Film Review: “Kékszakállú” — Obliquely Inspired by Bartók

What follows is a succession of images and tableaux static enough to make Michelangelo Antonioni look like an action-movie director.

Kékszakállú (2016) Directed by Gastón Solnicki. With Laila Maltz, Lara Tarlowski, Katia Szechtman, Denise Groesman, Pedro Trocca, and Natali Maltz. 72 minutes. In Spanish, with subtitles. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through October 27.

A scene in

One of the many bored adolescent females in “Kékszakállú,” screening at the MFA.

By Jeffrey Gantz

Béla Bartók’s A Kékszakállú herceg vára (“Duke Bluebeard’s Castle”) is a variation on Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard tale in which his wives are not physically murdered but rather locked inside the castle of his mind, turned into fantasies, memories. Argentine director Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú purports to have been inspired by Bartók’s one-act opera, though the Venice Film Festival description of it as “obliquely inspired” by Bartók seems closer to the mark. You could call the film itself “oblique.”

Running 72 minutes, barely longer than the opera, Kékszakállú has no soundtrack other than four excerpts from the work, and very little dialogue. It opens at what looks to be a municipal swimming pool where children are jumping from a board. A young girl walks to the edge, crouches, looks down, seems frozen. No points for guessing that’s the metaphor for the rest of the film.

What follows is a succession of images and tableaux static enough to make Michelangelo Antonioni look like an action-movie director. Ocean surf. Boys preparing surfboards. A dark-haired girl sunbathes while her mother asks her whether she doesn’t want to go to the pool with a friend. Shades are drawn and windows opened. Four girls play cards. A girl in a minimal bikini top says “I miss you” to someone on the phone. A young man does push-ups and swims in a pool. A long-haired girl tells her boyfriend she prefers sushi to paella. A guy buttons his shirt wrong and has to start over. We see various couples in shorts and swimsuits.

After 16 minutes, we hear the opera on the soundtrack; it’s the moment when Judit asks Kékszakállú about the women he loved before her. Only then do the opening credits roll. For the next few minutes, the film takes up the themes of the opera. The dark-haired girl looks at a massive collection of dead beetles, pinned under glass as if they were Kékszakállú’s wives. We see shutters being released, as if in hopes of escape. Yet Solnicki’s outside world is all sterile white, industrial parks, soulless flats, whitewashed interiors. It’s as if this were the prison his women need to escape from.

Bits of narrative gradually emerge, though the characters, for the most part, continue to go unnamed. Four girls cook up an octopus, after which one of them confesses how hard it is to be out on her own, how when she was living with her family she could come home and the fridge would be full. A tousle-haired blonde (Laila Maltz) exercises unenthusiastically in a park with her boyfriend or, more likely, a trainer. Her family wants her to get a job, so she enters the world of alienating machinery and workers in shower caps and face masks and noise-canceling headphones sorting Styrofoam. Later we see her looking to go to school; she says she’s never talked to anyone who had the problem she does, of not knowing what to study. She does mention architecture or industrial design. Then she’s driving around in a parking lot, practicing and managing to back into the only other car there. She calls her mother and dissolves into tears.

What Solnicki is showing us is an Argentina (we see the flag in an industrial park) of the aimless and apathetic. The adolescent women are infantile, or infantilized, as when two of them discuss whether a snow globe they have is Disney. The camera ogles them, inviting us to do the same, as they parade about in shorts, bikinis, and miniskirts; at one point the blonde is topless. Is Solnicki unconsciously objectifying these women, or does he mean his film to be a self-critique? In any case, the men are hardly better off, whether stuck in boring factory jobs or merely bored at home. There’s no culture in the film (apart from the scene where the dark-haired girl takes in a movie about the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in an empty theater), no sports, no politics. No sex, really. It’s mostly swimming and eating.

The extracts from the opera shed little light. The blonde’s study quandary leads into the moment where Judit bangs on the first of Kékszakállú’s seven doors and the castle sighs in reply. The last two opera segments focus on the moment when Kékszakállú gives Judit the key to the seventh door and she sees his former wives, all living, inside. “Obliquely inspired” indeed. At least the recording is a good one, a 1965 Decca release with István Kertész directing Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

No consequences attend the blonde’s parking-lot mishap. We see her on a bridge over water, but she doesn’t jump. She talks with a woman who might be her grandmother about the difficulties of going abroad, to Brazil perhaps. Wearing a sexy black dress and heels, she walks out on the ledge of her home and looks down, though it’s not far to the earth below. She strips down to her bikini and wades into the ocean; you might think she means to end it all, but it’s just another swim. At the end, she takes her roller suitcase and goes off, hitching a ride on a motorcycle (in a shot where she’s marginalized and barely visible), winding up on what looks like an airline freight elevator as the dark closes in. “Dark” is the word the opera ends on, a synonym for the depth of human despair. In Solnicki’s film, it’s just another name for obscurity.

Jeffrey Gantz was for 20 years arts editor of the Boston Phoenix, where he wrote about film, theater, books, art, music, and dance. He currently writes for the Boston Globe and the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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