With Backgammon, director Francisco Orvañanos stages one of those rarefied drawing-room thrillers in which the conflicts between the characters are purposefully generic, so as to theoretically suggest that a grandly bleak strand of existentialism is being mined. To merely call the film “mechanical” is to miss the point, as the mechanics—the blunt, archly thematic dialogue, the stifling emphasis on the architecture of the setting, the studied vagueness of the plot—are meant to direct one’s attention toward the narrative’s structure, rather than its characters and their emotional quandaries. And the structure is so transparently symbolic as to call attention, in turn, to the contrivances that govern the etiquette of our lives, rendering us passive role players.
In other words, style is meant to be substance here, or, at least, a distinctive style. The anachronistic characters are contemporary twentysomething college students who appear to be trying out for spots on the Algonquin Round Table, speaking in quotations of Baudelaire and T.H. White, among many others, which they alternate with absurdly weary bon mots like “Ah, sleep, every evening’s sinister adventure” or “I don’t know why I ever took up with the bastard.” (These folks clearly dig Hemingway too.) The heroes wear their obsessions with antiquated erudition on their sleeves while chain-smoking, drinking, and feigning the sort of ennui that generally comes much later in life, and often in literature rather than actual life. Orvañanos understands that these people are clowns, but that awareness merely exacerbates the film’s aura of self-consciously courted pointlessness.
Miranda (Brittany Allen) and Lucien (Noah Silver) are the last two standing among a group that quickly disperses for reasons that remain fashionably murky. A point of contention among everyone is Miranda’s boyfriend, Gerald (Alex Beh), a painter and writer-type who’s insufferably pretentious even by the considerable standards of this group. Left to their own devices, Miranda teases Lucien over the circumstances surrounding Gerald’s disappearance, hinting that Lucien might have a shot at sleeping with her. The power struggles among this pair are most pointedly embodied by a series of erotic paintings that Gerald apparently did of Miranda (even the circumstances of their authorship are among the narrative’s ambiguities). Miranda “accidentally” allows Lucien glimpses of her body, retreating when he’s on the cusp of submitting to temptation, causing him to observe that one of the paintings has mysteriously changed hues.
When art depends this heavily on formality, it logically stands that said formality better be proficient, perhaps revelatory. The writings of Harold Pinter and David Mamet, respectively, which seem to be inspirations for Backgammon, are capable of expressing realms of estrangement and bitterness within a few choicely serrated words. The dialogue in this film, however, is a hopeless collection of strained signifiers, and the images are attractively, often symmetrically composed, but in an anonymous fashion that fails to express either the characters’ or the filmmakers’ obsessions or synchronicities. Backgammon ultimately resembles a dramatization of a game of Clue, only perversely drained of diverting hokum.