To open with an establishing drone shot has become something of a cliché for lower-budget films looking to create a sense of scale inexpensively, but in Argentinian director Verónica Chen’s fifth narrative feature “High Tide,” the choice feels unusually apt. The camera glides frictionlessly over an opaque turquoise sea, breakers foaming at its edges, and into a darkened beachside forest in which sits a large, modern, architect-designed house. The dispassionate sterility of the floating, impersonal image establishes the tone of Chen’s film: Whatever else it might be, it won’t be warm.
Inside the house, Laura (Gloria Carrá) a willowy and well-kept middle-aged woman, dances alone. Well, not entirely alone — three workmen watch from the partially built barbecue pit they’re constructing outside. Like a moth to a flame, the foreman, Weisman (Jorge Sesán) eventually slips into the living room and starts to dance with her. Book publisher Laura, whose husband is off working in the city having sent her to their vacation home ahead of time to supervise the building of the barbecue, alternates between encouraging Weisman and being disgusted by one of his crude or lewd remarks. But each time he crosses the line, he eventually paws his way back into her good graces, until she leads him to her bedroom. It’s an awkward, halting seduction, truthful in its way, though quite who is seducing whom is difficult to tell, an example of the ambiguous power dynamics that inform all of the film’s encounters, to a sometimes enervating degree.
The next day they part on friendly enough terms, though Weisman’s walk of shame (or whatever the male equivalent is called — walk of glory?) is spotted by the workers: the grinning, insinuating younger Toto (Cristian Salguero) and the saturnine, limping Hueso (Hector Bordoni). And simply knowing that Laura slept with their boss devalues her currency in some invisible way and emboldens them to behave increasingly insolently: neglecting the barbecue, using the indoor bathroom when she’s not there; drinking on her terrace; looking in through her windows while she sleeps. With every interaction newly freighted with sexual threat, especially those with Toto, “High Tide” becomes a kind of slow-motion home invasion movie, as though, like vampires, once one of their clan had been invited in (and in the most intimate way) they all have access to Laura’s glass castle, and perhaps to Laura herself.
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While we sympathize with Laura as an imperiled, vulnerable woman being menaced by sinister and unpredictable men, the unexamined classism and racial prejudice of all her dealings with the two workers (it’s no coincidence that the aptly named Weisman is white and the boss while the workers are poorer and darker-skinned) is also enraging. The motivations in “High Tide” do prove that it’s not just progressive values that can be intersectional; in some places their opposite — class bias, sexism and bigotry — all coexist, complement and compete with one another. So by the time the drama, shot coolly by Fernando Lockett, ramps up to its slightly unbelievable final twist, which suddenly spikes the blood pressure of this otherwise hypotensive film, it’s hard to know whether to read it as a perverse triumph or as a perverse tragedy.
Like several recent Argentinian titles, Chen’s film is at least partly a somber and scathing critique of social hierarchy, inheriting the ironic distance and sour pessimism of a Michael Haneke film or a title from Chen’s compatriot Lucrecia Martel. But Haneke’s approach is more stringent, and Martel’s more astringent: While Chen is clearly attempting to emulate the enigmatic ambivalence of “Caché” or “The Headless Woman,” she’s not quite clear enough in her intent. Viewers are supposed to be intrigued by Laura, but actually we’re just confused, and not a little put off by the unpleasant aura of entitlement that cocoons her.
The presentation has a confidence that the narrative lacks. The images, with their angular, stark lines rendered in Lockett’s low-contrast, muted palette, feel appropriately glassy and frozen, and the performances, particularly from Carrá, are confident in embodying the characters’ contradictions, even if we cannot so easily interpret them. But moodiness and an icily intellectualized remove cannot by themselves compensate for the deficiencies of life and vigor in Chen’s screenplay. It’s not just that we can’t be sure if we’re meant to like Laura or not, it’s that the crosscurrents of likability and noxiousness, of victimization and exploitation, are so perfectly matched that they cancel each other out, and for long stretches “High Tide” doesn’t ebb or flow, it languishes in the doldrums.