Sundance 2020: Voyeuristic Mise en Scène

Josephine Decker's "Shirley" and Maite Alberdi's "The Mole Agent" deliver voyeuristic pleasures and mysterious mise en scène.
Ela Bittencourt

Above: Josephine Decker's Shirley

There’s a book I’ve been dying to read on the history of the color yellow. Nothing reminded me more how urgently I need to read it than Josephine Decker’s sumptuously filmed fiction feature, Shirley, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and in whose art design, yellow plays a crucial role. Sundance is also where Decker premiered her critically acclaimed indie film, Madeline’s Madeline (2018), about an unstable young woman aspiring to be an actress, and locked in a troubled relationship with her mother. But while in Madeline's Madeline Decker used disorienting camera movements, often in extreme close-ups to her protagonist, to build up tension, she deploys these tools sparingly in her new film, to dramatic effect.

In Shirley, a famous writer (in real life, the horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson), played with searing intensity and crackling dark humor by Elisabeth Moss, is in a creative and psychological slump. But then she’s suddenly forced to receive two recently married guests—the exhilarating ingénue Rose (Odessa Young) and her beloved, Fred (Logan Lerman). Fred has been hired as an assistant to Shirley’s husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), to lift off his professorial load. And so the two become a four.

As expected—think Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Edward Albee’s (original) and Mike Nichols’s (adaptation) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—this configuration is exceedingly messy from the start. And since Shirley is centered on a brilliant, childless writer who toys with the idea of death and insists on women’s autonomy, we must also reference Virginia Woolf herself. A troubled soul, Shirley is ostracized from the community, which consists mostly of her husband’s colleagues at the Bennington College (including the dean’s wife with whom he’s having an affair). Stanley’s joviality and pretense of egalitarianism belie his over-sized ego, and, by extension, condescension towards ambitious young men like Fred. As for Shirley, her drinking and acting like a shrew are matched by her cutting tongue. She suspects that Stanley uses strangers to spy on her—though Stanley swears he’s trying to help her write. Shirley gets snarky with Rose. At their first meeting, she says, “you’re all the same to me,” relegating Rose to the abyss of mere mortals, and then ridicules Rose for her pregnancy (“knocked up” before marriage). Stanley, for his part, quickly ropes Rose into assuming household chores, while Fred is whisked away to the college, to pursue his academic career.

But if this outline sounds familiar—men’s egos rule, women’s suffer, particularly young women’s—there’s much more to this heady mix, adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. To be sure, Stanley’s despotism over Shirley is never fully broken. She will write her book, born of torment and mind-bending effort, but he’s the one who’ll pronounce great. And Fred secures his academic post, but turns into a lying cheat in the process (as, the film suggests, do many men and women on campus). There’s a bit of the boozy 1950s here, though tamed down, given we’re amidst middle-aged profs. But this doesn’t stop Decker’s film from being riveting in each and every scene, thanks not only to the excellent ensemble cast, but also, in large part, to its lush cinematography and mise en scène.

Firstly, there’s Shirley’s house. One of those spacious Victorian country houses, whose façade is completely covered by ivy—which makes it seem like a halfway forest. Shirley begins to dream of the forest—a place of secret rendezvous, fecundity and id—the minute Rose arrives and Shirley decides to write a novel about a young woman, Paula. Paula is based on a local girl who’s disappeared (and, we can presume, was found dead). As Shirley conjures her protagonist, Paula becomes Rose—and the house, its porousness, semi-wildness and murkiness, its plush carpets, cracked steps and textured wallpaper, conduct us into Shirley’s waking dreams. It’s been a while that I’ve seen a mise en scène that so completely manifests the character’s subconscious. In Shirley, the house—a domestic space she so vehemently rejects—is inseparable from her. In one scene, after Rose has passionate sex with Fred, the camera travels outside. We are on the porch, in the dark, as if expelled, cruelly left out. In these brief flashes, the film becomes a nuanced gothic horror.

It’s a beautiful setup for a film about the treacherousness—but also the generosity and fluidity—of desire. Rose and Shirley grow from eyeing each other with mistrust to relying on one another. As sexual tension grows, the cinematography grows more tactile. Only Céline Sciamma’s The Portrait of a Lady on Fire has offered recently a vision as intense of women’s desiring each other. But here that vision is bittersweet, because Rose, stripped of her studies and renegaded to the role of adoring housewife and mom, clearly craves Shirley’s approbation as much as Shirley craves her youth. Shirley preys on Rose, by channeling her vulnerabilities into a novel, but Rose also turns into a delicate, clever voyeur, divining Shirley’s needs. Their desire is tinged with so many motifs we can never fully unravel it.

