“New Argentine Cinema” is by now deficient as a descriptor of aesthetics and narratives, with the umbrella encompassing directors as diverse as Daniel Burman, Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel. The most common factor shared by the portraits of Burman’s hustling, working-class citizens, Alonso’s contemplations on time, and Martel’s indictment of the bourgeois is industrial: foreign cinema is extremely popular in Argentina, and the tax revenue such films generate for the nation is designated for investment in local filmmakers, thereby freeing Argentina’s artists of commercial pressure.
To that end, one’s familiarity (or lack thereof) with the work of any or all the above filmmakers (and other contemporaries) will have little baring on Gaspon Solnicki’s Kékszakállú, an extremely loose adaptation of Bela Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle. Like Martel, Solnicki focuses on Argentinian bourgeois, but he is less interested in indicting a mindset than depicting a sort of erosion of values brought on by economic recession, and his stark tableaux are a far cry from Martel’s jarring editing and meticulous sound design.
It would not be entirely inaccurate to say that “nothing happens” in Kékszakállú. A group cooks an octopus in one scene and two girls then discuss moving out; kids scratch up their surfboard with rocks; friends debate who will pay for food; other characters go to the opera; a woman clips the nails of her child. The approach to narrative is sparse—no characters even have names—but Solnicki nevertheless provides viewers with an interpretive lens. “Children are the responsibilities of their parents,” reads a prominently displayed sign on a diving platform in Kékszakállú’s opening scene. Shortly thereafter, a teenage girl responds to her nagging mother, “I’m not a baby.” “Yes you are, you’re my baby,” mom responds. Each of these miniscule interactions is part of a study in contrasts and behavior, revealing a stilted generation’s move toward independence.
One of the protagonists, unable to determine a course of study, cites a lack of money as her reason for not moving out, and Solnicki follows the scene with a prolonged sequence of factory workers—whether the factory relies enough on automation to validate her claim or instead represents a job opportunity is for the viewer to decide. Less ambiguous, when the same woman causes a car accident, her voiced reluctance to call dad is met with a damning cut to another woman breastfeeding, as if mocking the childishness of the first. These juxtapositions are loaded with commentary.
Solnicki complements his oblique but sharply observed portrait with a striking—but never imposing—compositional eye. Despite working in static tableaux that is something of an arthouse norm, he draws on architecture to distance himself from superficially similar works. Upper-class homes complete with sliding floor-to-ceiling windows and decorated balconies are transformed into opulent prisons through framing and duration. Elsewhere, light floods interiors from windows in the background, demarcating various planes of action, and shots of open fields and ocean with buildings and skylines in the background form their own narrative. Such compositions underscore notions of class, while music from Bluebeard’s Castle breaks up the silence that pervades the film, granting tremendous gravity toward the smallest of gestures, from a group of kids staring at their phones to the university task of designing a scale model to the enigmatic finale. “Nothing happens,” sure, but if one thing unites the New Argentine Cinema, it is the ability to make “nothing” palpable, even revelatory.