By Laura Langer Rossi
Named as one of the best undistributed films of 2016 by Film Comment and IndieWire and selected as one of Artforum's ten best films of 2016, Kékszakállú is a daring step beyond what we understand as cinema. Storytelling hangs by a thread on the debut feature by the acclaimed Argentine filmmaker Gastón Solnicki, while the architectonical beauty fills the screen with compelling visuals and the pointed insertions of Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle—from where the movie draws inspiration—works as a pulling force making this tale about Latin American aristocracy evolve.
In anticipation for the much awaited U.S. distribution of this films which premieres this week in New York City, Solnicki spoke to TropicalFRONT about his creative process in Kékszakállú, an official selection at the Venice, Toronto, and New York film festivals. Our talk allows some insight in his contributions to cinema, raising inquietudes and calling for reflection on the limits of the medium.
Despite their privileged position in society, the youth in Kékszakállú lacks any real excitement about their present lives and no will power to shape their futures. The imagery, however, circunscribe this stagnation in socio-economical terms that surpass a generational critique. What issues did you wish to tackle with Kékszakállú?
The mystery in the film is a function of the mysterious approach to production and narrative strategies. While immersing in the world of Kékszakállú, my longing was to take on Bartok’s spectral approach to the folksong. Namely, to go out in the field with a camera and a small group of friends thinking of two things: Cinema and fiction. Naturally we began documenting the landscapes and thus we met our characters and discovered our locations. There were no preconceived goals or ideas to be illustrated on the film. How we ended up portraying this youthful characters is also somewhat enigmatic to me. I guess they were those whose suffering was more accessible, and in many ways, at a summer resort where adults hide behind transparent walls, these teenagers were coming toward us, calling our attention and offering to be filmed.
Having in mind the creative process in your documentaries, where the structure is inserted after shooting the material, one can’t help but see in Kékszakállú a similar approach. Indeed, the performances seems to contain a degree of spontaneity. Is this accurate?
The settings were one of the starting points for the narrative. There we found the characters, the conflicts, the materials we needed to build the story. First in Uruguay, later in Argentina. It was hard to organize a shooting without defined characters and defined locations. Sometimes it worked, other times it did not. Everything was very spontaneous. We would begin filming a certain actor at a certain location with little ideas of what what might happen. The degree of confusion and possibilities was overwhelming, yet fertile in a way. I think of this film as a transition to fiction, not in the way that such a direction has an end, but as direction on which to go.
Could you tell us more about the differences and similarities in your creative process when working on the fiction format?
The main formal difference between Kékszakállú and my previous work is the choice of leaving the camera on the tripod and to keep some physical distance. The single 40mm lens approach made a big difference. It helped us not to lose sight of the architectural context and landscapes in which the film was taking place, but also not to emphasize it.
Another key element in Kékszakállú is the aesthetic treatment of architecture which, apart from embedding a social critique, stands out by the aesthetic value of each composition on its own. That is, elements architecture and painting—in addition to the already mentioned theater—abound in your cinematic language. Can you talk about this compound format your film seems to possess?
It was the very matter we chose to begin working with. At first there was no synopsis and no script. Our sole approach was: Bartók in Punta del Este. A producer told me: “It’s very interesting, but it’s not enough…”. But we met our characters and found our locations as we jumped into production. Soon we learned that a summer resort designed for leisure where wealthy people lock themselves in, is a very fertile place. We were trying to figure out what we were doing.
Architecture was laying there at our chosen summer resort and it was what came first. One of the most emblematic scenes of the film when Laila get’s locked in in her house and walks through the roof was one of the most improvised in the whole film, as light was vanishing and so were our first days of shooting without one single accomplished scene.
Although you film borrows from Béla Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the inspiration is clearly very detached from it. What interested you in this particular piece, and how was the process of adapting it to cinema?
I’ve been very involved with Bartók’s music for many years and specially to his own piano recordings. The discovery of his only opera was very important to me. It took me a long time to develop the film. The inspiration is based on a broad assortment of correspondences with the opera itself, but also with the subject. For instance with Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door and the beautiful idea that architecture can inspire murder; Or Lubitsch’s Bluebeard. Listening to the opera, the “musical vulcano in permanent eruption” as Bartók’s friend Kodaly once described it, I assembled all kinds of cinematic materials to work with.
The film is very economical in acoustic information, yet - and likely due to it—music becomes a central element on the film. In fact, the emotions evoked by these musical outbursts seem to be one of the key components in making the narrative advance. Can you tell us about this use of music as a somewhat organizing force?
I never wanted to represent the original elements of the folktale but rather to breath the atmosphere of both the Opera and the context in which it was written. Eventually I thought it would be interesting to begin filming in Uruguay with these feelings at hand. It’s a very sympathetic approach, we used the dynamic range and cinematic elements from the Opera yet almost nothing else. I do believe something very special happens with the bursts of music in the film and how they function with the narrative.
On his review for Sight & Sound, Jordan Cronk calls the film “an invigorating vision of cinema’s continued vitality”, stating the film has reached an "uncharted territory”. Is innovation a concern for you as a filmmaker? What territories are you interested in exploring?
Naturally, I’m trying to work more by intuition than based on traditional techniques. However, it’s all very mixed. I sure wasn’t very conscious about many things while engaging on the project, and once you are in, you just try to not betray the materials you chose. My transition to fiction is framed by a desire to build a narrative from fragments that worked as highly cinematographic stimulus rather than the respecting the logic of traditional dramatic development. With that, I favour the materials that contain, each one by itself, all the fruitful atemporality of narration.
Distributed in the U.S. by Cinema Tropical in collaboration with Cinema Slate, Kékszakállú opens in New York on Friday, June 21, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. More information and advance tickets now on sale here.