A Puzzle within a Puzzle within a Puzzle
Initially, The Vanished Elephant, Javier Fuentes-León’s follow-up to the well-received ghost story, Undertow, has a surprisingly unpolished aesthetic and sensibility. It’s self-consciously so, rehashing derivative visual and thematic cues of noir cinema before jumping out of its own construct to reveal an unreliable narrator capable of modifying or changing our textual perception of reality. It’s also a highly self-critical narrator—in the form of crime-novelist Edo Celeste (Salvador del Solar)—dabbling with the idea of killing off the very detective protagonist in his fiction that has won him such a loyal and ravenous fan base.
Amidst this rather familiar, almost perfunctory, narrative conceit are other exceedingly pulpy cues, such as a mysterious woman carrying an envelope of photos claiming that Edo’s long-deceased wife might actually be alive and in a secret relationship with her similarly estranged boyfriend. There’s also an upcoming art installation that features photographic projections of Celeste’s work with a model that just happens to be the same man from our protagonist’s preceding internal reality.
As these surmounting, altogether implausible, puzzle pieces start to unfold around the celebrated author, skewing his reality and challenging his sense of self-preservation and morality, there’s also a backstory gradually unfolding that puts him in the center of his wife’s murder mystery. The titular “Vanished Elephant” is a collage artwork that mixes thousands of small images to give a fragmented visual impression of a bigger landmark: a rock formation in the shape of an elephant.
While the elephant metaphor serves as a very obvious symbol of a plot reliant on antiquated western cinematic tropes, there’s also a nagging sense that the world being presented to us isn’t overly reliable. Early in the film, Fuentes-León introduces the visual trajectory of the black cat, outwardly stating that its existence represents the absolute lowest form of contrivance within the lexicon of this genre. As such, the fact that a black cat pops up every time Celeste reveals another puzzle piece of the mystery surrounding his wife’s death, there’s an overwhelming feeling that we’re being fucked with.
Smartly, Fuentes-León doesn’t reveal his hand too quickly. Despite utilizing every cliché in the book and denying the intense visuals associated with the genre (see Brian De Palma’s Passion), he never lets on that the style and method of storytelling are as much pieces of the puzzle as the basic plot elements. Once we’re let in on the secret, the visual landscape broadens and the emotional fulcrum takes on a new form, demonstrating what a delicate balancing act crafting this narrative and denying full directorial potential must have been.
Resultantly, The Vanished Elephant, a film that initially appears to be little more than the sudsy throwaway fluff it tries to emulate, proves to have a lot more going on than meets the eye. It confronts the nature of storytelling and the turbulent relationship between reader and author head on, dramatizing fiction within fiction in a way that engages while reminding the audience of their helplessness in assuming a passive role.
Despite taking a while to make its point and not utilizing the signifiers of the noir genre to their full potential, Javier Fuentes-León does something remarkable here in risking audience investment and loyalty by challenging our consciousness and expectations. With a bit of polish and more experience, this Peruvian auteur could take his preoccupation with the nature of texts and their relationship with the cultures that shape them to an international stage.
Reviewed on September 8th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery Programme. 110 Minutes