"Kept and Dreamless" and other films A Lifeless Project: Born to Feel Guilty By Maja Bogojevic
From 11th to 20th March, Toulouse felt like a miniature Latin America — visually, linguistically, musically and cinematically, of course. And the sun shining on “la ville rose” (rose red city) for the duration of the whole festival seemed to be there to ensure a rather ‘hot’ ambiance and the complete Latin American experience. All the official festival sites were buzzing with film retrospectives and talks, musical events, visual arts performances and exhibitions as if the filmic worlds we were watching had been transposed from the screens into the streets of Toulouse, pulsating with the diversity of “Latino cultural rhythms” — the echoes of samba, salsa and other Hispanic sounds — the smell of Colombian coffee was hovering in the air and Spanish was heard everywhere (with the Argentinean accent predominating) — to my great joy and to such an extent that I started using Spanish “naturally” when addressing the rather confused festival’s (non-Hispanic) staff, stunning my international colleagues with my loss of linguistic control.
Such was the contagious power of Latin American enthusiasm, primarily felt and exhibited by the young cine-Latino festival staff — efficient, radiant, generous with smiles and cordiality, transmitting to us, various festival participants (juries and film makers), the fresh and authentic breath of the cultural Latin American air and helping to blur the boundaries between the filmic and ‘real’ (street) worlds, which seemed to merge into one world — a microcosm of Latin America.
Although sunshine contributed to creating a surplus of caliente energy, it didn’t succeed in keeping the audiences away from the darkness of the cinemas, where we could enjoy the great diversity of the selected films. Just as there are diverse cinema audiences, it is difficult to talk of only one Latin American cinema, or of one Mexican or Brazilian or Argentinean cinema, in spite of the overwhelming and dominant presence of the latter. The plurality and variety of Latin American films shown reflect the directors’ choices to depict a particular fragment of reality — among many other realities. And these filmic realities (documentary or fictional, sometimes without clear boundaries between the two) mirror cultural identities at various degrees, representing the rich and nuanced melting pot that is Latin America, with all its imperfections, multi-layeredness and social, political and cultural complexities. Just as there is no single European cinema, plurality and multiplicity are, therefore, key terms for a comprehensive and insightful analysis of Latin American cinema.
Diversity of Films
The thematic and genre complexities ranged from the daring Mexican political thriller/drama on (global) corruption in the Mexican and UK societies, Rabbit on the Moon (Conejo en la luna), by Jorge Ramirez Suarez, which would have been impossible to show in Mexico just four years ago (and is now nominated by the Mexican Academy!); to the witty Brazilian Redeemer (Redentor), a satirical pastiche on corruption and immorality at all social and class levels of Brazilian society, subverting the religious iconography, through surrealist humour and self-irony, conveyed by excellent camera work and editing, resulting in great comedie noire effects (reminiscent of the best of the Cohen Brothers’ work); to the black-and-white Columbian The Shadow of the Traveler (La sombra del caminante ), a highly moving drama on human atrocities, pain, forgiveness and redemption, victims of war and violence. It was as if the young director Ciro Guerra deliberately chose an imperfect form and technique so as to convey the imperfections and vulnerabilities of the humans. (Guerra was only 22 years old when he made the film in 2004!).
Adding to the rich diversity of Argentinean films (proving yet again that Argentineans are à la mode ) was One year without love (Un ano sin amor), directed by Anahi Berneri: a powerful drama (if at times unconvincing) of a young gay Argentinean writer with AIDS, coming to terms with his estranged family, his solitude and isolation on the margins of society, through finally publishing his first novel and through testing his limits of victimhood, without ever losing his freedom of choice. The film shows masterfully edited scenes of sado-masochistic gay night life in Buenos Aires (reminiscent at times in its lighting and camera angles, but not in its editing pace, of Gaspar Noë’s Irreversible).
Other Argentinean films were Love, First Part (El Amor, primera parte), directed by young Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Juan Schnitman, an adolescent love story, exploring the changing and ephemeral nature of romantic relationships and its consequences on the lives of a young urban couple; two black-and-white nostalgic films — B Short (B corta) and Another Turn (Otra vuelta), made by David Bisbano and Santiago Palavecino respectively, are ambitious experiments with the cinematic forms aimed at conveying the subjectivity of memory and identity search, leaving space for multiple interpretations with their open-ended and dream-like narratives, through poetic and elliptical structures (following the principle: “the implied, the silent, the unsaid are more suggestive”), with Another Turn especially echoing Alain Resnais’ labyrinth worlds of the unconscious and selective memory, conveyed by long shots and fragmented scenes. The frequent use of narrative ellipsis underlies the themes of adolescent search for (artistic?) identity and the loss of childhood friendship with the common theme of (poetic/artistic?) suicide setting the general tone of melancholia in both films.
