From Argentina, this film is called Abrir puertas y ventanas in Spanish, “To Open Doors and Windows.” And indeed the first time director, Milagros Mumenthaler, has a fixation on these two apertures: the camera is always catching a window or a door being gone through, opened, slammed. As has been remarked by others, it is the visuals that appeal in this slow-moving, delicate film. Less appealing and not deeply explored are the protagonists — three sisters, though they don’t resemble each other. Marina (Maria Canale), a college student and the most responsible one of the three, doesn’t want anything to change. The irritable and uncooperative Sofia (Martina Juncadella) is an obvious contrast, constantly changing outfits and rearranging or disposing of the decor. The listless Violeta (Ailin Salas) lies about scantily clad, most of the time too lazy even to get fully dressed. Something is off, but it takes a while to find out what — their grandmother and guardian, a university professor, has recently died of a heart attack. Hanging around in their comfortable house and troubled by family secrets, the sisters appear to have few friends and no other family. Though Maria occasionally goes off to school, they all seem largely immobilized, it would seem as much by laziness, the heat, and boredom as by grief; or they may need to express grief and lack the energy to do so. They can’t be bothered to go to a video shop and merely telephone to order a movie to be delivered — “A comedy,” “Something that’s not Argentinean.”
“Visuals are attractive,” as Jay Weissberg of Variety wrote when the film debuted at Locarno, “and Martin Frias’ gently gliding camera conveys some of the melancholy attached to the house and its inhabitants. How it circumscribes space, and the way individuals function within their own spaces, ultimately becomes more interesting here than any narrative development.”
Narrative development takes a good while to get going, though eventually there is some. The process was a little too delicate for Weissberg, and it was pretty delicate for me. The script Mumenthaler has penned provides little initial movement, even psychological. Interactions between the sisters are minimal, and information is withheld. It’s nearly a third of the way in before a phone conversation reveals the grandmother’s death, and details about the house and inheritance are barely mentioned. The film toys with narrative possibilities — the departure of one sister, the possibility that another was adopted — but everything is kept a little mysterious. It’s a way of working that may seem real or intriguing to some viewers, and merely careless or uninteresting to others.
The girls — not unusual for teenagers, but these are twenty-somethings — aren’t much good at expressing their feelings to each other. In what is, for the lack of anything better, an emotional highlight, the three sit side by side, pressed close on a sofa, to listen to and sing along with the song “Back to Stay,” Marina weeps while Sofia and Violeta look sad. This is as intimate and emotionally raw as they get.
Later there is a love interest that develops, news of a sort comes from the missing sister, and the two remaining ones seem reconciled to each other and to change. But these developments, while pleasing, may come a little late for some of us. Mumenthaler’s almost fetishistic minimalism, and the not terribly resonant door-window motif, seem unpromising. But sometody likes it: Back to Stay won the Golden Leopard at Locarno, having had Cannes support for the writing, and was realized with Hubert Bals Fund support. Mumenthaler achieves a distinctly non-commercial, independent, stylish approach. But I would have to agree with Weissberg that this is a “self-conscious, ultimately slight debut.” Mumenthaler seems not up to the caliber of such recently notable Argentinean directors as Fabian Bielinsky, Carlos Sorin, Lucrecia Martel, or Pablo Traperoo. But in her way she already shows a very sure touch, and time will tell.
-Chris Knipp, Film Leaf
Subtitles: English, French, German