Argentina’s Veronica Chen returns to Sundance with a knotty drama about power, privilege and sexuality
Dir. Veronica Chen. Argentina. 2019. 103 mins
Uncomfortably confrontational in its approach, Veronica Chen’s hard-edged drama asks thorny questions about power, privilege and female sexuality. On a whim, Laura (Gloria Carrá) sleeps with Weisman (Jorge Sesán), the foreman who is running a building job at her beach house. But she realises too late that a boundary has been crossed and her status, in the eyes of the labourers, has changed. With Weisman absent, Laura’s authority is undermined; the men start to take invasive liberties. That there’s an allegorical element to this exploration of power structures, gender and class doesn’t make it an easier watch.
There’s an element of a home invasion thriller to the film, although it’s psychological space as much as physical which is being encroached upon
Writer and directed Veronica Chen (best know for Agua) returns to Sundance with High Tide – her feature debut Smokers Only screened at the festival in 2002. Going forward, it should be of interest to festival programmers looking for talking point films which take a provocative stance on multiple issues – there are similarities with Haneke’s stark studies of class, and with Isabelle Eklof’s bruising portrait of power and commodification, Holiday. But ultimately High Tide feels a little muddied in its messages, and it is that lack of an acute focus which might limit the picture’s potential commercially.
Alone in her second home at the coast, while her husband and children remain in the city, Laura is surrounded by glass and polished concrete. Both in the choice of location and the geometric framing, the picture makes a bold statement about the hard lines which divide Laura, a wealthy publisher, from the men who labour in her garden, building an alfresco barbecue hut. Those lines are crossed at the beginning of the film when, Laura, dancing and high on red wine, allows Weisman into her home and eventually into her bed. The following morning, with Weisman snoring and comatose in her bed, Laura’s basilisk glare seems to register doubt. But not enough to prevent her from bragging about the encounter to a nonplussed female neighbour as she shops for sausages the following day.
There’s an initial assumption, on Laura’s part, that she is in control of the situation. Weisman mutters that the night was “amazing”. “Yeah,” she says dismissively. “I’ll call you.” But Weisman disappears from the work site and refuses to take her calls. Stewing in solitude, swigging wine and fielding leers and off-colour sexual comments from the workmen, Laura broods. In the eyes of the labourers, Laura is no longer due the same respect owed to an employer. Her home, too, is no longer off limits. Their noise – music, and the drunken carousing – invades her space even when the men stay outside.
There’s an element of a home invasion thriller to the film, although it’s psychological space as much as physical which is being encroached upon. And Laura, invested with a brittle superiority by Carrá, is not always an easy character with whom to sympathise. Certainly, she’s a proud, sexually-confident middle-aged woman on her own who is threatened by shifty, smirking men. But there’s also a sense of privileged invulnerability, a class disparity which views the workers as resources available to be utilised. It’s an intriguing film, which will wrong-foot anyone looking for a moral compass with which to navigate the story, although the knotty complexity of issues and themes unravels slightly with an unexpectedly lurid denouement.
Production company: Vega Cine
International sales: Filmsharks, firstname.lastname@example.org
Screenplay: Veronica Chen
Editing: Leandro Aste
Cinematography: Fernando Lockett
Production design: Mirella Hoijman
Music: Juan Sorrentino
Main cast: Gloria Carrá, Jorge Sesán, Cristian Salguero, Mariana Chaud, Camila Fabbri, Héctor Bordoni