Dir: Lucia Puenzo.Argentina-Spain-France. 2009. 96mins
The Fish Child is an upstairs-downstairs cross-border lesbian love-on-the-run thriller - but it’s main virtue is that it doesn’t let any of these interwoven genres get in the way of intense erotic drama. Lucia Puenzo’s second film (after XXY) is sure to travel internationally to festivals, and should play well inLatin AmericaandSpain. Success in the US could depend on combining an art house release with penetrating the Spanish-language market, and its future in home video looks good. While the two lead actresses, Ines Efron and Mariela Vitale, are stars to watch, they’re not quite yet an easy sell in theUS.
The feminist plot of two aggrieved lovers united in a revenge killing is another hook on which to hang the picture commercially. The story is also ripe for an American remake with major stars.
Puenzo adapted The Fish Child from her 2004 novel of the same name, in which upper-class Buenos Aires girl Lala (Efron) falls in love with dark-eyed Guayi (Vitale), a younger Paraguayan maid in Lala’s family home. Guayi introduces Lala to a snarl of abusive relationships - with a trainer of fighting dogs, with Guayi’s violent father, and with Lala’s own father, a judge, whose murder sends Guayi to prison and adds new tangles of complexity to the love story. Think of a Latin Thelma and Louise, minus the humour.
Although her origins are in prose and screenwriting, Puenzo shows her gifts once again as a director of actors. The film is shot and edited delicately, making every inflection count.
In dark close-ups that favour subtlety over grand gestures, DP Rodrigo Pulpeiro gives the story of abuse and exploitation a grim believability. There’s poignant poetry in his underwater shots in a Paraguayan lake which follow a creature that gives the film its name. He also has separate palettes for a corrupt Argentina and Guayi’s purely natural Paraguay, which advance the drama and give The Fish Child its distinctive look.
Yet the real strength of The Fish Child lies in the acting: Efron as the cerebral calculating rich girl with a killer instinct, and Vitale as the vulnerable and victimised immigrant servant. The balance of that dichotomy shifts as the multiple stories twist, just as the languid sensuality between the two leads bursts into violence.
Underlying the story of illicit love is an immigrant drama about Paraguayans who leave their poor country to work in wealthier Argentina, where they are exploited. This topical border story, little-known outside the two countries in question, is as common as the tale of fugitive lovers, but Puenzo’s telling of it takes it beyond the easy cliches. There is a promising future for her, as there is for her actresses.
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Jose Maria Morales
Based on her novel