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2018 Berlin Film Festival Review: ‘The Heiresses’

Synopsis: Due to bank debts, an elderly woman’s long life companion gets sent to jail. She is then left to contemplate on her past and future.

There comes a time when one starts to question their choices. But sometimes it takes a large loss to actually reach that point of questioning – and in other cases, a loss somewhere is a gain elsewhere. Marcelo Martinessi’s THE HEIRESSES presents a slow-burn, intimate and intriguing character study of an elderly woman who reaches this point of questioning after a string of forced losses – both material and emotional – and goes on a journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening.

Chela (a superb and understated Ana Brun) is an elderly woman who inherited her fancy home and has a girlfriend (Chiquita, played by Margarita Irún) who lives with her. The two lead a seemingly stale life with no surprises in sight until a bank debt threatens their possessions. Martinessi opens the film with Chela’s house being turned into some sort of domestic showroom where visitors flock to buy the furniture, the table sets and anything they could find. Soon after, Chiquita is sent to prison by a court order and Chela is left to get by without her partner.

Two main events occupy the film’s entire runtime – and they both serve as coherent metaphors to the same notion that Martinessi is addressing in the film. As Chela’s house starts to lose its furniture and paintings, Chela herself is grappling with living without her partner. She undergoes these two losses but only then does she start to be open to who she really is and what she ultimately wants. Martinessi toys with concepts of marriage, love, possession and sexuality in marvelous ways, choosing to put Chela in several situations that, while seemingly have no shocking elements or melodrama, do awaken her senses and force her to question her desires. It’s only when the house is without a partner, and her life takes a solitary turn, that she starts seeing beyond the clutter.

Several prison scenes take place between Chela as a visitor and Chiquita as a prisoner – and they’re superbly executed in a way that cleverly uses physical space and mise-en-scene to subtly depict the growing distance between the two women. In their first prison encounter, they’re sitting close to each other, with their life together still ringing true. But it’s soon afterwards that Chela – perhaps subliminally and unconsciously at first – starts to understand the true nature of her habitual relationship with Chiquita. As the visits go by, Martinessi places the two women further and further apart – between bars, walls or other people – and it is clear that Chela is even doing these visits by habit – and not passion.

This realization leads her to be open to other experiences that were once not on her radar. Being a proud woman with repressed desire, she resists meeting new people at first only then to end up as a car driver who drops her lady neighbors on a daily basis. Her resistance – to being a driver and to up her social skills and spend more time with people – turns into a quiet pleasure as she soon becomes part of a social circle. But an interesting encounter awakens her repressed sexuality and Martinessi excels in portraying the cold relationship between Chela and Chiquita and makes the audience wonder if they were ever in love or was that, too, just a habit that was too comfortable to break or too convenient to question.

Martinessi addresses marriage, love and loyalty in several interesting ways here, and even though the film is quite subtle, understated and without any dramatic fireworks, several dialogue-heavy sequences serve the director’s narrative choices, particularly related to the main character’s psychological, sexual and identity dilemmas. The film is mostly a character study of a woman in quiet crisis, and as her house becomes emptier as every day goes by, her past life seems to vanish too. New desires and questions arise and the final 20 minutes of the film powerfully tie the loose ends and shows Martinessi’s deliberate approach of telling a slow-burn but carefully crafted story that engages throughout despite some slight pacing issues.

Verdict: Smart, subtle and well-acted, THE HEIRESSES is an intimate character drama with interesting questions and nuanced storytelling. It may be best suited for more patient arthouse crowds but it’s an experience that is ultimately rewarding particularly on an intellectual level.

Grade: B+

Mina Takla

Mina Takla is a foreign correspondent for AwardsWatch and the co-founder of The Syndicate, an online news agency that offers original content services to several film brands including Empire Magazine’s Middle East edition and the Dubai Film Festival. Takla has attended, covered and written from over 10 film festivals online including the Dubai International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Cannes, Venice and Annecy Film Festivals. He has been following the Oscar race since 2000 with accurate, office-pool winning predictions year after year. He writes monthly in Empire Arabia, the Arabic version of the world’s top cinema magazine and conducts press junkets with Hollywood stars in the UK and the US. He holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Marketing from Australia’s Wollongong University and is currently based in Dubai, UAE.

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