Los Debutantes

Chile (2003) Dir. Andrés Waissbluth

The multi-perspective narrative is a difficult one to pull off even for a skilled filmmaker. For every Rashomon – arguably the granddaddy of this technique – plenty collapse under the weight of the keeping the multiple strands alive. To try this in your debut film is bold but that is exactly what Chilean director Andrés Waissbluth has done.

It’s a rather simple story being told but involving a complex central character, Gracia (Antonella Ríos) a stripper who has three men in love with her – Silvio (Nestor Cantillana) an employer at the club she works at, his teenage brother Victor (Juan Pablo Miranda) and the club boss Don Pascal (Alejandro Trejo).

Comparisons between Kurosawa’s seminal masterwork and Los Debutantes are purely superficial; its closest neighbour is more likely to be Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. While not as deeply involved, Waissbluth and co-writer Julio Rojas put enough meat on this skeleton plot to keep us engaged for two hours.

The conceit is the three different women Garcia portrays in the presence of her three paramours – to Victor she is the fantasy woman he is too immature to handle, to Silvio she is the temptress he loses his head over while for Don Pascal, she is merely a trophy/sexual plaything. These paths overlap but never cross, at least not knowingly until the final act when everything naturally comes to a head.

Beginning with Victor’s perspective, the fateful first meeting of our doomed siblings takes place on the younger brother’s 17th birthday. Silvio takes Victor to a strip to celebrate and pays a hooker to give him a birthday treat. When Victor returns, Silvio is called away to meet the club boss leaving Victor to enjoy the entertainment, which is where Gracia appears performing a sexy dance in a bikini made of shaving foam!

Naturally Victor (and I’m sure most men watching) falls for Gracia and skips school the next day to see her, finding her at the ticket office of the local cinema. Victor persuades Gracia to have an ice cream with him and they pair begin to get along, with him declaring her his girlfriend, until her night job interferes with their courtship.

This is where Silvio’s story takes over, showing us that while his brother as getting his birthday present, he took care of a troublesome customer with such aplomb that Don Pascal was impressed enough to give him a job. Now working as his driver, Silvio also gets to see the charms of Gracia up front and when the boss leaves his house in Silvio’s hands whilst away on a trip, a torrid affair begins between him and Gracia.

Of the three, this relationship appears the most genuine but is hard to tell as Gracia keeps her cards close to her chest. That said, only Victor knows of a secret she is keeping from everyone else, as it is with him she is the most relaxed. In Silvio’s company Gracia finds the passion and genuine sexual frisson missing through Don Pascal’s quick bonks and demanding possessiveness.

Waissbluth’s aesthetic presentation of Gracia is in accordance with the differing nature of her three partners. When out with Victor the tone is chaste, reflecting the limitations a 17 year-old can offer such a vivacious woman, whilst Gracia dresses more conservatively in these scenes. In the case of Silvio, it is tight slinky dresses when they are not at it like rabbits. For Don Pascal, the sluttier the attire the better for him.

We have to wait until the Gracia’s side of the story airs for the conflict to finally arise, which might be a late for some as much of the time thus far has been spent largely foundation building. However there are clues dotted about, especially during Victor’s segment, so paying attention is paramount. Admittedly it seemed Victor had dropped off the radar completely as the story progressed without him, leaving certain plot threads up in the air, but, suffice to say, all the pieces are connected in the tense conclusion.

Despite being made in 2003 there is a definite throwback feel to this film, with the fashions of the men seemingly stuck in the 1970’s (save for Victor’s Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirt), while Gracia’s showgirl turn is a sexier version of the 1940’s femme fatale. Gracia actually wants to be a singer so it is fitting that her big moment is resplendent with a noir-esque cabaret atmosphere.

Waissbluth employs many different shooting styles to tell his tale, keeping things simple for the early scenes with Victor, getting arty with the sexual content and stark for the less pleasant moments between Gracia and Don Pascal. One such scene, showing just Gracia’s face as Don Pascal grubbily takes her from behind is harrowing in its impact through the simplicity of relying just on Gracia’s pained reactions.

Of the main cast, only Nestor Cantillana (Silvio) and Alejandro Trejo (Don Pascal) had acted before while Juan Pablo Miranda makes his debut here. Antonella Ríos had worked in theatre and dance so this was also her film debut and what a debut it is. Undeniably sexy, Rios has a softer side she can channel to make Gracia both a manipulator and a victim when the needs arises, somehow triggered by her unusual eye make-up.

It’s not easy to pin down Waissbluth’s influences as a director since this film has a natural inherent South American grit to it, yet the Godard like jump cut edits suggest a study of the French New Wave, along with Hollywood film noir and Reservoir Dogs-era Tarantino for the edge, sans any excessive fireworks for the conclusion.

Some might complain the story isn’t deep or complex enough to warrant the multi-narrative treatment but Los Debutantes is as much about the characters as it is the plot. It might have been a little too ambitious for a debut but give this film a chance and it may just surprise you.