Live-In Maid (Cama adentro), directed by Jorge Gaggero, this years’ FIPRESCI prize winner, focuses on two women — Beba and Dora (beautifully played by a non-professional actress Norma Argentina). Beba (as her name may suggest) is a spoilt bourgeois-turned-poor childish woman, feeling lonely and abandoned by all (including her ex-husband, her lesbian daughter living in Madrid and her friends), except by her maid Dora, whom she often treats like her slave (their relationship abounds in manipulative games and emotional blackmail). Moneyless, abandoned by all and being forced to rent her large apartment in order to earn some income, Beba finds comfort and refuge with Dora, in an ironic and tour-de-force final reversal of roles (rich mistress is sheltered by maid/servant) with her bed being moved into Dora’s tiny but cosy house. Two women left alone and abandoned by the world sit outside Dora’s house, sipping tea beside Beba’s concert piano, that will stay outdoors (as it cannot fit in Dora’s modest home) and nobody can play on it anymore.
This is a subtle psychological drama evolving into a powerful critique of Argentinean society by depicting the lives of two ageing and lonely women, through the refined use of cinematic devices (balanced and pithy filmic language, minimalist but all-too-revealing dialogue, the subtle play of contrasts between Beba’s over dramatic, childish, exuberant and manic appearance and Dora’s dead-pan acting, suggestive and un-intrusive split screens and compact scenario nuanced by sophisticated and never excessive humour etc.)
A Women’s Film
Kept and dreamless (Las mantenidas sin sueno) by Vera Fogwill (co-directed by Martin Desalvo) is a truly refreshing and original women’s film, which takes us back to our postulation that there is no one, single Latin American cinema and that the question of mapping our cultural identities remains open as we increasingly deal with “nomadic subjects” in contemporary arts (in cinema as much as in literature). In director Vera Fogwill’s words: “We cannot close the cinema in one box only. In both USA and in Europe (or Latin America), there will always be cineastes with a particular vision and approach. We should stop confining different experiences to a particular place”.
This film, a poignant Marxist and Feminist critique of Argentinean society, centres on the personal drama and lives of a few women, elevating them to the level of universal dimensions of the female — and therefore, human condition. This is Argentina, Buenos Aires, Bariloche, but it could also be anywhere in the world. In a blend of cinema verité documentary filming style and magic realism, Vera Fogwill and Martin Desalvo tell the “fictional” story of several women’s lives of three (or four?) generations, through the eyes of a 10-year-old Eugenia, who lives with her cocaine addict mother, in a fatherless family, but surrounded by numerous other women — neighbours, grandmothers, mother’s best friend, interweaving all kinds of female relationships (mother-daughter-grand-mother-girlfriend-neighbour and so on). These female relationships are far from being ‘ideal’. They are shown (rather convincingly) with all their complexities, vulnerabilities, moodiness, ups and downs, constructing a paradigm of the “female condition” — female pain and melancholia and their subsequent solidarity as the only possible escape (this femaleness can be matched only by another’women’s film, The Hours, by Stephen Daldry).
The film starts in a dark street, in a dark car, with a dialogue scene between Eugenia’s mother (superbly interpreted by Vera Fogwill) and her mother. Both women are depressed (one is a cocaine addict and the other is exasperated by her daughter’s addiction and lethargy) and tired of each other. The mother is fed up with financially supporting her junkie daughter, who promises, once again, that she will stay clean and off drugs and try to lead “a normal life”. Soon in the film narrative we learn that Eugenia’s mother is unemployed, intelligent and well educated (she was a brilliant student in school, one of the best), but a depressed, self-destructive, suicidal and neglectful mother (she forgets the birthday of her only child, Eugenia). She is abusing her own body through promiscuity and an endless string of sexual relationships, not even remembering who she sleeps with or who the father of her child may be, exhibiting thus the complete neglect or even denial of her body – she is never shown as enjoying sex — and leading to detachment and fragmentation of her mind from her body and sexual drives. But although her conscious choice of sexual encounters is annihilated by her drug abuse, she is aware of her depression, her loss of control, her numbness and suicidal tendencies, which adds a profoundly hopeless dimension to her female tragedy with no future, her sense of loss, with only the present moment in which to live. She is a tragic heroine. That she feels dead, that she has lost touch with her femininity, with her motherhood and vital force is explained by the lyrics of the music she listens to — the Argentinean equivalent of “This Mortal Coil” or “The Dead can Dance”: “I don’t mind being dead. wanting suicide . I am depressed. but how did it happen?”.
