The Sound of My Voice: Meta Delivers Masterful Psychological Identity Horror
Does it come from without or within? ‘It’ being the perception of danger, delusion or paranoia in the case of the swift descent of the protagonist in The Intruder, a layered psychological genre piece from Argentina’s Natalia Meta, her first film since the 2014 debut Death in Buenos Aires. Based on a cult 1996 horror novel, El Mal Menor by C.E. Fieling, Meta consistently defies expectations in a film which eventually reveals itself to be more complex than any synopsis of its narrative could possibly dictate. Bolstered by an increasingly intense performance by Erica Rivas, who is supported by several noted Argentinean performers of international renown, it’s an oddly captivating odyssey which makes for as interesting a conversation piece as it does a cinematic experience.
Dubbing artist and choir soprano Ines (Erica Rivas) lives a comfortable life in Buenos Aires. Recently, she’s begun dating Leopoldo (Daniel Hendler), but their first vacation as a couple begins disastrously and ends tragically. Recovering from this trauma, her mother (Cecilia Roth) arrives for an extended visit while Ines begins to experience strange happenings at work. It seems the sound engineer is picking up aberrant sounds which appear to be coming from her vocal cords in her dubbing performances. Likewise, in choir she’s been reevaluated as a mezzo instead of the soprano she’s always been. A chance conversation with another actress in the dubbing studio suggests she has an ‘intruder,’ a presence which can seep into the subconscious through one’s dreams and wreak havoc. Meanwhile, choir practice has been consistently interrupted due to the tuning of an organ by Alberto (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), whom Ines takes an instant liking to. But as Ines starts seeing things and experiences more and more aggressive dreams, she decides to seek more invasive assistance.
There’s a bounty of phenomenal examples of actresses playing women slowly losing their minds in psychological genre films (Deneuve in Repulsion and Susannah York in Altman’s Images come to mind as some of the most iconic), and Rivas (memorable in her segment of Damian Szifron’s Wild Tales, 2014) as the entertaining and increasingly unhinged Ines is of this caliber. Defined by a wild mane of hair which makes her look like she belongs to the werewolf posse in The Howling, she’s a jittery block of paranoia, suffering from a condition at least partially evoked by her particular line of work.
Almodóvar favorite Cecilia Roth makes a bright, sunshiny appearance as an overbearing but somewhat distant mother, and Daniel Hendler (recently of Federico Vieiroj’s The Moneychanger, 2019) is featured in the film’s dazzling first act as the needy Leopoldo. But it’s with Meta’s casting of Nahuel Perez Biscayart (BPM, 2017) which feels most inspired, here an organ tuner who looks like the sallow side of Andrew McCarthy. Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez (a favorite of Anna Muylaert, she also lensed Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, 2008) knows exactly what she’s doing, and Biscayart is consistently framed to highlight a demonic glow glinting from enormous, preternatural eyes.
True, it’s clear that either Ines has come completely undone or there’s actually some sort of supernatural element going on—again, this depends on the perspective you’d prefer to believe. However, The Intruder is much more sly than whatever surface explanation can be drawn. Questions of identity formation and the subtext of what one’s ‘voice’ is, the hypothetical and the actual, which allows for our expression of agency, are quite niftily streamlined into the nature of Ines’ own work, which is dubbing over actresses in what appears to only be Asian horror films. In turn, this creates the exact recipe for said madness to transpire in the fore, and in several regards, Meta’s film plays like a sister film to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At the same time, the actual intruders upon Ines are normalized social norms and we watch as she is forced under the yoke of the boyfriend, the mother and the new love interest. Her talents are measured, weighed and dictated (the sound engineer, the choir director) to the degree that she’s actually diminished in all possible regards.
Fun, efficient (nearly every exchange reveals information which fluctuates the power dynamics or provides important details) and snappy, The Intruder is a pleasurable example of how genre remains a potent mechanism to wheedle its way under our skin, allowing its subtexts to ruminate.
Reviewed on February 21st at the Berlin International Film Festival – Competition. 90 Mins.