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Close-Up on Fabio Meira’s “Two Irenes”

Fabio Meira’s feature debut exquisitely explores a young girl’s sense of self and family amid a scandalous revelation.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Fabio Meira's Two Irenes, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from November 5 – December 4, 2019 in MUBI's Debuts series.
Two Irenes
I don’t know whether the Brazilian director Fabio Meira saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991) before directing his poignant fiction debut, Two Irenes (2017). It would certainly be simplistic to suggest that Meira lifted the concept of a double life from the Polish director, or that Kieślowski invented the idea. But there are striking parallels between the two films; thinking of them in conjunction makes the experience of watching Meira’s film all that richer.
The Double Life of Veronique is a metaphysical riddle, in which two young women, one Polish and one French, both played by the Swiss actress Irène Jacob, are spit images of each other but never physically meet. Yet they share physical and emotional fragility. Through fate, or by sheer chance, one dies around the time the other learns to protect herself, and survives. Kieślowski’s play on doubles may smack of sentimental existentialism, yet there’s something earthy and very real about it. Who’s never been haunted by thinking of fate’s hidden possibilities?
This is also the drama at the heart of Meira’s Two Irenes. The first Irene (Priscila Bittencourt) is a slim, pensive, tight-lipped girl, who lives in a traditional Brazilian family, in the countryside. Irene’s middle-class family is devoutly centered on the father figure: a dad who’s waited on at dinner, before others eat, but who’s also genuinely respected and loved, perhaps even feared. His three daughters are brought up to be respectful and proper. Yet Irene’s actions from the start are a quiet act of rebellion. She secretly follows her father to town, where she discovers that he has another wife and daughter, whose name is also Irene.
What Meira does with this sensationalist premise is exquisite—instead of being ruled by torrid passion, his drama proceeds by stealth, as a series of telling reveals. Irene infiltrates her half-sister’s (Isabela Torres) household, pretending she wants a dress from the latter’s single mom, who’s a seamstress. She then tries to call her father out on the lie. The family dialogues are suddenly tense, full of suppressed anger, but also charged with the radiating force that the shy Irene discovers. Her knowledge is destructive, yet it emboldens her. Because of it, her family’s routines—such as her two sisters trying on dresses picked out by dad—suddenly seem less innocent.
Daniela Cajía’s cinematography does wonders in these scenes, staying close to Irene’s point of view. In one shot, just after discovering the truth, she soaks in a soapy bath. The camera looks on from above, with only Irene’s pensive face emerging from the water, the sounds of her parents’ arguing in the background. Perhaps for the first time, Irene understands the context of what’s happening off-screen. And she gives herself permission to go under, turn off the adults’ world, to exclude them. She takes a breath, and the quarrel goes silent.
Outside the home, the longer Irene weaves her intrigue, spending time with her half-sister, the more the latter senses what’s at stake. In a particularly charged scene, as the father visits his second family, Irene spies at the window. The camera stays close to her point of view, but then the second Irene, standing next to her father—their father—caresses his head and looks up. In this tableau, as the two young girls’ gazes meet, they emerge as adversaries, vying for their father’s love.
In Meira’s film, however, jealousy is never far from love, and the two girls continuously negotiate how they feel about each other. The timid Irene, particularly, discovers through her audacious half-sister an opportunity to test the strict boundaries imposed on her by her family. This part of the coming-of-age drama is then written along the lines of camaraderie—sharing giggly secrets about the first kiss, going to the movies together—rather than rivalry. Like opposite magnets that attract, the two girls are drawn to what they think they lack.
Ultimately, they discover that both of their lives are governed by the necessity to keep up appearances; and that in this order, one family—one Irene—is treated as subordinate to the other. The nature of their feeling haunted is then much different than in Kieślowski’s film, yet no less poignant. The boldness of the two Irenes’ swapping places in the final scene may strain plausibility. Nevertheless, Meira strongly suggests that it’s not so much each Irene trying to take the place of the other, but their potential for completeness, that counts. 

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