December 13, 2018

Review: A DECENT WOMAN at Wisconsin Film Festival, Fri Mar 31 and Sat Apr 1

Review: Wisconsin Film Festival
A Decent Woman | Lukas Valenta Rinner | Argentina, Austria, South Korea | 2016 | 100 min
Sundance Cinema, Friday, March 31, 1:30 pm»
UW Cinematheque, Saturday, April 1, 2:45 pm»

A deadpan black comedy about the class struggle, Lukas Valenta Rinner’s A Decent Woman meticulously exposes the structural violence inherent in contemporary Argentinean society, but finally falls short of its subversive potential. Jason Fuhrman reviews the film to continue our 10-day Wisconsin Film Festival preview.

At once a provocative, exacting character study and an absurdist take on contemporary social mores and class distinctions, A Decent Woman explodes with acerbic wit and deadpan style. Inspired by the real-life story of a conservative gated community that threatened the owners and visitors of a nudist swingers’ club in Buenos Aires, this wry satire from Austro-Argentine writer-director Lukas Valenta Rinner hinges on the sustained juxtaposition of two incompatible worlds. While the film displays a high degree of technical accomplishment and an impressive aesthetic design, it ultimately fails to fulfill its potential.

Belén (Iride Mockert), a taciturn, repressed housemaid begins working in an exclusive, ultramodern residential complex on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. She spends her days obediently tending to a materialistic, overbearing socialite and her athletic, temperamental adult son on their vast, immaculate estate. In her free time, she pursues a lukewarm love affair with a shy, overweight security guard. But on the other side of the electrified perimeter fence, she discovers a commune of upper class nudist swingers. Soon Belén develops a double life, passing back and forth between the sterile superficiality of bourgeois existence and an alternative lifestyle of Tantra workshops, New Age spirituality, poetry readings, healing sessions, and group sex.

Rinner meticulously observes Belén as she performs her daily routine and embarks on a journey of mental and sexual liberation, becoming increasingly radicalized in the process. The remarkably nuanced and unflinching central performance by Mockert reinforces Rinner’s stark, minimalist approach to his story. She exhibits a world-weary stoicism and barely utters a word for the entire film, while betraying no sign of emotion.

We first glimpse Belén as one of a series of interviewees for a housekeeping position, the stationary camera serving as a substitute for an unseen personnel recruiter. “Leave the door open, please,” the headhunter tells each interchangeable candidate at the end. Right away Belén’s demeanour suggests something nervous, haunted and vaguely unsettling. When asked if she might have any doubts, she first replies no, but then adds cryptically, “Oh wait, I no longer work with children.” The interviewer does not press her to elaborate and Belén lands the job, probably because of her availability.

A subtle tension steadily mounts, progressively leading the viewer to long for relief because some scenes are so uncomfortable. Emphasizing painful silences and awkward moments over dialogue and narrative depth, Rinner maintains control of an ironic, detached atmosphere through a slow crescendo of precisely framed and visually powerful shots. With static camerawork, symmetrical compositions, and a deliberate, unhurried editing style, he highlights the contrasts between the sleek, clean, manicured spaces of the gated community and the vivid green natural environment of the nudist colony, revealing the latent conflicts beneath the polished surfaces.

With its trenchant critique of modern bourgeois society and nearly apocalyptic vision of human relationships, A Decent Woman certainly resonates as a sign of the times. For the most part, the film unfolds quietly at a snail’s pace, occasionally punctuated by abrupt outbursts of moderate violence that hint at the intensity of submerged emotions. Such moments recall the work of controversial Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke and seem to indicate that the film is heading somewhere edgy and transgressive. However, eventually it becomes a mostly tedious succession of arty tableaux, with a cartoonish climax that fails to be subversive or satisfying.