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Toronto: Correspondences #8 — Pairs and Personas

Pablo Trapero’s incestuous “The Quietude” and Han Ka-ram’s fitness fantasy “Our Body” excavate mysteries shared between two women.
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Kelley Dong and Daniel Kasman.
Our Body
Dear Danny,
For me, one of the jarring components of a film festival is that temperatures are continually in flux, not only outside—it is much colder this week, as I'm sure you know—but also inside the theatre, where I go from one warm movie to a very cold one multiple times a day. I envy that you have seen, at very least, some of the finer genre films here; I myself have been seeing mostly blockbusters, with the occasional arthouse film of relatively smaller scale. But speaking of art cinema: To celebrate the centenary of Ingmar Bergman's birth, TIFF Cinematheque showed its 35mm print of his Persona at a free public screening, just one of an abundance of events offered here outside of the scheduled programming. Since its 1966 release, the film's Jungian merging of two women—with uncannily similar dispositions and divergent personalities—has had considerable influence over generations of filmmakers, so much so that its appearance as a formal device usually seems to be an over-zealous or underdeveloped gimmick.
In Pablo Trapero's The Quietude, the colliding identities of sisters Mia and Eugenia (Martina Gusman and Bérénice Bejo in identical haircuts, frequently mistaken for each other) is supposed to mirror their crumbling lives as daughters of a man charged with corruption. When their father suffers a near-fatal heart attack, Mia and Eugenia return to their estate—a large ranch named The Quietude—to console their mother, Esmeralda (Graciela Borges). In Trapero's last film, The Clan, a middle-class family becomes a cold-blooded, anti-communist killing machine, sponsored by ousted military officers. The Quietude, though also about a family complicit in the dictatorship's crimes, reframes the dynamic of The Clan with a group of women to whom men are merely objects. But the heartlessness of the film's spoiled sisters—pampered by a government-funded Parisian education—is not as despicable as it is pitiful, since it speaks to the callous constructions of Trapero himself.
It is immediately apparent that Mia and Eugenia's overlap is not a metaphor for the enforced conformity of wealthy families—or even a sign of dual, contradictory selves, as Bergman imagines—but a sneaky maneuver that sets up Trapero's depiction of sibling incest. Usually undressed in one another's company, the women kiss and caress one another in bed, masturbating side by side in close-ups of their nipples and thighs. Their sexual relationships with men—including Mia's affair with her sister's husband—are comparably dismal and defined by disloyalty. When apart or around larger groups, they cry and yell, unable to accept anything besides each other. Beneath The Quietude's shaky tonal shifts, each surpassing the other in baseness, there is Graciela's refusal to call the past government a "dictatorship", and the sisters' fear that they will lose their inheritance. But these utterances of political responsibility are mere asides. Nothing is as palpable, as meticulously framed, as the film's sex romps and its catty fights, like whether or not a home video was taken in 1996 or 1997. While seated in the theatre for Trapero's film, I recalled a superior Argentine film of intersecting duplicates, Matías Piñeiro's gently-composed Hermia & Helena, which sees two friends of a shared passion for Shakespeare wander adrift through New York City and Buenos Aires, one unknowingly walking in the other's footsteps.
The feature debut of Korean filmmaker Han Ka-ram—and my most anticipated film of this year's festival—Our Body is a mysterious enigma about another duo of women following and becoming one another, eating at each other until they come together as one whole. Ja-young is a part-time office worker with little ambition for the future; and Hyun-joo is the graceful fitness angel, a wealthy employee at a publishing house who leaps into Ja-young's world during her nightly jog. After choosing not to take her civil servant exams—a rejection of what many consider a guaranteed lifetime of job stability—Ja-young becomes mindlessly obsessed with Hyun-joo's body. Her fixation moves between jealousy and erotic desire; her gaze fleets from Hyun-joo's eyes to her nose, and then to her breasts. When the women become close friends, Ja-young begins to morph into a carbon copy of her new running mate, removing her glasses and wearing more form-fitting clothes, mimicking Hyun-joo's determined work ethic and liberated sex drive.
Without any overt, unifying formal aesthetic beyond its handheld images of Korean city life, Our Body is a deceptively plain allegory of women's desire to become the best version of themselves—only in body, and not mind or soul. In a slight modification to Bergman's Persona, Han slowly peels back layers of Hyun-joo's facade as she and Ja-young become more alike in physical appearance, pushing Ja-young closer to the brink of realization that she and Hyun-joo have always been exactly the same. A shocking end to their relationship forces the film to transition from a homoerotic fitness fable on overbearing friendships to a straightforward workplace drama about Ja-young's job in a company where women's bodies are commodities of labor, nothing more than pretty machines working at their computers. This, of course, is not a novel declaration in itself, and ironically, Han's pivot towards a more explicit critique of patriarchy dilutes the film's beguiling, longer-lasting nightmare that it conjures out of women's projections onto each other.
Beneath the duplicity and the disguises of Ja-young and Hyun-joo's closeness, there is the possibility that something resembling love exists here, even among two people who do not truly know each other or themselves. But by the time Our Body returns to these ideas at its very end, it is too late to retrieve lost substance. One cannot help but wish that we remained in the women's heads for a little longer, and not in a dull cubicle of a hostile office building. One particular image that I cannot forget, and find myself still pondering, is that of Ja-young and Hyun-joo lying on the floor, telling each other about their most coveted sexual fantasy. Ja-young confesses that she'd like to "do it" in an expensive hotel. Hyun-Joo laughs, and tells her that this is within reach, so it doesn't count; she does not specify why or how, only assuring Ja-young that if she wills, there is a way.
We are nearing the end of the festival. The theatres and the streets seem a bit emptier, but there still appears to be room for a few more greats to discover. How have you been?

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