Friday, September 2, 2011

VLAFF 2011: El hombre de al Lado

Opening this year’s Vancouver Latin American Film Festival is a nervy black comedy about two neighbours and a wall, the Sundance Jury Prize winner El hombre de al lado (The Man Next Door) is directed by the Argentine filmmaking team of Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn.

Leonardo (Rafael Spregelburd) is a highly successful architect and furniture designer, sort of a cross between Arthur Ericksen and Eames. His designs have been sold around the world and admirers remark on the astonishing prices he charges on a basic chaise lounge. He lives in the only house Le Corbusier ever designed for South America, in La Plata, Buenos Aires. His wife Ana is a yoga instructor who seems to natter about inconsequential matters that can only be characterized as first world problems. They have a daughter who spends most of her time in her room, with headphones on, practicing the same set of dance moves as if she were learning them to audition for Lady Gaga’s next tour. They have a housekeeper. The house is an architectural wonder, one that compels tourists to stop outside and photograph it at all hours of the day. Into this world enters the next door neighbour, a middle-aged cowboy type named Victor (Daniel Aráoz) who decides to open a giant hole on the dividing wall between their properties so that he can let natural light into that side of his house. Naturally, Leonardo is aghast by this latest development.

Leonardo huffs and puffs around Ana, lawyers, friends etc. about the window being intrusive, since it overlooks his house. It is a clear invasion of privacy. As with most egotistical intellectual types, his resolve crumbles around Victor, but he reverts to his passive-aggressive behaviour in any situation except in an actual confrontation. What, Victor asks, is the problem? He just wants to build a window. Victor sees through Leonardo’s veneer of constant busyness and lets the air out of the balloon of his ego a little at the time, thus irking the latter even more. He invests a lot of himself into this game of intimidation, but what’s really at heart here? (Warning: mild spoilers to follow!)

What the directors try to show is that Leonardo’s most meaningful relationship in this film is with Victor, the villain type who lives next door and does pretty much whatever he wants. Leonardo is perpetually annoyed by Ana’s whining about her clients and admonishes her every time she wants a “peck”. Her response is to tell him off for being a jerk. He tries to communicate with their daughter, but all she does is nod, smile slightly, and look away into the distance. Although the actress playing the daughter is credited, it is essentially a non-speaking part, as people talk at her but she never responds to anyone. The comedy is not about the antagonist next door, but a character study about Leonardo himself.

Most of the conversations in this film are filmed in tight close-up. The actors’ faces are framed but they are never quite on the same level, and every time you see one set of eyes, you cannot see the other because his or her back is turned, or s/he is at a higher level than the other and only the mouth moves. The only person with whom Leonardo can have direct discussions and meet eye-to-eye on a literal level is Victor. The film is about Leonardo’s inability to communicate with the people closest to him and who he considers near and dear. Think about it: would you like to hang out with someone who spends all his time yammering about the jerk who lives next door and never asks about your day? Leonardo monopolizes the few dinner party conversations he has with friends by venting about Victor. In other scenes, he demonstrates that although he is a genius designer and savvy businessman, he has no clue how as to how to relate to other people. A seduction of a design student turns into a humiliating proposition where he reveals more about just how egomaniacal he is than he lets on. 

Speaking of ego, Leonardo’s is hanging by a thread. At the beginning of the film, he decides to scale back on the autobiographical information on his professional website because he doesn’t want to spread “propaganda” about himself. That is how highly he thinks of himself. To have a neighbour like Victor not be afraid of him or to not even be truly aware of his professional stature shocks him, because he cannot cajole, bully, direct or compel Victor to do what he says. There’s a very revealing scene that shows the genius in the film’s mise en scène, where Leonardo is speaking with his daughter. We see her face head-on as she’s looking at her father, but Leonard is only shown in the reflection on three suspended mirrors, heightening his fractured sense of self and also implies that this is how his daughter just might view him. In the scene, he talks at her and although she nods to show her comprehension, she puts her earphone back in and returns to her music. Nothing betrays her emotions to him, and he’s too busy with his business and with that wretched window to actually invest any effort in figuring her out. Considering that everyone on the planet (or at least in the city) loves the Le Corbusier home and gawks at it, the fact that Victor lives next door and doesn’t idealize it one little bit may be what really irks Leonardo.

Finally, for all of the attention lavished on the house itself, we never get to actually see what the darned thing looks like in total. The audience is aware it’s an architectural marvel, but only the interior curved walls and split-level glass staircases really catch our attention. Like Gormenghast, one cannot really understand its true dimension, or see where it begins and ends. It’s simply there. The window, symbolically, is a de facto attempt for the viewer to encapsulate and put finite dimensions on this house. Considering how much film and television is dedicated to showcasing homes out of Architectural Digest – think of the House Hunters series and any comedy starring Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson or J. Lo – it’s a bit infuriating to not see this fabulous building of which everyone speaks so highly. There is no establishing shot to show how glorious the house is, and to the viewer, it doesn’t look all that great even on the inside.

I should mention that this film is supremely funny. The comedy lies in the Leonardo’s increasing exasperation. Spregelburd’s mensch combines Woody Allen’s nebbish tendencies with Frasier Crane’s pomposity, leading him to take ever-disastrous, counterproductive steps as the window takes forever to be built.  Aráoz must have had some intense fun doing this role, playing the antagonist with a straight face and unleashing some mildly sadistic humour demonstrating that he just might understand Leonardo better than Leonardo ever could. Their pas de deux is masterful and they bring just the right light touch at moments to offset potentially damaging consequences. This is not to say that the film is cheery and light, it’s still a black comedy and some elements are just a bit too dark and would have no place in an American comedy. (I really hope they don’t try to remake this with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, it’s perfect as it is.)

El hombre de al lado played to a full house at Granville 7 cinemas. It was the opening gala for the VLAFF, accompanied by a lavish invitation-only reception sponsored by Scotiabank and featuring a smoked salmon entrée and several bottles of champagne. The film will have an encore presentation on Monday, September 5 at 9:15 pm at Pacific Cinematheque. Should the film be voted as an Audience Favourite at VLAFF, it will again be screened on closing night, on September 11. For more information on show times and locations, click here.