Something In The Air
A semi-autobiographical drama from director Olivier Assayas set in 1970s Paris
A Peruvian supernatural melodrama about a married man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. No sniggering at the back there.
Undertow opens with a close up image of a blooming pregnant belly, interrupted by the affectionate nuzzling of a proud and protective father-to-be. It's a tableau of idealized, uncomplicated domesticity soon to be shattered by the revelation that Miguel (Cristian Mercado), the father-to-be in question, representative of all that is good (ergo macho) to the community of his North Peruvian fishing village, has a secret lover - who just so happens to go by the name of Santiago. Dealing with the still controversial taboo of homosexuality and gender stereotypes in Latin America, first time feature director Javier Fuentes-Leon develops an intriguing, supernaturally coloured story.
After Santiago mysteriously dies and - with more than a hint of Almodovarian melodrama - his ghost first appears, Banquo-style, to Miguel and Miguel alone, it might take some doing not to choke on your popcorn. There he is at church, while Miguel reads out a heavily ironic scriptural passage about loving 'one's brother', now he's snuggling up to Miguel and his wife Mariela while they watch telly on the sofa; look, there he is again, helping Miguel cheat at poker, the cheeky rascal! Despite the inherent awkwardness of the device, it facilitates a poignant unraveling of Miguel's predicament: face being ostracized by his community and losing his family, or continue to live a lie.
For a film with such a blatant, though sympathetic, message, Fuentes-Leon just about manages to skirt the sense we're being spoon-fed socially edifying filmmaking by numbers. This is in no small part down to the quality of the acting from the leads (though as Miguel's glorified eye candy Manolo Cardona doesn't massively widen his range from the likes of Beverley Hills Chihuahua); in particular, Tatiana Astengo turns in a brilliantly felt performance in a potentially flat role, as the long-suffering Mariela - a woman reeling from the double indignity of marital infidelity and the discovery of her husband's homosexuality.
The film also negotiates Latin American stereotypes with a wry sense of humour; there's much gossipy chatter over telenovelas vs. soccer and Mariela, professing her soft spot for a TV star, explains with blissful ignorance how 'even Miguel says he's a hottie'. The risk of trading in stereotypes though, is that you end up reinforcing them, and Undertow, with its overly schematic plotting, weighty symbolism and inappropriately picturesque depiction of its setting, occasionally risks sliding into the conventions and archetypes of the daytime soap operas it sets out to question.
A watchable and well-intentioned drama, but one which risks losing its footing straddling a somewhat awkward gulf between Sunset Beach and magic realism.
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