A bit of a shaggy-dog story, Argentine Alejandro Chomski’s fourth feature — his first in Spanish since his acclaimed 2003 debut, “Today and Tomorrow,” with two poorly received U.S. features between — might have worked better at sub-feature length. As is, the peculiar whimsy adapted from a novel by late great Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, about an unhappy couple lured into a strange experiment involving canines, feels overstretched and insufficiently atmospheric to sustain its initial intrigue. Pic needs to be a little more forcefully sinister and/or surreally comic, but cast names should stir home-turf interest. Elsewhere, pickings will be slim.
Casares was a frequent Borges collaborator whose classic first novel, 1940’s “The Invention of Morel,” was an acknowledged major influence on hit TV series “Lost” decades later. “Asleep in the Sun,” first published in 1973, offers the kind of tricky narrative sleight-of-hand easier to pull off in literature than in visual media. Scribe-director Chomski’s stab is focused but rather tepid given the story’s absurdist crux. Its deadpan is apt, but there ought to be a wilder streak running beneath.
After a brief prologue from an anxious dog’s p.o.v., a title informs us we are in Chas Park, “a circular neighborhood without corners, lost in time.” It nonetheless appears to be the 1950s, albeit the dislocated, complacent, slightly wrong world of ’50s dystopian visions like “Pleasantville” and Bob Balaban’s “Parents.” This nondescript subdivision is home to milquetoast watchmaker Lucio (Luis Machin), who madly loves his wife — the problem being that Diana (Esther Goris) suffers from what appears to be manic depression.
Though prior hospitalizations have failed to diagnose Diana’s condition, Lucio is persuaded to reluctantly check her into a clinic practicing murky “phrenopathic” therapies (the term is borrowed from an early 19th-century school of brain-focused medical thought long dismissed as quackery), but panics when he is not allowed to see or communicate with her. Finally she’s released, to his joy. But gradually Lucio perceives that Diana, while cheerful and “cured” now, isn’t the same person — her habits, tastes and abilities have changed, as if an impersonator had claimed her body. He protests to clinic authorities at what proves to be his considerable peril.
The eventual explanation is silly, but might have worked had the pic escalated the menace and absurdity of its bourgeois critique to more vigorously satirical effect, a la Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.” Yet Chomski sticks with an overly low-key, slow-paced approach throughout, keeping actors and action too tightly reined. That tenor would have been fine for a reel or two. Held throughout, it makes Casares’ story seem too slight a joke.
Budget limitations are obvious in restricting the action to basically two locales (house and clinic, with the same two vintage cars glimpsed on streets over and over), though design contributors make a resourceful effort via costumes and interiors in sickly retro pastels, pale lime green in particular. (Due to technical limitations, the San Francisco fest had to screen the film in a subpar DigiBeta transfer, though a DVD screener provided gave a better impression of its intended look.)
Performers have their moments, with local star Machin deftly etching a bland personality forced into ever-greater psychological dishevelment. Florencia Pena gets some laughs as the sexually frustrated sister-in-law who moves in during Diana’s absence and is exasperated by Lucio’s marital fidelity.