A Movie Intransigent

(scavenged from an earlier, now-defunct, blog)
Spoiler Alert! – Major plot elements are discussed in this review. Don’t read this if you intend on watching the movie!

51ZqsXLMMyLThe Argentinian film Amor en transito (Love in Transit), directed and co-written by Lucas Blanco has all the promises of a great romance – namely, a beautiful female lead and an ugly male one. Actually, multiply this by two – with Sabrina Garciarena as the elusive, mercurial Mercedes, and Veronica Pelaccini as the defeated, defensive Micaela. Garciarena is well-cast here – pale, cool and diamond-hard. Pelaccini, on the other hand, is a little too glamorous and a little too sunny to be convincing as a lonely, world-weary barmaid – but what else can you say, except “welcome to Argentina.” As for their romantic counterparts, well, they can only be described as Dopey and Mopey – with Damian Canduci as Juan (Dopey) and Lucas Crespi as Ariel (Mopey). Throw in the airy, southern light of a beautiful Buenos Aires and we have ourselves a movie.

The film begins with each character arriving – separately – at the airport. Ariel, it seems, is leaving Argentina, and so is Mercedes, while Micaela stands forlornly at the window staring out at the jetliners. Juan has just flown in after many years in Europe, and we soon learn that he is in town in search of his girlfriend who had left him to visit Buenos Aires and never returned. As the film unfolds, we discover that there are actually two stories here – two disparate tales of courtship and romance – that between Mercedes and Ariel, and between Juan and Micaela. Each couple meets accidentally, and what follows is fairly standard fare – the usual flitterings over the uneasy, minefield-laden rituals of courtship. Both relationships are, in their own way, interesting – but this is ground well-ploughed: conventional, stolid, soap opera-ish.

The only question of much interest is, “How are these two stories connected?” At points, you even wonder if they are connected, fearing that what you are watching are two discrete narratives haphazardly stitched together – perhaps we could call it Love Stories of Buenos Aires or some such thing. Or maybe the very lack of a connection is the point – and the most we can expect is to fumble towards an end without resolution – to leave the theater with that queasy feeling you got after having watched Lost Highway.

Luckily for us, a connection does actually exist between the two romances. And that connection comes about thirty minutes into the movie in a form of a message left on Mercedes’ answering machine from Juan – one romantic camp making contact with the other. This lays bare the central problem that is at the heart of the film – namely, now that we know a connection exists, how are we to make sense of the narrative?

To give the game away, we eventually realize that the film is adopting temporal shifts in the story. The two romances – Mercedes and Ariel vs. Juan and Micaela – are not happening contemporaneously. The Mercedes/Ariel relationship precedes Juan/Micaela. The girlfriend that Juan came to Buenos Aires to find, is Mercedes. The reason that Mercedes never returned to Spain is her involvement with Ariel, the very story that we have been watching. In the linear sequence of scenes, the solution has come before the problem.

The nonlinear movie – shifting scenes out of sequence – is old hat now, well-versed as we are in the likes of Momento and Go. And of course, any film that adopts temporal shifts begs for comparisons with Pulp Fiction. In both movies, the beginning (the diner scene in Pulp Fiction, the airport scene in this one) is also the end of the movie and the middle of the story. But whereas Pulp Fiction only adopts a handful of time changes, with each event forming an independent story of its own (Vincent and Mia, Butch and Marsellus, Jules and Vincent), and each vividly different from the others, here the changes are more rapid, more subtle and more elusive. There are no easily identifiable guideposts or blatant clues that indicate that nonlinear storytelling is being used. Perhaps this is necessary in a movie about people on the move, forever transitory, elusive, ephemeral. But there is ever the danger of losing the audience – one is asked to work awfully hard, and you have to wonder if the reward is worth it. Even when you have got the solution, you must pay close attention to figure out your place in the timeline as the movie progresses. It’s one thing to have the impossible-to-forget image of John Travolta in a UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs T-shirt serving as your temporal guide (first seen, if you recall, as he enters the bar and engages in a stare-down with Bruce Willis’ Butch, and only later in the movie seen wearing it after having disposed of the body). It’s quite another thing when our temporal guide is something as ephemeral as Micaela’s hairstyle (the transition from straight to pulled-back to frazzy). Might I suggest that building your movie on a narrative frame as delicate as Veronica Pelaccini’s hair – as beautiful as it may be – might strike one as a tad whimsical?

