Given how many film labs were involved in the development of “The Heiresses,” it’s remarkable this finely crafted, beautifully realized debut by Marcelo Martinessi feels so organic and personal. A femme-centric study of two older women in a relationship for decades who’ve fallen on financial hard times, the film exquisitely balances character study with shrewd commentary on the precarious hierarchy of class distinctions, the turbulent persistence of sexual desire and the lingering privileges of Paraguay’s elite. Using largely unknown actresses with practically no screen experience yet an extraordinarily canny understanding of character, the director-writer achieves a heightened degree of insight within the confines of a stripped-down production. Buzz is sure to accrue following its Berlin film festival premiere, with potentially strong sales in art-house markets.
Martinessi keeps tight control over this intimate, hermetic world via carefully calibrated focal lengths and limited establishing shots, unless one thinks of the first p.o.v. scene as a form of establishing shot, looking through a narrow opening into a dining room where a snooty woman peruses objects for sale. It discreetly introduces the story using possessions that are key to an understanding of the world being presented, for Chela (Brun) has her identity bound up in this well-to-do house where she’s lived her entire life. Now however, thanks to accumulating debts that the bank calls fraud, her life partner Chiquita (Margarita Irún) will have to go to jail while Chela continues to sell off the paintings, furniture, silverware, and crystal that signify their position as part of Paraguay’s elite.
Chela’s not coping well with this drop in status, and the sympathy she’s getting from kindhearted friends such as Carmela (Alicia Guerra) makes it worse. Clearly Chiquita has been protecting Chela for a long time, catering to her dependence down to the smallest details, such as preparing the afternoon tray with its precisely placed water, soft drink with ice, daily pills, and Bols ballerina bottle. New maid Pati (Nilda Gonzalez) isn’t at the same level as their old one, but doing without a live-in servant would be unthinkable, especially as Chiquita prepares for what could be months in prison.
With her partner behind bars, Chela feels paralyzed until waspish older neighbor Pituca (María Martins) asks to be driven to her daily bridge appointment, and before realizing what’s happened, Chela becomes a regular taxi service for the ancient card player and her coterie, even though she’s a timid driver who doesn’t have her license anymore. Refusing payment at first allows her to keep her dignity, but soon she accepts money along with the subservient role of chauffeur, waiting in the entrance hall (perfectly designed with a pair of 19th century busts signaling the owner’s grandee roots) as the biddies exchange gossip across the baize.
Apart from the money, there’s another reason why she takes on the role, and that’s the presence of Angy (Ana Ivanova), a younger, sensual woman whose fluid ease with her body is in stark contrast to the uptight crones around her. Although Angy presents herself as heterosexual, Chela is drawn to her candor and slowly emerges from her social paralysis, basking in the intoxicating pleasure of long dormant sensations.
That’s not to say Chela breaks free from her hesitancy — she’s relaxing a little but can’t jettison a lifetime of circumscribed behavior and the sense of uncertainty coming from her loss of status. There are too many reminders of the distance between her previous existence in the upper echelons of privilege and her current position genteelly keeping up appearances to allow for her to suddenly burst from her shell, but just like that partly opened door at the film’s start, there’s a potentially liberating crack she can see expanding before her.
Brun is magnetic in the way she transmits fleeting sensations silently using large eyes that convey fear, hurt, and abashed hopefulness; her first visit to Chiquita in jail could be used in acting classes to demonstrate the power of the glance, as Chela is confronted by the cacophony of boisterous prisoners and their visitors in the barred courtyard. It’s not just the noise, but the sight of her lover apparently at ease negotiating around these working-class prisoners that adds multiple levels to the impression of a woman so utterly out of place. Irún is equally fine as her more firmly grounded better half, far more equipped to handle life’s knocks. Not to be left out of this praise are Ivanova’s confident sensuality as Angy, and Martins as the deliriously selfish neighbor whose every line is designed as a sting. With barely a male even among the extras, Martinessi reproduces a complex female world that in its single-sex isolation speaks to the decades of harsh patriarchal dictatorship still infecting Paraguayan society on all strata.
Visually the director rigorously controls the focus, reducing the world to the immediate players and allowing everything else to stay fuzzy or out of the frame. Only once Chela emerges from her self-imprisonment and begins to look at the world is there a sense of what’s outside, though even then, it’s strictly what’s within her vision. Maintaining the limits of this world, cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga keeps the widescreen lensing contained and closed, using the broad expanse to offer the promise of greater perspectives that will never be visited. Music is also well chosen, especially a marvelous use of the “1812 Overture” as Chela brings the car up the driveway to meet Pituca’s formidable glare.