Sunday, 3 July 2011

Agnosia (Eugenio Mira, 2010)

Director: Eugenio Mira
Screenwriter: Antonio Trashorras
Cast: Bárbara Goenaga, Eduardo Noriega, Félix Gómez, Martina Gedeck, Sergi Mateu, Jack Taylor
Trailer: short version (haven’t been able to find the subtitled full-length version) 
Availability: available to buy and rent in the UK.
Synopsis: Barcelona, 1899. Joana (Bárbara Goenaga) suffers from agnosia, a neuropsychological condition that affects her perception. Interested parties suspect that she is the only person who knows an industrial secret relating to her father’s business, and so a conspiracy evolves with the aim of obtaining the secret by deception. Two men, Carles (Eduardo Noriega), her fiancé, and Vicent (Félix Gómez), a servant, are her only form of protection. But can she trust them? And can she trust her own senses?

agnosia, n.
A condition in which people can see, but cannot recognise or interpret, visual stimuli; loss of perceptive power; loss of the power to recognise people or things seen.

Note: contains minor spoilers (although nothing that you couldn’t guess from the trailer).

   This is an ambitious (and beautiful) film that is difficult to categorise in terms of genre. It is not quite as mysterious as the trailer makes out, and although it certainly has suspense, romance was also a dominating element for me. But not romance in a wishy-washy sense, rather romance in a ‘filtered-through-an-opium-induced-fever-dream-and-possibly-dreamt-by-Conan-Doyle’ sense. As the Fotogramas review observes, although the film doesn’t contain supernatural elements, it sometimes feels like it’s flirting with that realm; the heady atmosphere created by Eugenio Mira forms a kind of heightened reality, not quite our world, which seems appropriate for a film where one of the main characters cannot trust her sense of perception.
    The prologue of the film takes place in 1892, on the day that Artur Prats (Sergi Mateu) demonstrates his new invention (a telescopic rifle) to potential investors / buyers. His daughter Joana (still only a child) takes part in the demonstration, releasing black balloons into the sky for the men to aim at. But when the demonstration goes awry, Joana faints, and on coming 'round she mistakes Carles (at this point just her father’s assistant) for her father. A POV shot establishes what she is seeing: faces with all distinguishing marks smoothed out, as if they were robbers wearing stockings over their heads, and shapes warped as if in a carnival mirror. This initial sequence is one of the few in the film to take place in daylight and is like a deep breath of air before being submerged underwater; for the most part, the rest of the film takes place seven years later within Joana’s now-enclosed world (daylight being too overwhelming) in her family home, and in the shadowy alleyways of Barcelona. The limitations of Joana’s world work in the favour of the film, which manages to utilise a relatively small number of locations to spectacular effect. Indeed, the conspirators within the film also demonstrate that clever set-dressing and an eye for detail will get you a long way in creating (or recreating) a place or era: the opulence of the period is conveyed via details in the interiors and costumes, and the rest is hidden in the murky atmosphere of the engulfing shadows.
   I don’t really want to reveal too much about the mechanics of the plot (narrative or conspiracy), except to say that there is ingenuity to it and it is conducted with élan. The McGuffin (i.e. what the conspirators are after) is the formula for the lens in the telescopic rifle, the production of which was halted (and the prototype apparently burned) by Artur after the fateful day that opens the film. He has lost all appetite for working in the arms trade (he makes the point to Carles that they can’t guarantee the ‘quality’ of their clients –he seems to have been slightly naïve about that in the past), but there’s also the related fact that the lens (and his business) is named after Joana: he manufactures instruments that enhance sight in the name of someone whose vision is no longer trustworthy. Others, however, will not let the matter rest, and there are repeated attempts at industrial espionage at the factory.
   The conspirators (led by Martina Gedeck’s character, Artur’s former business partner) believe that Artur has entrusted the formula to Joana. They come up with a (somewhat theatrical) plan which requires  her to mistake Vicent for Carles, and to confide in him. Of course, given that her perception is damaged, they don’t need the men to look identical (although they do manage to get Noriega and Gómez looking very similar) but their mannerisms and behavioural tics need to match up. An example of the attention to detail in the film is how the two actors manage to create a body language that is performed by one and impersonated by the other. A nice illustration of that is a sequence where Vicent tails Carles through the city at night (as part of his study of the man so that he can impersonate him). On exiting a bar, both actors put their cloaks on (one after the other, Vicent / Gómez copying Carles / Noriega) with the same swooshing action; it’s a small thing, but something that nonetheless suggests that Vicent might just succeed in his role. I won’t say any more about how they go about replacing one man with the other, except that once that part of the plot goes into action the audience quickly realises that no one will come out of the experience unscathed.
   The central three actors are all very good (I’ve always thought that ‘looking without seeing’ is a difficult thing to fake given that we respond to visual stimuli without even thinking about it, but Goenaga makes it believable, and the way that emotions ripple across her face hooked this viewer –the audience’s sympathies and loyalty always remain with her even when (or maybe partly because of the way) our sympathies oscillate between the two men), and all three reveal that there is more to their characters than initially appears on the surface. The relations between their characters (the emotional entanglements) are more involving than the McGuffin, and the suspense part of the plot in that respect is possibly a bit underdone (or perhaps just over-emphasised in the trailer).
   Overall, a handsome production that is unlike anything I’ve seen recently (from Spain or anywhere else). It scores for originality, and although it may not hit all of the marks that it aims for, it nonetheless shows the dividends of aiming high in all aspects of the production.