Argentinian writer-director Gaston Solnicki’s Kékszakállú opens with a group of adolescents lining up to leap from the diving board of a local swimming pool. As one girl approaches the edge, she looks down cautiously, freezes, and stares into the pool’s deep end. To jump or not to jump? By lingering on the girl’s trembling indecision, Solnicki encapsulates how seemingly inconsequential moments during adolescence can, at the time, feel like jolts of almost Shakespearean existential uncertainty.
Such simultaneity of jokiness and severity drives Solnicki’s first narrative feature, which signals an aesthetic departure from Papirosen, a 2011 documentary about his own family’s lineage. Now, the matter of personal and familial legacy takes a sardonic turn toward interrogating contemporary Argentina, and a handful of young women whose economic privilege and daily malaise outweighs a tangible contribution to society. Through highly ordered static images that unfold in a variety of shot distances, the film suggests that achieving a coherent perspective on any subject matter necessitates an innovative, and evolving, approach to constructing one’s vision of the world.
The opening visual metaphor gains further resonance through Laila (Laila Maitz), an incoming university freshman who’s undecided on her major. Aside from school, she’s stuck between eating while nestled under the covers of her father’s bed, giving up on an exercise session with her trainer, and committing a hit and run on parked cars. Save for Laila sobbing and calling a relative to confess to her vehicular crime, Solnicki represents these actions with blank-faced aplomb by lingering on the banality of each scene’s immediate meaning. Laila isn’t a subject meant for either empathy or pity—at least not in a conventional sense. Solnicki strips away revealing dialogue or indications of Laila’s individuality; she’s not a smartass or inordinately shy. But she does appear genuinely childish and unaware in her inability to navigate the low-level demands placed on her by a developing adulthood of financial security.
Laila’s plight, however, isn’t the film’s central concern until the back half. Prior to that, unnamed characters pass the camera’s eye and often disappear as quickly as they came. The few recurring subjects include a young heterosexual couple whose individual physical fitness Solnicki foregrounds through scenes of the couple making out in swimwear and sitting poolside. Each of their bodies becomes an unspoken subject unto itself, as if their dedication to maintaining a certain physique affords them at least a modicum of direction, even as they seem to say and do little else. That the film claims affiliation with Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle recalls the recent films of Matías Piñero, in particular The Princess of France, for how art, legacy, and sexuality are bound into a terse expression of its characters’ loosely defined unease.
Solnicki invites us to contextualize Kékszakállú’s succession of images featuring striking architecture, open terrain, and factory floors in relation to other films, specifically as a barometer to grasp what he’s up to. The pairing of documentary technique and fictional characters explicitly invokes José Luis Guerín’s En Construcción for its focus on the ways a city, with its changing façades, humorously informs those who inhabit its confines. If Guerín looked at Barcelona’s underclass through effects of ongoing gentrification, then Solnicki imagines a comparable scenario unfolding in Buenos Aires behind the preoccupations of characters that are kindred spirits of those found in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Stéphane Lafleur’s Tu Dors Nicole.
At times, Kékszakállú plays rough with its characters, particularly Laila, whose ignorance of industrial design as a possible major signals, by extension, her apathy regarding industrial economics of any sort, despite sampling the fruits of its labor. In a memorable passage, a group of girls prepare to boil a large octopus for dinner as if it were an everyday occurrence. Such facets of wealth render these characters incapable of facilitating more than the fact of their own existence from moment to moment. As one girl stands inside a museum featuring walls of taxidermical insects, the leap isn’t far to understanding this as Solnicki’s conception of his subjects. Like Shohei Imamura, whose 1963 classic The Insect Woman writes Japanese history through the body of an abused woman, Solnicki can be understood as a cinematic “entomologist,” burrowing into the soil for new specimen to better grasp the income inequality stoked by the suburban development of Buenos Aires.