Life Under Anesthesia: The Sly Humor of Martín Rejtman

Argentinian director Martín Rejtman upends causality and maintains a deadpan humor all the while dealing with dark and fragile subjects.
Ela Bittencourt

MUBI's retrospective Melancholy & Deadpan: The Films of Martín Rejtman is showing September – November, 2019.

The Magic Gloves

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” Samuel Beckett wrote in The Unnamable. A similar motto underlines the sly, darkly humorous films of the Argentine filmmaker Martín Rejtman. In an interview with Film Comment, after the premiere of his film, The Magic Gloves (2003), at the Locarno Film Festival, Rejtman commented on the stupendous amounts of anti-depressives that his characters take in the movie: “It’s a way of showing how in life you go on, and things don’t affect you so much, and you still go on, and you still go on.” Asked whether his characters are depressed, Rejtman noted that a personal echo of his father’s manic-depressive illness might, in a small way, tinge his films. The depression is certainly a recurring theme; it re-appears in Rejtman’s latest short, Shakti (2019), whose young protagonist undergoes a therapy treatment, yet spirals further down into depression. But, as Rejitman’s quote reveals, the inefficacy of therapy, and particularly the psychotropic drugs, are first and foremost a side effect of the existential perplexity that Rejtman’s characters experience. Their lives are passing, without singular events, spiked lows or particular highs, which, even if and when they happen, are immediately deflated. There’s a sense of it all slipping away; a life—and cinema—stripped of the three-act structure, of pronounced character development or demonstrative arcs.

What remains? For one thing, Rejtman’s fierce representation of chance as a governing force. In The Magic Gloves, the story begins when one night an unfulfilled rock-and-roll musician turned businessman, nicknamed Piranha (Fabián Arenillas), takes a taxi. Piranha recognizes the driver as his old-time schoolmate. They may not have been close—in fact, Piranha thinks that Alejandro (Vicentico) was a classmate of his brother, Luis (Luis, when he later appears, will not recognize Alejandro). But that’s enough for Piranha to have Alejandro over to his house, and soon settled in Alejandro’s apartment. Alejandro has just broken up with Cecilia (Cecilia Biagini), and is glad to have a place—he returns the favor by giving Piranha and his wife, Susana (Susana Pampín), taxi rides. Things expand from here: Susana takes an unusual interest in Cecilia, believing her to be depressed. Soon enough, the susceptible Cecilia is depressed, and goes off to a resort arranged by Susana (who happens to be a travel agent). Cecilia comes back from the trip with a stewardess, Valeria (Valeria Bertuccelli)—Alejandro picks them up at the airport and soon enough Alejandro and Valeria are dating. It’s all a constantly moving ensemble, people switching love interests, and yet retaining the same insular circle of friends and lovers—a touch that seems to hint at Buenos Aires’s ingrained provincialism, and one mark of Rejtman’s cinema that is a clear antecedent to the films of Matías Piñeiro, Alejandro Moguillansky, and, to a lesser extent, Mariano Llínas.

To a much greater extent than these younger filmmakers Rejtman upends causality, or any sense of plausibility. Take Cecilia’s extreme susceptibility to the idea that she is depressed—she fiercely denies it, then genuinely spirals into depression; almost simultaneously, Susana, who first got Cecilia onto a heavy dosage of antidepressants that numbed her (and were apparently prescribed illegally by Susana’s doctor friend), succumbs to depression herself. In an absurdist twist, Cecilia, her depressive dog-walking boyfriend, and Susana form an inseparable trio, which then proceeds spending time together on a park bench or watching television in Cecilia’s bed. Where other filmmakers might spend the entire film exploring how a state as severe as maniacal depression evolves, in Rejtman’s films, the condition simply is. It can appear out of nowhere, not substantiated by filmic action, and disappear just as rapidly. Cecilia, for example, gets cured seemingly immediately, when she meets a crew from a foreign porn film, and ends up in Canada. Rejtman’s style is so deadpan it deliberately toys with psychology.

