Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:16 pm 
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The mirror of deception

Nueve reinas' or 'Nine Queens,'a film made in Argentina on a shoestring, is one of the most elaborate and authentic grifter/con films ever made, and I don't know if I could explain it if I wanted to. In fact to explain it would be to ruin it for anyone who hasn't already seen it, because each successive grift is a surprise, and it's only after one has seen it that one wants very much to discuss just what it is that happened all through and above all what that final sequence means. It is the gift of 'Nine Queens' to pile surprise on surprise on surprise until it seems that the grifters are the victims of their own grift at every stage of the long fascinating game. This is not a parable about cons but a literal con. It's the real thing. Stories about grifters or con artists, like, say, the excellent Stephen Frears movie, 'The Grifters,' (1990), or the ingenious David Mamet movie, 'The Spanish Prisoner' (1997). or Fred Schepisi's illuminating 'Six Degrees of Separation' (1993), have some point to make, but the only point of a real con is that the con artist can never be trusted and his victims can always be fooled, and it's the essence of dealing with such people that you realize at some point that nothing they said was reliable, from the very first word.

This is the way it is with 'Nine Queens,' and that's what makes it such a classic movie and such an ultimate depiction of the world of the grifter. And so the movie becomes a kind of parable after all, because as Calderón said, Life is a dream and a dream of a dream, and as I would like to point out for those who I hope will not find it too obvious, a filmmaker is a con artist too, because he sets out to make us believe that what he depicts is real, which it is not, and that his actors are the people they portray, which they are not. And so a con artist is a perfect role for an actor to play.

Perhaps Fabián Bielinsky, the creator of 'Nine Queens,' who's less famous than Mamet and Frears and Schepisi, is therefore more modest, and is therefore able to focus on the con within the con without making any point besides conning us through to the end of this ingenious story. The actors are not famous, but like any actors worth their salt they are convincing and charismatic enough to hold our attention and make us believe that they are doing what they say they are. The very simplicity of the production and modesty of the actors (not of their skills, which are excellent, but of their reputations, which are minor) aid in convincing us of the audience that the scenes we are watching are or could be quite real. The story begins when a younger man who has been conning the staff of a convenience store gets caught in his con, and an older man comes in successfully posing as a policeman and takes him away, thus freeing him from the clutches of the store manager and staff. Thus two con artists, Juan, the younger man, and Marcos, the older one, meet and form an alliance, in which Marcos enlists Juan's help in a scheme he has yet to explain.

At one point early on Marcos makes a phone call when Juan is out of earshot and he says only, 'It's on.' What? Do we ever find out? What is clear from that moment, if not before, is that no alliance between con artists is a sharing of trust.

The ultimate lesson to be learned from 'Nine Queens' is that no one is more gullible than a con man - that grifters, in order to con people, have to be able to believe in their own fabrications, and thereby they become potential victims of the grift. Eventually the two deceivers are led to a set of stamps of great value called 'The Nine Queens,' which they set out to sell to a very rich man visiting from Spain called Gandolfo. Gandolfo seems almost ridiculously eager to purchase these items from these fellows who have no pedigree or legitimate provenance. But herein lies another truth, that greed - in this case the rich collector's greed to obtain a prize item by any means necessary - will lead men to take unreasonable risks. Everyone once a con is afoot is eager to make a profit, and both con artist and victim want to believe they have found a wonder at a bargain price.

It is essential to the value of the movie that we in the audience realize only at the end that the con is on us.

No story is more focused than this one. Like a picaresque tale it moves from moment to moment: each moment is a transformation, and must be watched with riveted attention because it will change what comes next. Such a simple and effective means of constructing a movie! Yet how rarely are such means put to such good use! 'Nine Queens' has etched a small but permanent niche for itself in the history of cinema.

This is a mean and ugly world, which at the same time is utterly fascinating and compulsively watchable. Can people really be like this? Indeed they can. And the interest with which we watch it all happen shows that we are made of the same cloth.

November 1, 2002

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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