Our struggle to make sense of the narrative is the force that propels the movie forward – otherwise, all we have is a fairly standard pair of love stories without a narrative arc. For the characters, there is no mystery, no question that needs resolution. They fall in love, they have relationships, they break up, they forgive. They go about their lives. The structure of the movie’s story – the problem, the complication, the eventual denouement – is independent of the characters. This is especially true in how the director, Lucas Blanco, chooses to end the movie. As we march towards the end, he heightens the tension by shortening the scenes and compressing the time that elapses between the scenes. Again, there is no tension in the narrative. Everyone is going to the airport. And we know now – having watched the beginning of the film – that there will be no climactic end. Juan will not arrive in time to find Mercedes, and Micaela will arrive too late to find Ariel. The denouement, as everything else in the story, happens in the form, not the content.

A film as artificially-constructed as this will, inevitably, stretch plausibility to its limit. And there are plenty of places where the stitchings show. One may swallow (with difficulty) the idea of a woman forgiving a strange man who has just crept up behind her and put his hands over her eyes. A man who then proceeds to offer her a ride home. But when the same man shows up the next day at the bar where she works and proceeds to lose his temper with her, it strikes me as more likely that she would get a restraining order than offer to take him out on a date. But the real weakness of the movie – the place where the artifice of form threatens to crack open the content – is the relationship between Ariel and Micaela: it simply isn’t believable. To be convincing, it pleads for the same care and attention as the other two love stories. Instead, it is a treated as a necessary evil, a bridge to get to the ending – and it feels hollow and hurried. We have to stop and think about why this relationship is even necessary. It has to do with the decision to make the airport scene the bookends to the film. All the characters need to get to the airport – Juan is arriving, Mercedes is leaving for Spain and Ariel has decided to follow her there. But why is Micaela going to the airport? To follow Ariel. Ergo, she must be in love with Ariel. Thus a love story between the two of them must be grafted onto the movie, and it feels grafted. It seems to me that the better solution would have been to dispense with the airport scene altogether. Why not have Juan first meet Micaela at her bar? This would circumvent two other weaknesses of the plot – Juan creepily covering her eyes at the airport, and his showing up – purely by chance – at her bar the next day. Instead, they meet at the bar, she proceeds to treat him rudely and he gets annoyed with her, and things can begin from there. Not having to get them all back to the airport would mean they could dispense with the Micaela/Ariel romance (this in itself is too much to swallow – that the two couples, purely by coincidence, will swap partners). There could be a single airport scene at the end of the movie when Mercedes and Ariel leave and Juan arrives. And the film could end with Juan and Micaela reuniting after her ultimatum, which is the natural final scene of the movie anyway. The airport scene as bookends to the movie feels very much like a filmmaker being stubbornly wedded to an idea, much to the detriment of the movie. And – although I hate to say it – you have to wonder how much of the insistence on the airport scene was colored by the long arm of Quentin Tarantino’s influence.

Ultimately, Amor en transito is about the triumph of form over content. Juego… solo se trata juego… we are told at the beginning of the film. A game… it is just a game… At first we believe that it is a game played between the characters. By the end of the movie, we realize that the game is between the filmmaker and the viewer, between art and life. In a sense, Amor en transito is a reflection of life itself. Life is a banal thing – full of random, haphazard events, the stochasm of ups and downs, triumphs and failures. Life’s story, the stories that give it sense, is a structure that is imposed on it. Life is trite, mundane and tedious. Art gives it meaning.