King of “Queens”
Justin Stewart on Fabián Bielinsky’s The Aura
Fabián Bielinsky died of a heart attack in his hotel room while on a trip to São Paulo working on a commercial. It was the summer of 2006, and he was 47. With only two features completed, he passed away before he could be definitively rated with his compatriots that make up the New Argentina Cinema—a media-designated movement but arguably still the most vital and prolific of any country’s in South America. What seems discernible from his pop-informed debut, Nine Queens, and his work (with Wim Wenders and others) on television ads is that Bielinsky seems to have had more generally mainstream ambitions than the more personal, experimental Lucrecia Martel or politically calibrated Pablo Trapero. Bielinsky’s death may not have robbed Argentina’s New Cinema of its edgiest or most groundbreaking card carrier, but with his passing it lost a filmmaker that, based on the scant evidence, might have earned the movement yet wider attention with his devotion to quality, accessibly inventive entertainment.
Nine Queens’ follow-up, The Aura, released less than a year before Bielinsky’s death, somewhat upsets this convenient slotting of the director’s place amongst colleagues. It remains tethered to noir and thriller conventions, but more intently commits to probing character psychology and, with narrative obfuscations, stubborn silences, and stylistic mood swings, venturing outside assumed viewer comfort zones. It hints that Bielinsky was moving toward a more unconventional cinema before his death cut him short.
2000’s Nine Queens might be a trifle, but it’s a scampy and massively entertaining success on its own terms. It’s a thickly plotted heist picture about a seasoned con man (Ricardo Darín) and the seemingly clumsier newbie (Gastón Pauls) he takes under his wing. Together, the two stumble into a scheme to sell a rich, visiting Spaniard a fake set of the rare titular stamps. Like David Mamet’s House of Games or Heist, it’s a toybox of tricks and twists. For a first film, it’s remarkably slick, well-paced, and cleverly brought off, perhaps speaking to Bielinsky’s waiting until he was in his forties to make it, after decades spent creating amateur shorts and studying and teaching at Argentina’s Cinema Institute. As Gaston, Darín projects untrustworthy arrogance, while Pauls (a lookalike of American comic Mike Birbiglia) fakes oafish gullibility with his bland good looks and perpetually ajar mouth. Gregory Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh liked Nine Queens (and its huge box office success) so much that they remade it as 2004’s Criminal, with John C. Reilly and Diego Luna. It was only a mild indie success, but the exchange revealed Bielinsky’s crossover potential. The Aura, with its slack tempo and moody headiness, feels nothing like a cash-grabbing retread. In style, tone, and theme, it’s a retreat from Nine Queens’ fun but disposable snappiness that crucially refuses to junk fidelity to genre mechanics and atmosphere; it doesn’t trade kicks for pretension.
Ricardo Darín is back to play a sullen taxidermist of few words named Espinosa, who is blessed with a photographic memory and cursed with periodic epileptic seizures. When the film opens he is lying on a bank floor at night, surrounded by scattered receipts and blinking back to consciousness after a fit. Over the credits we see him plying his trade, sleeving bony fox frames with well-kept furs and pressing glass eyes into gummy sockets. His only friend (and the term should be used loosely, as neither displays affection for the other) is Sosa (Alejandro Awada), another taxidermist and museum supplier, with whom Espinosa shares his conception of the “perfect crime,” and how his own trick memory would help him pull it off, were he a criminal. Sosa invites him to go hunting in the Patagonian forest. Espinosa initially refuses; he’s repelled by the thought of killing animals, which is more ironic than indicative of taxidermic hypocrisy, but when he comes home to find that his wife has mysteriously left him, he agrees. A masterful series of frame matches in various transport vehicles gets the two briskly to their destination, where full hotels force them to shack up at a raggedy cabin tended by a young wife (Dolores Dietrich), a suspicious boy (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), and an even more suspicious dog.
Also as in Mamet—The Aura’s first half is like a more elegant The Edge—every spoken line is double-sided and potentially loaded. An argument between the two amateur hunters ends when Espinosa explodes out of nowhere, “You don’t know me!”, and accuses Sosa of wife-beating (perhaps a self-crimination?). There’s a crucial discussion between Espinosa and the cabin wife, as he explains the mental “shift”—which the doctors call an aura—that occurs right before he has a seizure. Far from finding it unpleasant, Espinosa relishes the aura because during this momentary segue his senses are heightened, and he finds the fact that he can do nothing to prevent the oncoming blackout liberating, which suggests a troubling affection for moral release that borders on sociopathy. After a seizure in the woods, while still seemingly in the grips of illness, Espinosa fires at what he thinks is a stag but turns out to be a specimen of the most dangerous game. Learning that his victim is a key player in an imminent heist of some kind, Espinosa is soon given a chance to apply his heretofore hobbyish interest in crime for potential real thrill and loot.
The plot grows only more labyrinthine from there, reeling in the cabin wife and boy, and continuously bringing back the symbolic dog that’s been hounding Espinosa since he arrived in Patagonia, but Bielinsky stacks plot points as engagingly as he piles on creeping dread. His palate is muted but not dull, with a sensitivity for Patagonia’s lush mysteries. There’s a tactility to the rain on leaves and the minutiae of Espinosa’s stuffed creations that puts you there with him, and makes his seizures all the more jarring. Espinosa listens to Vivaldi while in the taxidermy shop, but otherwise The Aura is soundtracked by a nearly constant plaintive piano drone, which, instead of lulling, keeps the viewer on edge and unclear about the state of the character’s mind. Darín is mesmerizing here, a seeming blank who discovers secrets along with the audience, but with time-bomb potentialities below. Any viewer can predict that a final, anticipated robbery will be complicated at a crucial moment by one of Espinosa’s fits, but it’s to Bielinsky and Darín’s credit that you don’t know how you want this to affect the results. The moral messiness, the character’s seeming innocence, excuses the admittedly gimmicky trick of the epileptic criminal, aligning the film with Memento (still Christopher Nolan’s best).
Nine Queens was dedicated to clever, slippery mindfucking, but it was mostly good for a laugh. The darker, more sophisticated Aura has clinging power beyond stunt theatrics. The ill but unflappable taxidermist at its center is sympathetic, but complicated enough that you can never fully figure him out—he doesn’t seem to understand himself, and Bielinsky isn’t after diagnoses. His acceptance of his “aura” hints at possible suicidal derangement, but when explained using his own peculiar logic, it’s understandable. The Aura’s chief concern at any given time is Espinosa’s precarious mental state, and it’s so foregrounded that it’s funny to call it a heist picture, even though it fulfills that genre’s suspense requirements. Had the director lived to make more movies, one could imagine that he would have pushed further into this odd abstraction of familiar genres, smuggling twisted character studies and unorthodox techniques into traditional frameworks. The kind of palatable avant-gardism in The Aura has the ability to both attract attention and move the form forward, and it takes a singular talent to execute it. In a too-brief career, Fabián Bielinsky could, and he did his part to raise both the conventional and experimental weight plates of the New Argentina Cinema.