Saturday, November 11, 2006

An Aura of dread

I didn't much care for Nine Queens (2000), which became one of the relatively few breakout foreign-film hits in recent times when it was exported from its native Argentina a couple of years later. It wasn't hard to see why--the first-time writer-director, Fabian Bielinsky, had fashioned a gimmicky con-man thriller in the tradition of The Sting and given it a mildly exotic local air, and audiences swooned. [With similarly labored plot mechanics I don't like The Sting that much, either.] A meal of empty calories, Nine Queens was not the sort of film to adhere to the ribs, and a rote US remake, Criminal, vanished quickly in 2004.

To his credit, Bielinsky has not repeated old tricks with The Aura (IFC First Take), which begins its run on Nov. 17. Instead, he's borrowed from Memento, which has spawned a cottage industry in thrillers where the time frame is jagged and split. But The Aura, which runs an extremely generous 138 minutes, is anything but cut-and-run in the telling. Bielinsky lets the scenes run long, and an ominous, Tangerine Dream-like score by Lucio Godoy laps at the images, like little waves in a pond. The effect is meant to be hypnotic, drawing you into the dream state where its main character functions best, and from time to time it works--that is, if you can stay fully alert. The screening room I saw it in was full of lolling heads, like a room full of bobblehead dolls made from NY film critics, as everyone fell in and out of cat-naps. The occasional humor, and the gunshots, helped resuscitate interest.

The Aura centers on taxidermist, called simply The Taxidermist, a shy, plodding man played to boringly obsessive perfection by Nine Queens star Ricardo Darin. The taxidermist is on a hunting trip in the Patagonian forest. His real quarry is, however, in his dreams--what he would like to do, if he were less timid, is to commit the perfect robbery, the blueprint for which exists in his head. Events--an accidental homicide, a chance roadside encounter--give him a chance to put his plan into action, as he makes himself part of an unfolding conspiracy to raid a local casino. There is, however, a catch. The taxidermist is an epileptic, whose attacks are preceded by an "aura," which the press notes helpfully describe as "both a warning and a moment of strange, almost sublime enlightenment, an experience of utter confusion and overwhelming disorientation." Bielinsky is not making this up; Googling uncovered some interesting reading on this phenomenon, and it makes for a good hook for a thriller, as the taxidermist tries to stay one step ahead in his involvement with some shady characters.

Bielinsky's attempt to create the fugue-state experience of an aura is admirable; to judge from my experience, it may have worked too well. The violent action, when it comes, is well-staged, not that the plight of the shut-off, mostly unlikable taxidermist is of overwhelming interest (I was more concerned for the fate of the dog who lopes in and out of the picture). Most compelling, if more from thinking about afterwards than during the languid film itself, is the atmosphere of stealthily mounting catastrophe The Aura creates. Having completed his second film, Bielinsky died of a heart attack earlier this year, at age 47.

No comments: