"Mataharis": Seeing is Believing By Stephanie Zacharek
Voyeurism — the act of looking into a world, often a sexually charged one, that’s not your own — is everywhere in the movies. But traditionally, it’s men who are the voyeurs. As Jean-Luc Godard said, cinema is essentially men filming women: Looking at them, trying to understand them, adoring them and fearing them.
In her fourth feature, Mataharis — one of the quieter highlights of the Guadalajara Film Festival — the Spanish filmmaker (and actress) Icíar Bollaín captures a world in which women are doing the looking: The movie follows three private detectives in Madrid, employed by the same agency, who, in the course of doing their jobs, discover more about their own lives than those of the people who have engaged their services. Eva (Najwa Nimri) has just returned to work after giving birth to her second child. When her partner, and the father of her children, Iñaki (Tristán Ulloa), receives a phone call from a name and number she doesn’t recognize, she follows him, uncovering a secret that rattles her faith in the couple’s union. When Carmen (Nuria González) takes on an investigation that points the way to the breakup of her client’s long-term relationship, she begins to acknowledge the fissures that have developed at home in her own marriage. And Inés (María Vázquez), the youngest of the three, who lives alone and seems to yearn for some kind of emotional permanence and belonging, is assigned to gather information on a looming workers’ strike at a large corporation, only to become romantically involved with the strike’s chief organizer.
The movie’s title is a nod to the exotic and infamous Dutch-born dancer and spy. Inés even has a poster of the grand-mère of espionage decorating her small flat: On that poster, Mata Hari is typically bejeweled and scantily clad, a figure of powerful eroticism and seduction. The “spies” of Mataharis aren’t seductresses — at least, not obviously so. But each is beautiful and alluring in a way that’s strongly individual: Carmen, at middle age, shows serene self-confidence, even as she also betrays some of the doubts worries that most women feel about aging. Inés is idealistic and enthusiastic in a way that’s both attractive and touching. And Eva, the young mother, is pretty but careworn — the task of caring for her young children has exhausted her, and so her inherent sensuality has been temporarily put on the shelf.
With these characters, Bollaín — who co-wrote the script with Tatiana Rodríguez — explores the ways in which women see the world around them, and the men around them, in terms of their own desires. All of these characters crave a degree of love and security in their personal lives. But they’re not looking for cozy domestic happiness: Carmen, in particular, is almost ferally wistful, longing for a sexual connection that’s long been missing from her marriage. (At one point she dons a slinky nightie, trying to lure her monosyllabic husband away from his computer at bedtime.) Bollaín’s approach here is calm, meditative, appraising: She and her cinematographer, Kiko de la Rica, prefer direct, crisp images to flashy stylistic turns. As we watch these women watching the men around them, their absorption in the act of looking is so visceral, we can practically hear their pulses.
In some ways Mataharis seems to be a world apart from Bollaín’s last picture, the superb 2003 Take My Eyes (Te doy mis ojos), which deftly and subtly — that is, without resorting to clichés or platitudes — chronicles a woman’s efforts to escape her abusive husband. But as I’ve thought about these two pictures, their similarities emerge as being more significant than their differences. Both movies show us women who are, temporarily, outsiders in their own lives; they need to find ways to see into those lives with objectivity and clarity. Both Mataharis and Take My Eyes explore the consequences of really seeing, and the necessity of believing what you’re seeing — as opposed to seeing only what you want to believe.