The Heiresses: All Mod Cons, by Alexander Miller
Marcello Martinessi’s The Heiresses is an exercise in quiet power; it channels the unspoken emotional substance of a moment and articulates the intricate minutiae of human emotion. Martinessi favors subtlety and atmosphere over broad emotional crescendos and traditional narrative structure. While this aesthetic temperament isn’t new or groundbreaking, his intuitive navigation in etching out the story lends The Heiresses an air of distinctive quality while generating a pliable momentum.
Our titular heiresses, Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), are an exit past middle age but far from being an elderly couple. Chela is the reserved and fastidious one. Chiquita, is the fiery upstart. Their contrasts don’t define them but the dynamic of their relationship feels authentic. They live in the modern world but their mores, decor, home and cultural elitism come from a bourgeois amalgam evoking the spirit of Grey Gardens with a whiff of EM Forster. The house is an ornate collection of heirlooms, silverware, teacups, dining rooms sets, fringed doilies and table runners and yet the reflection of their modernity doesn’t clash with but rather emphasizes the aroma of a bygone era. On the one hand, there’s Chela, who receives her morning coffee on a tray with an innumerable array of accoutrements. She’s the introverted painter while Chiquita is the fervent extrovert, the personable wild card.
The perverse irony to all these fanciful amenities is their financial situation. Despite hiring a maid, Chiquita has run up so much debt, she’s facing a 30-day jail sentence. The couple is gradually parting (while kicking and screaming) with their plush furnishings to supplement their financial woes but Chiquita is carried off to the pokey. At first, Chela is despondent, lost in a big house without her lover while the place gets progressively more spacious as they continue to sell their goods. She finds some relative respite when she gives a ride to her older neighbor. Chela collects a little money on the side for playing chauffeur.
Meanwhile, Chiquita more than adjusts to life in jail; she flourishes. Chela, meanwhile, is rattled by the rowdy prisoners and visitors she grazes past while locating her lost beau on visiting day. She is regaled with jailhouse gossip, cigarette currency, inmate nicknames and their different reputations, all while receiving little to no affection or sentiment from her lover. Chiquita actually chastises Chela for driving people around, as if it should be beneath them.
There’s no emotional connection from Chiquita. With her sense of abandonment and the overarching perverse irony of getting heckled by her partner who is in jail for debt when she’s making money, Chela decided to pursue an unofficial taxi business. Despite having no license, little driving experience and a nervous disposition, her decision to cart people around might seem like an odd decision but the permeating circumstances (paired with the independent penchant for discovery) leads her down this path. In Chela’s travels, she meets the daughter of a client, Angy, a sensuous and spirited woman. From the outset, we can see that these two spark an interest in one another and we’re not sure if it’s sexual or if Chela is drawn to Angy as a representation of cultural liberation, where antiquated codes and silverware sets are irrelevant, an inverse of her absent Chiquita.
The film is a metaphysical journey that eschews genre by circumventing the coming-of-age or romance genres. It’s a deeply emotional and evocative journey of self-discovery. The Heiresses touches on themes of class and culture, the mores of the petit bourgeoisie and a sense of haughty classism that doesn’t age or progress, almost like a person who would hire a maid while they have staggering debt. And yet, Martinessi’s film goes a step further, casting a glance toward gender and age and suggesting that we never cease to grow and, like a progressive (depending on where you’re from) society, it never pays to remain in stagnation.
The Heiresses is an effectively realized film that utilizes a relatively simple narrative to explore a plethora of issues ranging from personal to political, free of heavy-handed pandering. Stylistically Luis Arteaga’s cinematography feels saturated and balances a naturalistic, darker color palette, with a murky almost digital look.
As a side note, I’ve read and heard people refer to The Heiresses as a “gets her groove back” movie. This lazy form of tethering is a reductive and numb-skulled way to look at cinema. If we analyze movies through a cipher of pop-culture references and dumb analogies then we’re contributing to an ever-widening chasm of intellectual midgetry.