The specter of death becomes more than a young cinematographer can handle in Sebastian Silva’s distinctive if self-consciously quirky black comedy, “Life Kills Me.” Imbued with the mordant mood and tone associated with East Euro film comedy, Silva’s debut has had near-zero exposure outside of Chile, where it premed at last year’s Valdivia Fest and then played a late-year local commercial run. Despite problems and tics, this is a fine Chilean export deserving of (at least) wider fest play, but its age may limit it.
Unable to get over the death of his brother Alfredo in 2001, Gaspar (Gabriel Diaz) is drawn back into a cycle of grief by the sudden death of a schoolgirl known by pretentious filmmaker Susana (Claudia Celedon), for whom Gaspar is lensing a kooky short film.
While thoughts of Alfredo drive Gaspar to half-cocked efforts at suicide, he’s also confronted by the presence of his dying, bedridden grandfather (Alejandro Sieveking), being tended to by short-tempered sister Margarita (Amparo Noguera) in her home. Grandfather and grandson are also linked by dreams: For the old man, they involve imagining a nice lady friend (Belgica Castro), who clearly represents Death, doing crossword puzzles with him, while Gaspar’s dreams appear straight out of ’60s-era Polanski films.
Early Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski are definite touchstones for Silva, and even Susana’s ridiculous pic, starring herself as a woman being stalked by a white-faced figure that also stands for Death, could be a parody of one of Polanski’s early shorts.
The actor playing the figure is newly cast Alvaro (Diego Munoz), whom Susana met at the schoolgirl’s funeral and who begins to exert such a pull over Gaspar that he begins to think Alvaro might be Alfredo reincarnated — sending Margarita to the limits of her patience.
Diaz provides a fascinating central performance, maintaining a dry cool while registering as alternately on top of things or slightly dazed by forces he can’t quite grasp. His Gaspar proves crucial, since it could well be — and Silva’s half-surrealist style infers it–that much of what he’s perceiving is informed by his cinematic imagination.
Support is generally effective, except for Celedon, who doesn’t have a handle on her obnoxiously flamboyant character, tending to throw the film off-balance when she’s onscreen. This makes the final four minutes after closing credits hard to sit through, since they comprise Susana’s completed film, also titled “Life Kills Me,” screening in a fest competition.
Lenser Sergio Armstrong’s lighting of the crystalline B&W of the film at large provides the entire pic with a great look and a notable contrast to the color footage of Susana’s short, while Pedro Subercaseaux’s score proves superficially whimsical in a pic that’s occasionally too cute. Despite a restricted set of mainly interior locations, Silva’s shooting style remains assured and compelling.