Although at the beginning it seems liked a noir juvenile drug addict social drama, we are soon warned by Eugenia’s words not to jump to premature conclusions. She quotes from a book she is reading that “phenomena are not moral (or immoral); it is your interpretation of them that can be moral”. And in that moment, through Eugenia’s eyes we enter the world of écriture féminine, where stereotypes do not exist anymore, where prejudiced opinions and judgments of the other (and otherness) disappear, where female bonding and solidarity subvert the patriarchal order, where the clichéd hierarchy of roles assigned by social conventions are dissolved and the male authority figure is deconstructed or non-existent: this is a male-less world, there are no fathers, sons, brothers, grandfathers or male neighbours. When there is a male presence, it is presented in the form of a male body, in the role of a lover and this fragmentation of the male body — reduced to its phallic reproductive function — is highlighted by Eugenia’s words addressed to her mother’s naked lover she sees in the morning: “Your penis is just hanging there.”. Eugenia is psychologically not a child at all, she represents adult intelligence and she is the one who makes feminist comments. The male integrity of this lover is further undermined by a portrayal of him as a weak, aggressive, depressed aimless man, completely dominated by his mother, full of anxiety and fears, ultimately unable to cope with his fatherhood.
Another presence of the male — visually absent almost to the end of the film, but symbolically present through the letters he writes to his daughter — is Eugenia’s father, an equally depressed and failed man. He is caught up in his own web of the worlds of fantasies and unrealistic goals, he is unemployed, “has never worked” (as his mother says), has always depended financially (and otherwise) on his mother (Eugenia’s grandmother) and the only ambition he has in his life (instead of caring for and trying to bond with his daughter) is “taking a vacation from his vacations”. He thus embodies the parasite, living off his mother, a silent heterosexual male, depending (emotionally or financially) on other women — mother, lover, daughter. When things get tough he runs back to the women in his life – for support.
If there was any ambiguity about the meaning of the film’s title “kept”, it is clarified by dialogues between women: women are not kept by men. They are kept by each other, they care for each other, have mutual understanding and intuitive compassion for each other. As difficult, complicated and unpromising a bonding as it may have seemed at the beginning, they actually succeed in building a sisterhood, a network of their own, a self-sufficient entity (in the absence of any emotional support they can get from their men). These women are kept (alive?) by each other through developing solidarity: the daughter is kept financially by the mother (a 60’s generation hippie turned successful professional psychoanalyst), Eugenia serves as an inspiration for her mother to find a job, she in turn is helped by her school friend — working in her house as a maid; in absence of her grandmothers, Eugenia is cared for nicely by her neighbour — Olga, Olguita and so on. Eugenia’s mother’s school friend is a beautiful, rich, vain and complacent lady of leisure, who married rich and is financially well taken care of by her man (she has servants, manicures, pedicures and all kinds of beauty treatments), has twin girls and has, on the surface, no reason to be unhappy. However, when she feels emotionally betrayed (she discovers her husband in their bedroom cheating on her with another man), she finds refuge with Eugenia’s mother, who is now working as her maid (note the reversal of roles similar to Dora and Beba in Live-In Maid) and becoming aware of the illusory nature of her social and financial power, in a beautiful twist of the narrative, it is she who delivers the central politically engagé and feminist monologue! She feels miserable because she “feels overwhelmed by the multitude of her female tasks and duties, the pressures of being a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter-in-law, a good friend”.
