cracks. The lead female character is anxious choosing what to study in pursuit of a career. Unlike earlier generations, she will not able to afford a house of her own. The summer residence is beautiful, the architecture eye-popping, yet they feel melancholy, fading symbols of a bygone era.

Edited by Gerald Peary