Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 11, 2010 1:50 pm 
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An empire crumbles

This fourth collaboration between Argentinians Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat is a drolly ironic study of bourgeois insecurity in which the viewer's sympathies gradually shift from the apparent protagonist to his apparent enemy -- a crude neighbor who shatters his calm by knocking out a hole in a wall facing and adjoining his especially perfect house.

All focus is on Leonardo (Rafael Spregelburd), a successful designer who lives with his wife and teenage daughter in the university town of La Plata, Buenos Aires in what is essentially a museum: a Le Corbusier house, the only one in Latin America. It's a real house: it's called the Curutchet House. It is ample and meandering; we never get a look at all of it at once. One of its windows faces a white wall. That wall belongs to a house. Behind that wall, in an apartment, is a macho, gravel-voiced used car salesman called Victor (Daniel Aráoz). This man is remodeling, and he wants a bit of light. The film begins with a big sledge hammer knocking a hole in the wall.

At first one's sympathies are with Leonardo, especially if one has ever had to deal with nosy, intrusive, or annoying neighbors, as many of us have. Victor could be doing anything, chopping down a tree, building or destroying a fence, even harboring a noisy dog.

The sly part comes when the personalities of Leonardo and Victor are combined; because, try as he might to keep it cold and businesslike, Leonardo can't stop Victor from being friendly and insisting they discuss the issue "as friends" in a café. Sure, Victor is a bit crude, and this is, typically for an Argentinian film, largely about class. But the class Leonardo increasingly shows, as the picture builds up, is world class priggishness and Olympic grade cowardice. His self-importance is endless, but nothing he does ever justifies it. Sure, he is a successful designer, but the house only underlines the fact that he's no Le Corbusier. Moreover, he keeps telling Victor he's terribly busy when he's so rattled by the noise (as Victor has the window changed back and forth) that he isn't doing anything. His wife is always on his case, and his daughter is always dancing in her room wearing headphones. Leonardo is even cowardly in the face of his daughter's insolence and hostility. The Le Corbusier house may be marvelous. People are constantly coming around to photograph it and annoying Leonardo by even sometimes asking to be let in (out of the question; but their repeated appearances add to the growing sense of menace, of the crumbling of Leonardo's world). Leonardo resents that the house is listed on Wikipedia (it is; look it up). Victor acts friendly, and so Leonardo pretends to act friendly too, meanwhile making fun of Victor and exclaiming at his presumption and gaucherie to sycophantic friends.

Leonardo began by telling Victor what he's doing was illegal. In fact when he finally consults with a knowledgeable friend it turns out Victor has the right to put in a window. It just needs to be higher up and narrower. But if the law forbids a big squarish wall, when it comes down to actual cases that may be hard to enforce. Too weak to confront Victor on his own or in a café (though he does consent to enter his kitschy van), Leonardo resorts to pretending it's his wife who won't allow the window, and then his father-in-law, who in his lies are far more authoritative and unyielding than he is. It becomes increasingly clear that Leonardo is ineffectual. The hole in the wall was from the start the symbol of his impotence.

Leonardo is an asshole; and so are his wife and daughter. He's also hollow, like the family inhabiting the modern house of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle. With all due respect to Le Corbusier, such houses are not cozy, and in both cases people are making things more important than people. Victor (ironically, since he quite lacks Hulot's fey delicacy) is like Monsieur Hulot. He's a human being, and the threat he poses to Leonardo is that he connects on a human level. Leonardo is just a self-important snob. His sense of superiority is focused in his notion that his house is of transcendent importance; that the world belongs to him.

As Victor, Daniel Aráoz's performance is a marvel of control that hovers perpetually and tantalizingly between bonhomie and menace. And the modulation of the film is equally subtle in the way it gradually shifts the viewer's sympathies from Leonardo to his annoying neighbor; the way little by little, Leonardo and his family become the truly and deeply annoying ones.

The Man Next Door/El hombre de al lado is a very simple story: the premise takes such good care of itself that almost any little incident that happens from day to day enriches the situation and adds layers to its implications. This is the story of a process, a gradual meltdown. Victor turns out, in a surprise twist, that, unfortunately, takes the film into another, unrelated genre, to be in fact a very good neighbor indeed. What's good about The Man Next Door is the way it's simultaneously both symbolic (and satirical) and very practical and down-to-earth.

The film has a special cool, flat, grayish look that is elegant and distinctive, and it won the cinematography prize at Sundance. It was in several festivals; is scheduled for release in Argentina in September 2010; and was chosen to be part of the New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and shown at the Walter Reade Theater and at MoMA, March 31, 2010 (MoMA) and April 1 (Walter Reade).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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