“Who are you? Where do you come from?”
Fabián Bielinsky’s sudden death last summer makes an unfortunate backstory to his two features, The Aura and Nine Queens, yet even this limited legacy has much to offer. Like his hero, Billy Wilder, Bielinsky understood the crucial element of play, no matter how dark the material. His characters never rely on any system, legal or social. Though markedly different, both films share a fascination with games and play. Ricardo Darín, the spectacular lead in both, is arguably as crucial to the director as Mastroianni to Fellini, Mifune to Kurosawa, or De Niro to Scorsese. Bielinsky’s films depend on collaborations with his actors and even with the audience — not least because El Turco, a character spoken of but never seen, sets each story in motion. El Turco is Bielinsky’s Godot, the director, like Samuel Beckett, mesmerized by passivity and repetition.
Nine Queens refers to a set of rare Weimar-era stamps that make 24-hour partners of two grifters in Buenos Aires. From the opening shot until the final scam, not one transaction is what it seems and nobody is exactly who they appear. In a film of elaborate set-ups, none is more complex than the way Bielinsky delightfully rooks the viewer. Yet the characters feel substantial, credible and deceptively known. Glimpses of Buenos Aires, though locally true, also give it an Everycity quality; the story is imaginable in just about any industrial city. Darín infuses his arch-schemer with an unexpected vulnerability; he can be scruffy and elegant from moment to moment, strangely passive for someone whose life depends on quick action. There’s an odd pleasure to being well conned, and it makes Bielinsky’s final scene as exhilarating as “Il Ballo del Mattone,” the running-joke Rita Pavone song that sees the film out.
The Aura offers far more complexity, not least because Bielinsky set the action in Bariloche, the southern Argentine wilderness itself of many aspects: dense, Brothers Grimm-style forests give way to vast plains to match the lonesome majesty of the North American west. But the film itself looks dank, almost colorized. As an epileptic taxidermist, Darín plays a severe solitary. One of the more pleasing results of this is that the taxidermy, which could have felt contrived, becomes metaphoric: accustomed to his careful, perfect reconstructions of the dead, he has a hard time with the living. Or even with life itself, his passivity a scrim on which life seems less to pass him by than to be projected out of his reach. In the one montage where he travels from the city to the wilderness, he remains seated throughout, beginning with the edge of his bed and culminating in the passenger-seat of his friend’s jeep. From the opening shot, when Darín is shown recovering from a fit at an ATM (one of many instances in which machines supposedly at our command seem to have a life of their own: the insistent dinging of the ATM receipt bell works like a voice; a shredder in Nine Queens has a similarly droning effect), Bielinsky focuses on the before and after of a fit, never showing Darín full-on. Using sound to great effect, the director scores Darín’s fits with what you might hear on popping the door to the space shuttle, the aural link to Darín’s description of onset as “like a door opened in your head.” Most important for this passive character is the idea that there’s no choice, no alternative, “nothing for you to decide. You surrender yourself.” He goes through life like this, taking what’s offered — even, ultimately, the dog of someone he’s inadvertently killed.
Dreams are key to both films, though in Nine Queens it’s the more clear-cut idea of a payday that frees you from the daily grind. The Aura‘s taxidermist (who is never named) has an abstract fascination with executing the perfect crime. Material gain plays no part; rather, such an extreme seems to offer this exile a way into human society. His life is mostly going through the motions, beset, in many ways, by his photographic memory, which allows nothing to disappear, one of several close parallels to Jorge Luis Borges’ Funes the Memorious.
A similar outside-ness informs both films. The rest of the world is there to be manipulated, played with. At the same time, Bielinsky never lets us forget the artifice of filmmaking itself. Shots often involve characters moving from foreground to back, in tableau shots set up almost like gameboards; we watch the characters move into another world.
Bielinsky thrived on self-referential worlds. The centrality of a brother-sister pair in each film is another permutation of this idea. Though these are uneasy, tension-filled relationships, they also suggest the irretrievable past that constantly plays out in the present for these characters, whose lives are still closely bound: working together in Nine Queens, living together in The Aura. As they navigate Buenos Aires’s back alleys, the protagonists of Nine Queens reveal a parallel hustler realm, with its own hierarchies and marketplaces. In many instances the same dialogue is spoken by different characters, as, for instance, when Darín reveals his philatelic knowledge goes only so far as that stamps are “square and sticky,” precisely the way the stamp-owner’s wife later describes her late husband. In The Aura, not only does dialogue repeat, but gestures and body positions, particularly the three instances of how we first see the taxidermist on the ATM floor. Crime-scene-ready, he lies with one leg bent against the knee of the other, more likely dead than alive.
Despite their tight narratives, Bielinsky’s films pose questions about the suppositions and assumptions most film viewers make, even about the very act of viewing itself. The taxidermist especially is remote, unable to be in life except as a kind of fill-in. Even in the midst of a shoot-out, he seems invisible to those taking part, protected by his semi-existence. Later in the film, deep into a heist, one of his unwilling associates accosts him: “Who are you? Where do you come from?” as if unable to imagine this man is flesh and blood. What he responds to is the taxidermist’s lack of affect, the profound uninvolvement that allows him to watch even a gunfight as if at a screening. Though his plotting and techniques drew largely on traditions of Wilder and other established masters, Bielinsky set challenges as far-reaching as Michael Haneke’s in Code Unknown and Caché about our roles as actors and witnesses and about the soothing passivity so easily abetted by standing by and watching, watching, watching.