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Friday, February 05, 2021

Azul el mar (2019) Sabrina Moreno

AZUL EL MAR (2019/Sabrina MORENO/Argentina)

The sea is not blue. The sea has no colour. It only appears to be blue because of the reflection of the blue sky. This overture statement puts into question the reality our eyes cannot see. The sea is blue in our eyes, but they are deceived by the laws of physics ; in fact the water is transparent. This is a conundrum that will distract our mind while we watch Azul el mar (titled An Ocean Blue in English).

In Mar Del Plata, a perfect middle class family of 6, with 4 children (2 boys, 2 daughters), is taking a vacation trip to the ocean. This is the 90ies because there is no cellphones, children listen to a cassette player, play Simon, and take argentic pictures with an old reflex camera… As the days at the beach unfold, we grow wary of the realism of images. Everything seems normal until the montage goes distorted, deconstructing the pretty memories of this trip into a meticulous introspection. Flashback, daydreaming, fantasy, alternate reality… the explanation could be a number of things really, and keeps the film mysterious until the end.

Within a nearly square Academy ratio (4:3), Sabrina Moreno encloses her characters into a box of claustrophobic dimensions, especially in the many close ups. The closer inspection of Lola’s face (the perfect mother and wife played by Umbra Colombo) puts her apart from the family, as if distanciated, alienated. Taken aback all of a sudden, she disconnects from reality and invents another succession of events. Lola is not totally happy. Her mind wanders on and on, as her children feel abandonned. Not to mention, Ricardo, her husband, who also feels neglected or unloved.

The absence of offscreen space during the close ups, isolates, if not decapitates, these silent heads. There are no countershots either to reveal what these inscrutable heads are looking on, depriving us of an immediate understanding. Once her daughter leaves the shot, as she was walking hand in hand with her mother, she doesn’t exist anymore, and Lola is all alone, visually in the frame, as much as existentially in her life. Few wide shots feature the whole family together as a happy unit.

One precious finding of this mise en scène, is the dual split of Lola on screen, with a superimposition of two transparent takes of the same shot, going in different direction. Lola walks up one dune outside a forest, and becomes transparent as another Lola walks in from the opposite side of the frame, until they cross path and the second Lola turns solid again as the first Lola vanishes. This clever trick illustrates in visual form the inner conflict of the main character, and her craving for an escape of her alternate self, a happier doppleganger. And this without being obvious or didactic, because these shots are dissociated from the rest of the film.

The inventive discontinuous editing creates an uncertain feeling of being lost. Not only due, in small parts, to jump-cuts but to the removal of intermediary scenes also. Two consecutive events are disconnected or simply interrupted. For instance, the kids play on the shore. The sequence is decomposed into four views without transition : the kids knee-deep in the sea, Lola looking for the kids, a Black&White aerial shot (with double exposure) of the kids swimming around Lola, the empty yet menacing sea. Four universes disconnected and juxtaposed in a revolving montage without resolution or closure. In the next sequence the kids are (safe) dressed and taking pictures with sea-lions.

This device is the polar opposite of the long plan sequence operated by Alfonso Cuaron at the very end of Roma (2018). It is more similar to an impressionistic montage à la Maya Deren (At Land, 1944), or the creative editing of Sueño y Silencio (2012) by Jaime Rosales.

Ricardo notices a smile on Lola’s face turning upside down into a slight frown. He ignores still that it will become a turning point in their life. As an argentinian Jeanne Dielman (1975, Chantal Akerman), Lola, the perfect mother, steps in a tragic state of mind, after sharing with her husband of many years, that she contemplates taking a second job. He rejects the idea upfront, without discussion. The rest of the film will show Lola realising how subordinate is her role in the family. This is a film that ends on a hopeful sight, but could go the way of La Influencia (2007, Pedro Aguilera) or Una Novia Errante (2007, Ana Katz)… 

But the atmosphere really reminds me of Lucrecia Martel’s La Mujer Sin Cabeza (2008) or La Cineaga (2001), even if Moreno gives it its unique style with the painstaking editing process previously described. Martel goes for naturalism and long takes of realism. Moreno prefers the staccato montage of shorter takes and dreamlike visions. The film retains certain contemplative qualities (in spite of the faster montage), because of the sparse mundane dialogue and the accumulation of slices of life out of context that form a coherent whole, an experiential trip without denouement.

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