“If we can’t retain our experiences, we retain our fantasies,” a character says early on in Empty Nest, explaining a psychological condition in which the victim can’t distinguish between the real and the imagined, and in Daniel Burman’s jazzy, progressively surreal film, this statement fast becomes an operating principle. A sort of cinematic psychoanalysis of its lead character, the picture creates an atmosphere of troubling indeterminacy in which the man’s projected anxieties and desires gradually overcome any objective reality to the point of where the two become indistinguishable, leaving the viewer as productively unmoored as the character.
When their daughter marries and moves to Israel, prosperous Argentinean couple Leonardo and Martha—he’s a successful playwright, she’s a housewife—find themselves with plenty of time to address their resentments and insecurities. For Martha (Cecilia Roth), this amounts to regret over having dropped out of college when she married, a situation she now seeks to rectify by not only resuming her studies but also by throwing constant parties for her colleagues and effectively ignoring her husband. Leonardo (Oscar Martinez), meanwhile, struggles both with his writing and with the thought of his daughter as a fully-grown (read: sexually active) woman, all the while pining for his comely young dentist.
Since the film is principally about Leonardo, the focus soon moves from seemingly objective scenes detailing both members of the couple to sequences centered on the man’s subjective life, a consciousness given increasingly over to vivid fantasies. The first of these surreal sequences—in which, triggered by a perusal of old family photos, Leonardo imagines himself flying a toy plane with his daughter—is marked out by a gray haze suffusing the screen, signaling a change in the film’s mode of operation. But after awhile, these sequences increase in frequency and often proceed unannounced by any sort of indicator allowing us to easily separate the real from the imagined. Even the film’s showstopper, a musical number involving a marching band in a shopping plaza builds imperceptibly from a seemingly plausible setup so that Leonardo’s fantasy overtakes us before we can adequately register the change. By the end of the picture, the viewer has become so attuned to its lead character’s unconsciousness that the existence of the film’s entire fictive world becomes a question for speculation.
This sense of unreality, this feeling of being ill at ease in one’s surroundings is communicated via Burman’s off-kilter, rhythmic filmmaking. Employing disorientingly close hand-held camera setups and punctuating his soundtrack with punchy bossa novas and boppish piano tinklings, the director finds an aesthetic approximation of Leonardo’s fleeting experience of reality, all the while endowing his film with a certain lilting momentum that prevents the proceedings from giving over to the dull solemnity that often attaches to this sort of insular, self-contained project.
Still, if Burman’s film has a glaring weakness, it stems from this same insularity, resulting in a refusal to open out Leonardo’s consciousness into any outside social context. Locked into his own narrow concerns, his own comfortable lifestyle, Leonardo exists in a world apart where the question of writer’s block becomes as important as the fate of the planet. Even a trip to Israel in the film’s concluding segment fails to establish any greater connection with the outside world; the entire sequence takes place either on the balcony of a comfortable villa or on the beach and, excepting the sole signifier of a glimpsed Uzi in Leonardo’s daughter and son-in-law’s house, no indication of any political unrest to upset the younger couple’s untroubled existence.
But if we accept the insular fantasy world of a self-regarding intellectual as a fit subject for our attention, then Empty Nest more than repays our indulgence. A convincing illustration of the ways in which a confrontation with a person’s anxieties and desires can lead to a reacceptance of reality, Burman’s film works out its central premise with a fleshy verve, a surrealist’s sense of disruption and a touch of wry humor, to boot. In the end if we, like the central character, have trouble distinguishing between what actually happened and what was simply imagined, we could do worse than to remember the lines spoken in one of the film’s final scenes, addressed to our befuddled protagonist, but a fit epigraph for the film as a whole: “Whether it’s a fantasy or reality, it’s a lovely story. Why argue about it?”