Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Lukas Valenta Rinner's A Decent Woman (2016), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from January 26 - February 25, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
It’s possibly belaboring the obvious to note—to quote Naomi Watts’s Janey-E in David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks—that we live in dark, dark times; for a counterblast against the rot, even irresponsible, unfocused dissent is cathartic. Lukas Valenta Rinner’s A Decent Woman premiered two years ago but feels absolutely of the moment: a story about cloistered communities which impose conservative impulses on everything around them. In this case, “conservative” doesn’t designate the old GOP model—in which a balanced budget is the top moral priority of the country and social issues come are a not-quite-as-close second—but the complete subjugation of all those who don’t belong to the 1%, an agenda smuggled in and enforced under the guise of moral righteousness. The context is hyper-specific, but the resonance travels.
That’s appropriate, because this is a uniquely transnational project in both its financing and Rinner’s background. A Decent Woman opens with the usual spate of production company logos seen before pretty much any arthouse/festival film. More than the usual soup of international funds, these opening logos—limited to three countries—tell a coherent story about how the film came to be. Born and raised in Austria, Rinner went to film school at Argentina’s Universidad del Cine and showed his first feature, Parabellum (2015), at the Jeonju International Film Festival, which subsequently decided to fund this effort. The Jeonju money came with deadlines, which necessitated keeping the start-to-finish production time to six months. It’s an unusual trifecta of countries for a coproduction, which is appropriate for a film that blends prototypically “Austrian” severity with staple concerns of Argentinian cinema.
Austrian is in quotes so as not to be reductively essentialist—still, that’s a paraphrase of Rinner’s own reasoning. Growing up, he felt an affinity with some of his homeland’s prototypically severe output: Rinner’s cited Thomas Bernhard and Michael Haneke as formative influences, though a closer affinity can be found with Ulrich Seidl. Seidl more often shoots abroad than at home, primarily working with non-actors; Rinner has shot his two features to date in Argentina, with a mixture of pro and non-pro performers. Both have a preference for shooting on real locations rather than constructing sets, and both favor a composition style defaulting not-quite-symmetrical, with the severe gaze of an entomologist pinning down their subjects in a mode of definite moment. Seidl has been accused by critics of gratuitous cruelty and condescension, charges he denies; Rinner likewise displays a comic flair in a mean mode, but his ire is directed towards entirely worthy recipients.
The ideas for both of Rinner’s features to date sprung from scouting real locations: survivalist training camps in Parabellum, a nudist colony in A Decent Woman. Said colony in this film is located on the other side of a gated community; during production, they tweeted threats against the nudists from the Twitter account @LosDecentes, and that handle provided the film’s Spanish-language title. Bridging the two spaces is Belen (Iride Meckert), a live-in maid who arrives to work at the house of wealthy Diana (Andrea Strenitz) and her aspirant tennis pro son Juan (Martin Shanly). Rinner has noted an interest in Argentina’s socioeconomic dynamics, in which the stratification between the wealthy and their (often darker-skinned) domestic help is often politely unarticulated. This is a shared point of interest between Rinner and the otherwise completely dissimilar Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman), whose films disapprovingly literally foreground the privileged, their darker-skinned servants observable but pointedly silent in the background. Rinner takes the opposite visual tack; Belen is introduced in a head-on shot of maids coming in and out of an office for job placement interviews. We’re locked into her perspective and she’s foregrounded throughout; striding into the community, the camera pulls backwards as she strides towards her new residence. It’s a given that she’ll be a silent and uncomplaining employee, but she’s still the dominant subject of visual focus, cluing us from the beginning as to whose experience is most important.
A Decent Woman is a study in blues and greens; in the carefully art-directed gated community, the manicured, slightly pale greens of the lawns (in contrast to the sections only walked through by maids and security, all tan concrete—bright colors are only for the wealthy) contrast with the pallid blue and white of Belen’s working clothes, echoed in the same-colored dishes and cups she washes. The estate’s relative lushness literally pales in contrast to the unrestrained, richly verdant greens of the nudist colony, a metaphorical divide underlined through sheer saturation. What all this useless beauty is being used for is a totally different question. “When we started this movement we were a group of very unorganized people with a clear goal: to defend our liberties to our deaths,” the group’s leader says. But what are those liberties, and how do they effectuate change, if that’s what’s desired?
There’s a bracingly martial, percussion-only score beneath the film’s credits, whose elements will recur throughout, their tonal belligerence clarified and amplified in the closing sequences. What A Decent Woman is building to, unexpectedly, is an affirmation of the right to dissent and protest against an unjust status quo, even if no concrete alternative is being proposed. It’s a long, uncomfortably funny push to get there; Belen speaks less than anyone in the film, even as she remains its silent center of focus. In that respect, the film also shares a kinship with Lars von Trier’s Dogville, another story of a woman who endures in a toxic location until she can no longer tolerate what she sees. All this makes A Decent Woman sound heavy, but it’s not—t’s a black comedy that brings an outsider’s diagnosis to bear on a society, with the amused distance that comes when one’s own personal background is not being directly interrogated. Come for the extensive nudity of all shapes and sizes, stay for a righteous clarion call of negative energy.