These are the bodies you never see on screen. In the arresting opening of Argentinian director Mónica Lairana’s feature debut, a man and a woman, both in their early 60s, lie on a bed. Their nakedness is desirelessly familiar to themselves and each other, but it’s unexpected to our eyes — the visceral realness of aging flesh, its dimples, folds and pouches. In an immobile, unbroken shot gazing in from the doorway, they try and fail to have sex. They curl up back-to-back on the navy sheet, in an arrangement so casually explicit you want to reach out and place two black censorship stars on the screen to cover their modesty.
Later, we’ll get to know their faces. They are Jorge (Alejo Mango) and Mabel (Sandra Sandrine), and the challengingly austere “The Bed” tells of their last day of togetherness in the house they’ve shared for decades. In occasional exchanges, some loving, some strained, but mostly in the oblique, wordless choreography of furniture-moving and ornament-wrapping, Lairana draws an unflinching portrait of the anticlimactic end of a long relationship that was meant to have lasted forever. It’s a heartbreak so passionless it scarcely deserves the dramatic name.
Still, the sense of betrayal and regret permeates every deliberate frame of Flavio Dragoset’s muted, stopped-down, sepia cinematography. We get the impression that Jorge is the leaver, and Mabel the leavee, just from how he answers the phone a couple of times, while hers never rings. And it gives the film a very deep-buried seam of mordant humor when after all the agonizing and push-pull dynamics as they try to consummate some tacitly agreed-on “one last time” … they finally succeed. The gently puzzled, unimpressed expression that glimmers on Mabel’s face afterward is a tiny essay in closure.
Mostly though, and to sometimes dulling effect, “The Bed” is langorously involved in marking all the last times that go into ending a decades-long marriage. Jorge and Mabel divide up their possessions and exhaust themselves trying to maneuver the big wooden bed frame around the twist in the staircase. Alejo and Sandrini do an astonishing job of investing every action and interaction with decades of prior routine. Jorge unthinkingly sprays air freshener after using the toilet. Mabel struggles into a rediscovered old dress and calls for Jorge to help zip it up. Their behavior around each other retains the muscle memory of togetherness, even as they separate, especially in this long-shared space whose rooms, cluttered with the accumulated junk of their marriage, they now pad through like ghosts.
Sometimes this obsessive chronicle slips into overdetermination. In a scene shot from a hallway from where Jorge and Mabel are both visible in separate rooms, they each pause like meerkats to listen for the movements of the other: It’s a brief kabuki dance drama about disconnection. The scoreless, removed frames are usually unaffected, but a dinner scene in which foregrounded stacks of stuff visually sunder the couple strains to make a point already well made.
The endurance-test element of the film’s longeurs (even at just 94 minutes) will be off-putting to all but hardier festivalgoers. But for the patient viewer, “The Bed” has a quietly radical formalism that is its own reward. These are the bodies you never see on screen maybe because the stories written there, in scars and wrinkles, cannot be erased. And so Lairana, along with her outstandingly committed performers, is a pioneer in letting those bodies, naked and clothed, in motion and stationary, together and separately add their own narratives to her detached, unsentimental lament for a love worn bare and wasted with time.