There’s a way of imparting an air of mystery in a film that creates in the audience a desire to penetrate the unknown, that introduces an aura of the intriguingly sinister to the film’s world. Then there’s a weirdness that feels like obfuscation. Everything in writer-director Marta Mondelli’s relationship drama/whodunit The Contenders (the circumstances of the central death, the motivations of the characters, the surreal asides) has an air of obscurantism, the sense of a director trying to cover up her lack of control over her material by a logic-free intrusion of the offbeat.
Whereas a filmmaker like David Lynch can make the banal into the hauntingly peculiar with one inspired burst of the bizarre, Mondelli labors to endow the world of the ritzy beach house where her film takes place with a similar sense of the uncanny—with disastrously muddled results. Whether eavesdropping on characters in long shot as they engage in muted conversation or creating surreal asides, as when, in flashback, a mysterious Eastern European woman asks a character whether she would rather have a large library of books she hasn’t read or a small collection “that you possess,” it all seems like a purposeless pursuit of the weird, in no way connected with the film’s central mystery or the lives of the characters.
Because for all the air of the unknown, this is first and foremost a character-driven drama and it’s on the level of characterization that the film’s obscurantist approach is on its weakest ground. Actually, Mondelli’s strategy in creating character is to combine a maddening inconsistency with clumsily obvious bits of exposition. She’ll have one of her characters spit off a round of mysterious nothings that sound like the actor reading from a misshapen script and then later bluntly state (and restate) the central fact about their personality (“My life is a mess. I never should have married”) in lines that sound no less like a studied recital.
Taking place at a beachside manse, the film follows four city types as they arrive for a birthday celebration. The guest of honor, having showed up with a smashed up car and complaining of a headache, is upstairs sleeping, until it’s soon discovered that she’s died. None of which stops the four remaining characters from hashing out their various complaints. While host Ken (Nick Stevenson) and his wife Nora (Anna Gutto) struggle through the rocky state of their relationship (most of which seems to stem from the fact that the latter is utterly insane), Marc (Adam Henry Garcia) repeatedly bemoans the fate of being a family man and the mysterious Veronica (Mondelli) shows up after an unexplained eight-year trip abroad claiming to know the “secret of happiness.” Various couplings ensue, rounds of mutual recriminations emerge and no one seems that worried about the death, except as a chance to accuse each other of responsibility.
It’s all an unfettered mess, both for the characters and the viewer, one that doesn’t so much tease with its ambiguities as frustrate with its willful disregard for illumination. Typical of the film’s approach are its final moments in which, borrowing a page from The Simpsons, Mondelli has Veronica set to reveal the secret of happiness that she discovered during her trip abroad. Just as she’s about to let us in, the sound fades out, the credits roll and one more mystery remains unrevealed. But since the film never generates much interest in its stock of mysteries in the first place, it’s hard to feel especially cheated by the final act of withholding.