Having directed three Mexican feature films, Spanish-born director Amat Escalante, grows more and more ambitious with each film as he refines his sobering and rigorous long-take aesthetic. At the same time, these features form a cohesive unit in which narratives center on, in, and around houses. If Roman Polanski has his apartment trilogy, Amat Escalante has his house trilogy. For now.
In the spare opening of Sangre (2005), a man lies flat on his back. Blood trickles down his forehead. As he slowly sits up, a woman briskly walks through the frame, from the upper right to the bottom left-hand corner. She ignores the man completely. What is this abstract image of? Ignorance? Humiliation? Defeat? Sangre unfolds the image like an accordion. The supine position mutates and varies all throughout the film, evoking resting, sex, defeat, and death.
The man is Diego, middle-aged, and living with his wife, Blanca. He is a tabula rasa written on by everyone, especially Blanca. In their lop-sided love, he is passive and she is aggressive. The house they live in is a container of their suffocating, oppressing, smothering relationship that obliterates anything and everyone else.
In the first images of the house, Escalante diagrams its spaces: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and finally the living room with Diego lying once more, this time on a couch watching TV. None of the rooms are connected spatially. They are severed, evoking the feeling of being boxed in, of being constricted. The rooms are cubes, containing the clutter and furnishings one accumulates in a lifetime: stacks of paper in the bedroom; a Coca-Cola stand in the living room; and a china cabinet in the dining room/kitchen.
In this house, this exclusive space, there is no room for a third person. Sangre’s narrative hinges on Diego’s daughter’s homelessness. She wants to move in with her father and her stepmother. Diego does not allow it though, anticipating what Bianca will (and does) say: no.
Diego feels guilty for pushing his daughter of his first marriage away. Offering her some assistance, he scouts out a meager hotel room for her. Her home and her life amounts to a green shabby room. This is the room she will die in, committing suicide, sending Diego to retreat into silence, before experiencing something of a reawakening. He bursts out of his house of intolerance, wandering in a daze through a garbage dump.
If Sangre goes from interior to exterior, Escalante’s next film, Los bastardos (2008), goes from exterior to interior (before moving to the exterior once more). The move happens in a narrative that consists of two strands that eventually converge. In the first, two migrant workers, Fausto and Jesús, look for work in Los Angeles. Abruptly, the film switches to a different scene, seemingly to a different movie. Now we watch a family struck with dysfunction. The son distances himself from his mother. The (step-) father is absent, leaving the mother alone to smoke crack.
These two strands converge in an image as abstract as the one that opens Sangre. In one of the film’s countless long shots, the focal point is a window, seen from outside, but illuminated from within. Darkness engulfs the window. As the camera slowly, nearly imperceptibly pushes in, Jesús and Fausto crawl into the home, invading it.
Reminiscent of Bruno Dumont (Escalante even thanks Dumont in the end credits of Heli), a reoccurring image appears in Escalante’s work: in living rooms, characters watch TV. The images on the set, often spiked with irony, comment on the characters watching. Diego watches a telenovela with Blanca, a souped-up copy of their stifling relationship. Watching junk TV, eating junk food, Diego’s life amounts to junk. By the end of Sangre, he wanders in a junkyard—his personal Germany Year Zero. In Heli (2013), the titular character sees a news report with the graphic image of three decapitated heads on a car roof. After clashing with drug runners/crooked cops, the drug war is no longer a news item, an image, but something that penetrated the home and affected Heli and his family. In Los bastardos, the mother falls asleep while an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show plays, the sitcom version of the happy American family.
When Jesús turns the TV off, the woman wakes up, shocked to see two strangers before her. Jesús and Fausto do not invade the home so much as possess it. Taking hits of crack, a dip in the pool, eating microwave dinners, Jesús and Fausto force the woman to treat them like family members or guests. When Cops plays, you know things are going to get worse. While guarding the woman with a shotgun, Fausto tells Jesús its time to leave, that they’ve overstayed their welcome. Out of the blue, Fausto shoots the woman at point blank range. The moment is a shock to the system (at least to mine). The living room is a safe and secure space that, in Escalante’s work, is subject to violence.
Escalante’s third film, Heli, is his most ambitious one yet in his early career. Here, the home is permeable with characters moving into or out of the space, whether they want to or not. At the beginning of the film, it barely holds the family together. Heli’s wife, Sabrina, wants to separate from him for a while, taking their child with her. Heli’s younger sister, Estela, wants to run away with her boyfriend, planning to live off the money they make from selling packages of cocaine her boyfriend found.
These packages set off a chain of horrific events that will forcibly remove Heli and his family from their home. They start with renegade police officers kicking the front door in, penetrating the home, as Heli’s father dozes off into oblivion. They abduct Heli and Estela and kill their father.
At night, Sabrina returns home from spending some time with a friend. Baby in hand, she walks to her house, discovering a home that is no longer a home. With blood streaked on the floor, objects overturned and strewn around, it’s foreign. The camera lingers at the threshold, as if hesitating to move into this space that is haunted by family members that are no longer there.
The film, however, ends on a hopeful note. This is a surprising development coming from a director whose prior work ended with ambiguous, bleak, and dour finishes. The surviving members of Heli’s family return home. In the final image, Estela and Heli’s son lie asleep on the couch, their bodies entwined. It is safe enough that the barred windows in the background are open causing the curtains to flap. Recalling an indelible moment in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, the curtains knock to the ground a bobble lying on a nearby table, causing Estela to stir. On this languid afternoon, it is as if the house comes alive, becoming a safe place again. It’s at least safe enough to sleep in.
Part of our on-going series The Details, a column that catches the small within the big, focusing on the individual elements that make cinema so expressive.