The Fish Child (El niño pez)

Argentina (2009) Dir. Lucía Puenzo

Love, apparently, knows no boundaries, be it is age, race, gender, or nationality though in some cases, obstacles are almost assured. One potential interference is class and social status, where the rich and privileged wouldn’t dream of letting their children fraternise with the lower classes, especially their servants.

This is a problem for Lala (Ines Efron), a young woman from a wealthy but dysfunctional family in a secret relationship with Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a Paraguayan maid whose youth and tenure sees her also considered part of the family. Tired of living a clandestine life, Lala and Ailin make plans to move to the latter’s native Paraguay but need money so they sell off the family’s belongings to raise the funds.

Once this has been achieved, Lala heads to Paraguay first and Ailin is to follow, but before she can leave the country, Lala’s father (Pep Munné), a judge associated with corrupt police officials, is found dead and Ailin is arrested on suspicion of murder. With Ailin in a juvenile prison in Argentina, Lala is in Paraguay trying to figure out a way to help her lover and realise their dream.

If you are wondering where the eponymous Fish Child fits into the story this is perfectly valid as it isn’t actually vital to the story at all, as you might have surmised from the plot synopsis. It is an invention of writer-director Lucía Puenzo, presented as a legitimate myth in Paraguayan folklore describing a fish boy who lives in Lake Ypoa and looks after the souls of lost children having dragged them underwater first.

Quite what this has to do with a lesbian love affair isn’t particularly clear until the end but had it not been included it wouldn’t have made any difference. Maybe it worked better in Puenzo’s original novel, which might also apply to the non-linear approach to the storytelling, an occasionally disorientating collage of time jumps between past and present until the final act, the only part of the film to stay on a singular plane.

From the outset we are presented with confusing and contrasting images relating to the central relationship, showing Ailin and Lala in passionate clinches interspersed with shots of Ailin with male partners, one being Lala’s father, a recurring motif of the film. This plants the seeds of suspicion regarding Ailin as someone using her sexuality to get what she wants, or maybe being bi-sexual, treating love and sex as two separate things.

What we have ascertained is that Lala is definitely in love with Ailin and if she is being played for a fool then she is naïve enough to be completely blind to it. Equally evident is the family home isn’t a happy one for Lala, and Ailin, as well as the family dog, provide sanctuary from it all. This disharmony is down to her father’s illicit dealings which have incurred death threats, whilst her indifferent mother has moved out and her brother is a recovering drug addict.    

Because Puenzo plays around with the timeline so much, it is difficult at times to get a clear reading on the characters and the moment they are caught in, the only constant being Lala. Emotionally and physically, she is something of a pinball – devoted to Ailin, she stays with her father (because of Ailin) whom she is stealing from, the last item they sell being not just the most valuable in terms of the cash reward but the most dangerous in destroying their planned future.

Depending on your point of view or tolerance towards esoteric arthouse presentation in cinema, the storyline screams for a linear narrative to make better sense of it all and get the most from the characters. They all seem distant and cold, some obviously with good reason, making it difficult to care about them, any resonance coming, I would dare to proffer, from the gay aspect of the main relationship.

The oppression of their forbidden love is a frustration many might relate to but not be able to imagine the extremes Ailin and Lala go to in order to ensure they have a happy life together. Something not disclosed is why, despite the family’s obvious wealth, Lala has to resort to theft to fund their escape when one would assume she’d have money of her own.

In fact, a lot is left a mystery, adding to the frustration created by the jaunty time jumps but most of the prominent story points come together in the end, the focus being on the corruption of the police chef, taking things down a dark path ahead of a shocking act of love and desperation to be committed. The final scene is naturally abrupt and obtuse but it is the closest thing we get to the happy ending Lala asks if they will ever experience, which of course Ailin can’t answer.

Having made her debut with the astounding XXY, Puenzo has bravely tried to make an enigmatic piece of art with a story that instead demands straightforward treatment. Parts of it do work though – a simple tableau framed like a classic painting of the girls together in the bath makes their love palpable, and an oneiric underwater scene gives us a few moments respite from the misery of outside world.

Puenzo brought in the star of XXY Ines Efron to lead this film which she does, effectively claiming it as her own, with a beguiling performance as a slight creature of a timorous disposition, fuelled by a passion of purity. Mariela Vitale is the opposite in every way and crucially so in giving the Sapphic chemistry its peccante frisson.

XXY was a film I enjoyed immensely, so maybe my expectations were too high as The Fish Child didn’t captivate or move me in the same way its predecessor did. When it works, it is great, but loses much through artistic indulgence, though I am sure others will feel differently. For discerning tastes only.