Hortensia

Argentina (2015) Dirs. Diego Lublinsky & Álvaro Urtizberea

Some people can drift aimlessly through yet still manage to get on, others struggle at every turn. Some of us are always searching for that elusive thing we hope will make us happy, fulfilled or, more commonly, rich. Having a set plan usually helps yet it is not unknown to benefit from happenstance and serendipity – but which is the best way?

Hortensia (Camila Romagnolo) has her world rocked when her father (Nicolás Espinosa) dies from being electrocuted by their fridge, and then she is fired from her job. Compounding her misery, Hortensia discovers boyfriend Jerónimo (Martín Policastro) is cheating on her with best friend Bárbara (Denise Groesman).

Going through her father’s things Hortensia finds a note she wrote aged 14 with two life goals: 1) Marry someone blonde like her father, and 2) Design the most beautiful shoes in the world. Encouraged by this, Hortensia decides it is time to fulfil these goals with surprising results that see her fortune change, although not always for the better.

There is a lot about Hortensia that she could be considered to be the deadpan cousin of Amélie; even the shared physical appearance as a wide-eyed, raven-haired slip of a girl supports this, along with the film’s dated colour palette. However, this quirky curio from Argentina is far more subtle in its humour and boasts less of an overarching storyline than its celebrated French ancestor.

Working from a script by Alicia Giménez Guspí, this often feels like a collection of oddball vignettes than an episodic tale of a young woman trying to male something of her life in the wake of a series of tragedies and disappointments. Not all of them hit the mark, mostly tending to reveal their relevance in hindsight rather than cogent in furthering the plot at the time.

Our first impression of Hortensia is of a gauche, shy girl eager to please but suffers fools all too gladly as a result. She loses her job as her newly developed phobia of electrical appliances following her father’s electrocution prevents her from lifting an extension lead blocking her way. At home, the chalk outline of her father’s body remains on the kitchen floor in front of the fridge, forcing Hortensia to open the door with a stick and throw items inside.

Best friend Bárbara can’t pay back a loan because she bought expensive and unsolicited fireworks for the (indoor) New Year’s Eve party so as far as she is concerned that cancels it out, but still has her cheek to borrow Hortensia’s favourite shoes. This is before she “borrows” Hortensia’s boyfriend and goes with him on the holiday Hortensia paid for, but at least she returned the shoes first.

The laughs at this point are born from the horrible awkwardness of the situation and to a degree engender sympathy for our milquetoast protagonist whilst leaving us frustrated at how much of a doormat she is. With only her dog for company, Hortensia might as well curl up and die but in fact, she has more gumption than we give her credit for, immediately setting about designing those world-beating shoes.

Now the story begins in earnest. A trip to the vet reunites Hortensia with an old school friend Ishmael (Agustin Scalise), a well-meaning, young man and ideal boyfriend were he blonde. They hit it off regardless but Ishmael’s eagerness to please backfires. Meanwhile, Hortensia meets Marcos (David Szechtman), a shy, rather chubby chap but more importantly blonde. They start dating but Hortensia feels guilty about ignoring Ishmael – love triangle alert!

Pathos really is the key here though and directors Diego Lublinsky and Álvaro Urtizberea pile it on with abandon, so much so that the trenchant satire on social expectations often gets lost. In the second half of the film, having put both Ishmael and Marcos on the back burner due to their own idiosyncrasies, Hortensia’s renewed sense of worth sees her frequent arguably the worst singles bar in history to find Mr. Right.

Heading into the final act, the message of the film is made quite apparent, as if it was just realised that the past hour might have been a little too arcane for some. The first cipher is Lucila (Paula Carruega), trying to reach a target of bedding 232 inexperienced men. She is unhappy because her life is consumed with achieving this goal that it has lost meaning but she doesn’t want to give up.

But goals can be good too – since chasing hers, Hortensia has been motivated, found new friends and even prospective partners. Yet, to be able to move on Hortensia has to make the hardest disconnection to her past life, and only then can she be free and ready to fulfil her dreams. The subtle hints where there all along in the story but at that point only Hortensia was unable to see them, for she felt their impact the most.

Where the script is perhaps too clever is that its quirkiness obscures the satire, and it is only during post viewing analysis that the penny drops about some of its targets, like blonde hair, cruelty to animals, TV scams and so on. Things like the vet owner also being a hunter, or party crashers dancing like zombies because that’s how they are supposed to act fall into the less subtle category.

Equally guilty of providing a distraction is Camila Romagnolo who is just too perfect as the eponymous heroine. She may possess the same adorable elfish qualities as Audrey Tautou but her character is a little more spiky and less ethereal, but quite relatable. In fact, the whole cast play it so convincingly their roles seem tailor made for them.

The problem with Hortensia is that it may require a few re-watches to appreciate what it hopes to achieve but if you didn’t get it the first time, sitting through it again is not an alluring prospect. Worth a look if you like droll, offbeat, subtle black comedy.