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Close-Up on Roberto Doveris’s “Plants”

The gap between overt sexuality of teens and their secret apprehension about sex is central in this winsome, quietly satirical debut.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Robert Doveris's Plants (2015) is showing exclusively on MUBI from February 20 - March 22, 2018. 
Recent newspaper articles report that the generation in its late teens and early 20s, which habitually accesses online porn and uses apps like Tinder for sex talk, is having less actual sex. A similar cleft, between mediated overt sexuality and secret apprehension about real sex, is the central paradox of Chilean director Roberto Doveris’s winsome, quietly satirical debut feature, Plants (2015).
The film’s young protagonist, Florencia (Violeta Castillo)—a shy, darkly brooding teenager—finds herself saddled with adult responsibilities when her mother, in the hospital and with increasingly meager means, cannot take care of her family. Meanwhile paralyzed and brain-dead, Florencia’s older brother, Sebástian (Mauricio Vaca), requires constant care. Whatever the causes of mother and brother’s illnesses may be—Doveris leaves this part ambiguous—after her aunt’s departure, Florencia is left in sole control of the household.
Control is a tricky thing for an increasingly tough young person like Florencia, who takes duties, like feeding and washing her brother, in stride. In Doveris’s careful observational direction, Sebastián’s body is a cumbersome challenge to his younger sister, though it also inspires a peculiar fascination. In one scene, Florencia strains under Sebástian’s weight, trying to hoist him up in a bathtub. A second later she casually washes his genitals, as would be expected of a nurse. There is not the slightest incestual connotation in the scene, only compassion and attentiveness. The camera maintains a respectful distance, refraining from voyeurism, and instead suggesting that Florencia takes her responsibilities very seriously.
Deep down, she hopes that her brother may some day wake up. From the start, it is Florencia who posits this possibility, and who follows up with online research that could give her hope. Patricio Alfaro’s delicate cinematographic framing makes it seem at times as if this hope could be realized. In one evocative shot, Sebastián sits on the couch, positioned frontally to the camera, his stare focused almost directly ahead, just above our eye level. This eerie quasi meeting of gazes delivers an instant shock. Might Sebástian actually look at us? And what is he seeing? As the camera pans slowly, the close-up of Florencia’s face comes into view, as if indeed, someone’s—ours, or Sebástian’s—gaze were suddenly directed towards her.
Consumed with questions about the limits of sentient life, and about the biological limitations of her brother’s comatose brain, Florencia gets carried away by a comic book, Las Plantas (Plants), which she finds among her brother’s things. She soon discovers more of these cartoons at a comic book fair. In the comics, the plants wake at night when no one watches, and usurp human consciousness—in a sense, they use human hosts to fulfill their own surreptitious desires. Doveris draws upon simple animation to convey how Florencia’s immergence in the comic tints her perception of those around her. When she attends a musical opening, for example, at the comics fair, she imagines graphics, such as horns and masks, drawn over her friends’ and the performers’ faces—a grotesque emanation of the vampy, sexually tinged dance enacted by the girls onstage.
The plants become a metaphor for how Florencia feels at times about her own but perhaps even more so about Sebástian’s body, as if it were possessed by another entity, while her brother’s consciousness lies dormant. The metaphor is redemptive—under the cover of Sebástian’s paralysis, life teems with mysterious activity, unbeknownst to the uninitiated. Doveris follows up on this idea in his mise en scène: The inside of the apartment is populated with plants, large and small, so that the entire space seems to be breathing, alive in more ways than meets the eye. In this environment, there’s always a possibility that Sebástian’s silent presence is just as potent as Florencia’s.
The film’s story turns quickly from Florencia’s general maturity to her sexual awakening—all the more poignant, since she is too thoughtful and also too withdrawn to match her peers’ more nonchalant attitudes towards sex. In a telling scene, as she hangs out with her two male friends, the three prop up Sebastián in front of a laptop, on whose screen a man is shown masturbating in a sex chat-room. A transgressive gesture, which creeps out Florencia, though she protests feebly, this moment also shows just how she and her pals relate to what the man they’re watching. Not as someone engaged in a reciprocal act geared towards mutual pleasure, but as a brief curio. In the end, the encounter doesn’t lead to arousal. Florencia flashes her breasts, but the chat-room user’s reaction goes unrecorded.
Yet Florencia will continue her sexual explorations, first with the friends watching, and then solo. She uses newspaper personal ads to draw young men seeking sex to her mother’s apartment, but then obliges them to watch her, or to be watched, through the glass of her double front door. What begins as a spontaneous and somewhat silly game turns into a minor obsession. In those quiet, tense moments, Florencia prefers to watch the men masturbate, exulting in her own power to stir their desire, but also simultaneously needing the protection of enclosure. It’s not clear if she feels any pleasure at all, and instead treats the men almost plant-like, fascinated by their anatomy and sexual performance. All this changes when one of her “dates” refuses to play along, and so shatters Florencia’s guard, forcing her to drop her dominating mask. In this single instant, Florencia is again the frightened teenager, who needs, more than anything else, assurance and empathy. It’s only then that any real intimacy, however fleeting, is possible. This final admittance, revealing Florencia’s vulnerabilities, suggests that she is ready to draw on her inner strength, rather than having to fake she’s someone else. 

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