As in a horror folktale, the film communicates through inanimate objects, to express the women’s pent-up anger. When Stanley berates Fred, the camera shows Rose crushing eggs on the floor. Later, at the faculty party, as Shirley drinks heavily, Rose throws canapés from the plates. It’s either real or Shirley’s vision—the mood constantly keeps shifting. In this complex world, the color yellow mellows through various stages. In the murky, ocher-green house, Rose’s yellow blouse and dresses bring in lightness. Yellow is the skirt that Shirley wears to a party, in which she’ll confront her husband’s lover. And yellow are the flowers that Rose plants in Shirley’s garden, burying her face into the loamy earth. It’s the color of youth—of innocence and exploration first—and only then of sexual jealousy. There’s also yellow as warmth, when the two women finally flirt. And the matured, tired yellow, which ripens into the orange of Rose’s shirt, shortly after she confronts Fred over cheating on her, and resolves to change her life.

Above: Maite Alberdi's The Mole Agent

There’s no singular color to point out but instead a whole bright gamut in Maite Alberdi’s noir hybrid film, The Mole Agent. With her previous features, The Tea (La Once, 2014) and The Grown-Ups (2016), Maite established herself as one of the most talented directors working in creative nonfiction, which blend elements of fiction and documentary. In The Mole Agent, she pushes this experimentation further, this time imposing a noirish framework on the entire narrative.

In the film, an elderly Chilean, Sergio (Sergio Chamy), is hired by a private investigator, Rómulo (Rómulo Aitken), to go undercover in an elderly home. One of Rómulo’s clients, whose mother is there, suspects some negligence, medical malpractice, or theft. Sergio will need to use some basic tools of spy-craft and so is trained in them by Rómulo: an early hilarious scene shows Rómulo struggling in his office to show Sergio how to use various apps, such as Skype. The sinewy, elegant Sergio has a hard time getting the knack of technology, but is otherwise sharp-witted. After a brief conversation with Sergio’s concerned daughter, the three agree that Sergio will check into the home.

From then on, the entire action consists of Sergio chatting up the other elderly folk in the home and snooping around, to locate the “abuelita,” the elderly woman who’s the client’s mother, and whom Rómulo calls a “target.” At first, in a lighthearted vein, Sergio sends voice-message reports to Rómulo, which detail what he’s seen. Meanwhile, a longtime widow, Berta, fancies Sergio—himself a recent widower—as her potential future partner, and a small intrigue ensues. Also in a parallel thread, the high-spirited Marta, for whose benefit the nurses call in pretending to be her (deceased) mother, and who threatens and attempts to escape from the home, turns out to also be a petty thief. By and by, Sergio ferrets out the “target’s” aloofness, Berta’s designs on him, and Marta’s naughtiness.

Despite The Mole Agent being a self-proclaimed noir, Alberdi sticks to mostly lighter notes. Similarly to Sergio himself, Alberdi isn’t prone to dwell on any resident’s meanness, and the film’s overall color palette—at least at first—is happy. The camera catches bright flowers being watered, heavy drops on the lush greens. The residents’ apartments are also bright, and Sergio clearly finds no fault with the accommodation itself (though he will venture into some rooms with bedridden residents and become concerned that not all patients are equally capable of caring for their space). Overall, however, Sergio’s investigative mission—and Alberdi’s original design—risk being a failure: There is no nefarious racket to discover, and the longer we watch the more the initial premise comes across as a slight excuse to play around with fictive elements.

At least once, Sergio makes use of his spy glasses: In a playful sequence, he films “the target” during her physical therapy session, his grainy black-and-white footage at first so shaky it’s hardly of use. Another time, the spy glasses break, leaving Sergio scrambling to fix them. There are easy laughs in these situational gaffs, or in Sergio and Rómulo’s secret phone calls—carried out in plain site. The film crew is present on the scene, since Alberdi established with the home earlier that she would film the life there, without disclosing her “mole.”  

Though very different in tone from Shirley, The Mole Agent also invites us to scour the mise en scène, and so leads us into the voyeuristic pleasures of peeping and spying on others, which is transformed into genuine care. This transition is mostly thanks to Sergio, whose interest in the home’s elderly women—from the tight-lipped abuelita, to Pepita the poetess, to the thief Marta—evolves into a genuine preoccupation with their well-being. Friendships are struck, confidences and grievances shared; the latter mostly about ungrateful children who no longer visit. The overarching theme of loneliness emerges: abandonment so intense, it eventually makes Sergio revolt against the whole system, and arrange for his own release.

Though lacking the narrative intensity or the sharpness of humor that marked La Once and The Grown-Ups, The Mole Agent is, nevertheless, a striking step in Alberdi’s vigorous engagement with documentary form. By introducing the elements of genre, she risks raising questions of verisimilitude, but delivers a heartening comedy, which proves that even the serious business of dying can be seen through a ludic lens. 

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


SundanceSundance 2020Festival CoverageJosephine DeckerMaite Alberdi
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.