The Heiresses (Las herederas) | Review
Inherit the Wind: Martinessi Explores Class and Desire in Impressive Character Study
While they seem to have outlived their best of times, the two privileged women at the center of Paraguayan director Marcelo Martinessi’s compelling debut The Heiresses have definitely reached a worst of times moment. Previously having won Best Short Film “The Lost Voice” out of the 2016 Venice Film Festival, Martinessi has fashioned a narrative debut through several film labs, predicated on the performances of a mature cast, many of whom are making their screen debuts here.
Exploring intersections of class, sexuality, and that obscure object of desire, Martinessi drills down into a lead character who has fallen into estrangement and stagnancy, forced to reckon with the absence of her partner, a woman whose considerable debts have results in significant legal recourse. Slowly, and methodically, a woman becomes reawakened to the world around her, much to her own surprise.
Both descendants of wealthy families in Asuncion, Paraguay, Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) have been a couple for over three decades. But they’ve fallen into financial difficulties, forcing them to sell some of their belongings. However, Chiquita’s debt issues have become so significant she has been convicted of fraud, which leads to imprisonment. In anticipation of her absence, Chiquita hires a new maid and gently assures Chela she’ll be out in no time. However, Chela, who isn’t accustomed to dealing with decision making, is soon tasked with unexpected favors. Settling into some new-found interests, Chela finds herself attracted to the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova), who befriends the older woman and confides intimate details about her life. Soon, Chela finds herself unable to deal with Chiquita’s situation, allowing herself to become immersed in a new facet of her persona.
The Heiresses (which shares a name with a much darker 1980 Marta Meszaros title) evokes the stunning class disparity in Paraguay, a country where upward economic mobility is virtually non-existent. As we are introduced to Chela and Chiquita, in the midst of selling off pianos, clocks, and cutlery in a bid to assuage the authorities, theirs is rather functional Grey Gardens style of living between two women who seem to have grown apart. A noted lack of intimacy on Chela’s part, along with her preference to retreat into her painting and allow a mutual friend to deal with Chiquita’s legal woes, suggest a woman who’s already given up.
In several regards, this set-up is also reminiscent of several international titles focusing on women dealing with loneliness and disillusionment, whether they be on the more hopeful spectrum of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria (2013) or Andrea Pallaoro’s significantly downbeat Charlotte Rampling led Hannah (2017). But Martinessi hasn’t named his film after Chela, even though Ana Brun’s sympathetic performance tends to dominate and overwhelm from some significant class commentary established early on through various character dynamics (not to mention constant shame of being suddenly without the means they inherited from their families).
Brun’s performance exists mostly in between her sparse bits of dialogue—her facial expressions direct the emotional core of any given scene, while her eyes seem to change color with particular moods (at one point, someone has to ask, “are they blue?”). Observations from others give us clues about her inscrutability, which allows her attraction to Angy to seem so readily apparent. Out of boredom, desperation, and eventually titillation, Chela turns into a driver for a group of elderly card-playing ladies despite not having a driver’s license (an item which creates an automatic sense of anxiousness), a slippery slope after extending a favor to Pituca (Maria Martins, providing most of the laughs).
A sort of obfuscated amour fou, presented in the same accidental sort of tone, transpires between Chela and Angy, despite the behavior of the latter being kind of a stretch. It is clear Chela has been eager to be challenged or desired in ways her stagnant life with Chiquita has not allowed, seeping most of her emotional needs from the affable maid Pati (Nilda Gonzalez), whose language (she speaks Mayan) and presentation are often commented upon by various supporting characters. Chela’s car, which she inherited from her family and has been put up for sale by Chiquita is the film’s most obvious yet potent theme. Finally, she’s taken the reins of her own destiny (and property). While the third act feels a bit rushed and convenient, it leads to a similar denouement as something like the Kate Chopin short story “The Story of an Hour.”
Reviewed on February 16th at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. Competition. 95 Mins.