PRIVATE LIVES (Fito Páez, 2001)

From Argentina, a fine romantic melodrama and backdoor national historical tragedy, Private LivesVidas privadas—suggests the work of a more politically minded, less theatrical Pedro Almodóvar. The source of the resemblance may be the film’s star, Cecilia Roth, who has since starred in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002). Roth, giving here her finest performance, is the wife of singer-songwriter Fito Páez, who wrote (along with Alan Pauls) and directed Private Lives, drawing upon facts and incidents from Roth’s own life. This is a very courageous film for the spousal team to have made—one that tweaks more than a little the title it has been given. Indeed, for the characters in the film at least, what shocking family secrets keep tumbling out—revelations entwined with Argentina’s 1976 military takeover, and the murder and imprisonment of dissidents that ensued. Páez’s elliptical film is almost as intriguing as Luis Puenzo’s Oscar-winning La historia oficial (The Official Story, 1985).

Roth plays Cármen Uranga, a married woman in her early forties who returns to Buenos Aires from Madrid, Spain, unaccompanied, after a twenty years’ absence that followed the political murder of her first husband (whose name was Rosemberg—one of Roth’s own family names) and the presumed death during her imprisonment of their son, who in reality was confiscated and adopted by a military man. It is with this 22-year-old boy—unbeknownst to her, her own biological son—that Cármen falls in love and has an affair. Haunted by memories of her ordeal, including the loss of spouse and child, Cármen attempts suicide. When Gustavo, the boy, finds out the truth about his origins, he murders his “father,” his biological father’s killer, it is implied. At the last, Cármen visits Gustavo in prison. When in the yard two other prisoners stare at them, presumably because of the perplexing combination of their age difference and Cármen’s tenderness toward Gustavo, Cármen snaps back, “Haven’t you seen a mother and son before?” It is one of several outbursts of comedy in this generally restrained, tonally complex piece of work.

Roth herself left Buenos Aires for Madrid in 1976, returning in 1995.

Cármen returns to Argentina on family business; also, her father is dying. Similar business—the transference of property—is scheduled to take place between father and son Bertolini, Rodolfo and Gustavo. (Rodolfo is Páez’s actual first name.) Cármen’s father dies after the completion of their transaction and before Cármen learns that Gustavo is her son; Rodolfo dies at Gustavo’s hand, thus aborting the transaction between them, on the heels of the boy’s learning his actual family history—a kind of mirror-image reversal of his mother’s situation. Throughout, there is an insinuation that paternity is an illusion—Páez’s backdoor assault on entrenched Latin American faith in patriarchy. This film is riddled with such wit, but when Gustavo at hospital, after he has learned the truth, announces he will vomit but can only manage to spit, the actor playing the part, Gael García Bernal, doesn’t seem in on the joke. (I was certainly glad that the boy didn’t stab his eyes out.) Bernal gives an earnest performance, but it isn’t up to the demands of the role, and he becomes the film’s principal weakness. Too often Bernal emotes, like an acting-class amateur, instead of acting the part. (Since this film, some of his acting has been electric.)

Besides giving a lovely performance, Roth is, of course, ravishingly beautiful; nowhere else is she more so than here. The film’s glorious first movement—what a wind-up before the politico-historical pitch!—is taken up by Cármen’s perverse sexuality. A go-between arranges to bring Gustavo, a successful model in her stable, together with Cármen, an old friend. Cármen has rented an apartment for herself for her return visit to Buenos Aires; there, with a door between them, Gustavo has sex with a girl his own age while Cármen, on her side, responds (mucho!) vicariously. (Cármen applies her pocketbook to all this—one imagines, generously.) At the conclusion of this wonderfully weird event, Cármen—perhaps it’s at this point I should suggest that you roll around her name in your mind—tells Gustavo that next time he should come alone. Next time, we are expecting sex between Cármen and Gustavo, but they remain on opposite sides of the door—only, this time, Gustavo reads pornography to Cármen, who, unperturbed by recent “scientific” studies, responds with gusto. The readings continue for a while, but eventually the two end up in bed, that is to say, on the same side of the door. Cármen may think better than taking up with a boy, but Gustavo’s pursuit of her gets her back into his embrace. It’s a case of missing mother/missing son coming and staying together, with neither the wiser; and it all goes down smoothly because we don’t yet know they are mother and son, as they themselves in fact do not, and because Páez spares us a view of the two making love. Why should he, when the spectacle of Cármen reaching orgasm through purely aural stimulation has fulfilled our needs and desires as movie-watchers? Anything more would be conventional, gratuitous.

The eroticism of Cármen’s sex-alone scenes jolt, astonish, move. However, the film’s value equally resides—perhaps principally resides—in the trenchant metaphor that its twisted family revelations provides for the legacy of relatively recent political history. Ultimately, Private Lives refers to Argentina, where family secrets abound, and where there may be too much shared history that people are loath to talk about with one another. Alone-history is no more helpful than alone-sex.

This is an interesting film.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s