Silvia Prieto

This toying is wonderfully pointed in Rejtman’s adaptation of his novel, Silvia Prieto (1999), in which relationships are stitched together as much by personal preferences as by random passing off of objects. In the film, the young woman Silvia Prieto (Rosario Bléfari) meets a foreigner with a fancy designer jacket, which she then gives to her ex-boyfriend who sells it to a friend. The jacket makes rounds, slowly bringing fringe characters, such as the foreigner, into the inner circle. There are other objects as well: Silvia’s friend, Brite (Valeria Bertuccelli), meets her future boyfriend when she is selling detergent in the streets. Economy—so dire for so long in Argentina—is, in fact, its own subset of humor in Rejtman’s films. In Silvia Prieto, the economic dysfunction heightens the sense of happenstance, as particularly the male characters repeatedly fail at jobs, living in their girlfriends’ apartment—but when these kick them out, crashing with male friends. Rejtman never dwells on these fragilities, however; they are but passing traits in his ensemble comedies.

Which doesn’t mean that Rejtman’s films are shallow, far from it. His debut feature, Rapado (1999), also adapted from his own novel by the same title, which, as the prominent Argentine critic Quintín noted in his essay on Rejtman for Film Comment, gave rise to the New Argentine Cinema—before that term was consecrated, in association with Lucrecia Martel and others—is fueled by subtle yet unrelenting unease. It opens with the young protagonist, Lucio (Ezequiel Cavia), being mugged one night, at knifepoint. Lucio has given a ride on his motorbike to another male, who then forces Lucio to surrender his money, sneakers, and bike. In fact, both Rapado and The Magic Gloves feature automotive objects tied to masculinity. In The Magic Gloves, Alejandro’s car is much more than the means to earn a salary. When Alejandro gets rid of it, involved in a capitalist schemes to make quick cash off of sales of cheap plastic gloves from China (“magic gloves”), he realizes how much the car meant to him. Stripped of his meager possession, Alejandro finds himself roaming streets with a remote key, to open random cars. The greatest pleasure turns out to be taking a car for a ride, shielding oneself off, music blasting.

In Rapado, Rejtman repeatedly finds humor in dreadful scenarios, as when Lucio (Ezequiel Cavia) is asked to also give up his watch, he suddenly recalls where he left it, so the robbery also ironically leads to a small recovery. The action proceeds without high drama: Lucio borrows money from his friend, which turns out to be fake, so he walks home barefoot that night, meeting a young stranger on the way. The dialogue, similarly to the best of French New Wave films, often runs in snaky non-sequiturs. When Lucio’s friend grandiosely pronounces, “This [the mugging] is going to change your life,” Lucio responds in a blasé, evasive beat, “Life. What’s your shoe size?” Yet Lucio has clearly been robbed. In the literal sense, as he spends the rest of the film trying to get a motorcycle—not necessarily his—by any means, including theft. But also more than that. Immediately after the event, Lucio shaves his hair. His crew cut, like a soldier’s, steels his body for what comes next. Is it crime he’s preparing for? In one attempted theft, he will be chased by a motorcycle’s owner, a young man who looks just like him—and who ends up spitting on him. What exactly takes place in this ambiguous sequence? Neither the crew cut scene nor the doubling is an exigency of the plot. Instead, they both hint at Lucio’s exploration of his identity. He becomes close to the young stranger whom he meets on the night that he is mugged. The two will eventually sleep in the same bed—an image that isn’t sexual, but that nevertheless hints at yet another inflection point in Lucio’s exploration of his identity, particularly as next morning Lucio and the young man’s family are reassembled at a family breakfast table, a convivial scene that on some level already hints at greater intimacy. All this suggestiveness happens on the fringes of action, en passant. And yet, as often happens in Rejtman’s films, we are left feeling that en passant is the essence of our existence, it is life itself. It’s all so small and happens too fast; life gone in a blink, yes, but there are jewels hidden in these tiny moments, as prosaic, blasé or even numbed as they are. 

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