Of the national cinemas whose new waves have come of age, at least on the international stage, in the past decade or two — take Russia or Romania or Greece — many, if not most, have a strong element of scathing national self-criticism. Whether through realist portrayals or allegory, nascent cinematic movements often derive a lot of their internal energy from social critique. And Chile’s recent filmmaking resurgence is no exception: From Pablo Larraín’s “Pinochet Trilogy” to the recent mournful and excoriating tone-poem documentaries of Patricio Guzmán, Chile has been cinematically reckoning with the way its uneasy present is informed by its shameful past for quite some time. Chilean filmmaker Marcela Said’s “Los Perros” fits easily into this continuum, marking not only a supremely assured and intriguing sophomore feature but carving out its own oblique niche of coolly clipped bourgeois assassination at the same time.
Ex-documentarian Said’s follow-up to the similarly well-shot but narratively undernourished “The Summer of the Flying Fish,” “Los Perros” follows Mariana (Antonia Zegers), the wealthy, spoiled, obliviously overprivileged 42-year-old daughter of a captain-of-industry type (Alejandro Sieveking) and the wife of a constantly distracted businessman (Rafael Spregelburd). Without much enthusiasm she is undergoing fertility treatments, but her only real tenderness seems to be toward her dog — and even then it is intermittent, manifesting early in a self-righteous refusal to tie him up in her expansive gardens, even after a neighbor threatens to shoot him if he strays onto his property again.
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Mariana, with nothing really to occupy her days besides signing the potentially shady business documents her father keeps funneling to her, takes up riding lessons, where she is immediately attracted to her older instructor, Juan (Alfredo Castro). But when she learns that “Colonel” Juan is under investigation for Pinochet-era human rights violations, her attraction flares into fascination, and she determines to find out the truth of his case, even if it means seducing, or rather submitting to the attentions of, a married policeman (Elvis Fuentes) for information.
It’s the story of a strange kind of love affair that evolves between two deeply unlikeable people. It hardly seems right to call a relationship between such self-invested, ungenerous characters love at all. But there is a kindred feeling there, an oddly animalistic understanding, as though the black, cold thing inside her recognizes the black, cold thing inside him. In this tricky, nihilist and minimalist characterization, Said is immeasurably helped by her cast, in particular Zegers and Castro, reuniting after Larraín’s terrific, underseen “The Club.” This is a film that lives in the glittering onyx of Castro’s impermeable gaze and the vulpine smile that never reaches Zegers’ glacial eyes, and it’s difficult to work out if their adulterous relationship is their salvation or their punishment.
Said also understatedly explores an undercurrent of power play that exists in Marina’s attraction to the colonel: She is self-centered and willfully attempts to points-score against people far beneath her on the social ladder. (Zegers never compromises her character’s wheedling hatefulness and deep-rooted arrogance.) But she also seems unconsciously transfixed by the idea of surrendering that control and agency. “Some horses like to test their riders,” opines Juan with a shrug as one of his students is tossed from the saddle by her mount. The implication is it’s both the wildness of the horse and the inevitability of its eventual subjugation to the rider that make the symbiotic process exciting for both creatures.
It’s an icy film, full of enigmatic portents and foreboding exchanges that build to a grim little climax. And spending time with such dreadful people — not only Mariana and Juan but all the people around them who toady and scrape and are complicit in confirming their illusions about themselves — is not exactly a carefree blast. Chile’s problem, says one character, is not too many evildoers but “too many passive accomplices,” and monstrous as Mariana can be, those who indulge her are just as bad. This dynamic — of a petty, childish tyrant being propped up and emboldened by lackeys desirous of some measure of transferred status or power — is, to stretch a point, rather familiar from our current politics.
Slow and chilling though it is, Said’s precise filmmaking, from George Lechaptois’ smooth, matte-finish photography to Grégoire Auger’s synthily Hitchcockian score, as well as the ice-sculpture performances from Zegers and Castro, rivet the attention nonetheless. There is a sense in which we might like to see Mariana get a more hot-blooded comeuppance for her blithe selfishness, but “Los Perros,” if it provides comfort at all, only deals in the coldest kind. Justice isn’t truly served and mysteries aren’t wholly solved, but within this doomed, decomposing segment of 1%-er society, the price of overindulged privilege and snobbish disdain for the feelings, even the personhood of others, will eventually come due, and it is steep: total and utter aloneness.