When Eugenia tells of her dream to see the sea, she is bluntly dismissed by her mother’s demystifying remarks that “she doesn’t need to see things, she can find everything in books, books tell us and show us everything we need to know”, voicing the Marxist critique of capitalist society: “Travelling is made up only so the tourism industry and airline companies can make money”. Eugenia’s ambitious grandmother has little time for Eugenia, but has enough money to undergo rejuvenating surgery to feel young and desired again Olguita adds the poignant critique of the society they live in, by declaring herself dead officially, as her pension increases when she is dead (leaving it to her estranged children, who she rarely sees, as they live in Spain), so “I’d rather be dead and get more money”, she says.
None of these women seem to be happy. Eugenia’s grandmother is an estranged, isolated and embittered woman who doesn’t want to recognize her grand-daughter “because her son slept with some whore and she is not of her blood”, thus falling into the very trap of the patriarchal structures, imitating the behaviour inherited by men. Eugenia’s mother, however, never judges her and explains to Eugenia that she is “just like us, she is one of us, she had too much pain in her life and her heart became like stone”. Thus, Eugenia learns not to judge other women but to empathise with their sadness.
Olguita, the widow neighbour, is not happy either. Seemingly the bubbliest and most positive and maternal character of all, who was once happy with “just being a housewife”, is now confused: the comic scene in which she shows Eugenia her cabinet filled with all sorts of medicines (“this is for diarrhoea, this is for constipation, this pill is for when I am confused, this one, well, makes me sleep, this one is for menstrual pain, this one is because there is no menstruation and this one. makes me laugh”) is an example of fine humour, but is also indicative of dependencies on all sorts of pills these women have due to female biology, but also due to the loss of emotional balance in their futile existences. Olga even begs Eugenia’s mother to give her the “powder thing that makes her laugh” — she refers to cocaine without knowing it.
Life Projects, Life-less Projects
The women portrayed feel emotionally empty, bored, depressed and what was supposed to be the fulfilment of their life projects (as planned and imposed on them by their mothers) become their personal failures, their lifeless projects. They are doomed to failure and unhappiness because they were born to feel guilty (this is especially underlined by the music score, as they all gather in the final scenes to talk about their lives). They were made to feel guilty for having a nice, carefree childhood, for having too much education, for being too outspoken, for having a choice, for not fulfilling their mothers’ life projects and for subsequently becoming lifeless projects, they feel guilty for having had dreams, they feel guilty for becoming dreamless cynics.
All these women had dreams. once. whatever these dreams may have been (of perfect romantic love, of career success, of being respected for what they are). As the narrative progresses (through superbly constructed dialogue) they learn they cannot rely on men, they learn to be more independent and have more trust in their own female identities and less in the corporate capitalism advertising propaganda on how they should look and who they should be kept by. And it is precisely this painful transition from dreamful to dreamless realities, to their self-awakening, that is at the core of their tragic female condition, their melancholia and despair.
Is there a way out of this despair? The film offers no simple solution, but, as they all gather at Eugenia’s house in the final scenes, the plausible remedy seems to be in their finding a common female language. They sit together and talk, discuss their problems, unhappiness. These scenes are shot in a documentary style or in the manner of a confessional TV talk show, but without any emotional excess and without falling into the trap of melodrama — which would have been expected in any such women’s text. They expose their vulnerabilities and rediscover their femaleness through sharing their problems and in the understanding of each other, realizing that a possible step forward is to stop feeling guilty for being born female. This moment is a beautiful example of the subliminal in a women’s narrative that, indeed, any European female film maker may be inspired by.
Each of the women changes and grows gradually as an individual and develops her self-awareness in her specific ways. And if Eugenia’s mother was not there for her when she has her first menstruation, it will be her abuela (estranged grandmother) — the last person she could count on and whom she meets for the first time precisely at the moment of her first menstruation — who explains to her gently and patiently the entrance into the womanhood and now she, too, can become pregnant. The women will always have each other to rely upon and regardless of their painful condition and no matter how suicidal or self-destructive, their power is strengthened by their holding together, by their ability to reinvent themselves and to create life.
And what can men rely on, then?
A possible answer is hinted near the end of the film, when Eugenia’s mother gives birth to a little boy and Eugenia gets a brother, David. And David, raised by such awakened women, guilt-free and free to choose their life projects, may symbolize a trace of hope for future male generations with new dreams. Meanwhile women can dream their realities. This is cinematic practice at its best: whilst exhibiting the social and political problems and gender roles, the film establishes a close connection with its local audiences, but it also achieves its universal aim.