Who are these affluent looking young people constantly in cahoots against one another? They talk, they drink, they exchange partners, they are having a good time in their own hermetic world. It is not exactly a utopia, there are conflicts, there is a ruler, but they all agree on one thing: to make a film.
I decide on another thing: to watch a film. What is my purpose? To discover new worlds. Usually I like to discover things that build on previous worlds I’m familiar with. There is a kinship here, and I enjoy the mixture.
We’ve all heard the comparisons to Rohmer and Rivette. Young people talking about love. Let’s end it there. Because in actuality, Todos Mienten, is a straightforward experiment in ensemble acting, group storytelling, and cinematic staging.
A group of friends gather in a crumbling country house. They are on vacation it seems, so they lounge around, they play cards, they play music, and they do chores. That’s what we see in appearance. But there is a back story that is implied. Everyone seems to have previously agreed to engage in these “acting out” games, or mini-plays, that mix stories from an 19th century Argentine author (D.F. Sarmiento), and facts from their real lives. Helena (Romina Paula) is the ringmaster of this circle, and why? Because she is the great granddaughter of this writer–her life is inherently entwined with fiction.
So far so good: we have a movie about a group of friends acting out stories mixed with real life references. This is a metaphor for the movie itself: a group of young actors making a movie.
What I will try to lay out in the following paragraphs is that Todos Mienten is none other than a movie about its own making. Story elements will point to that fact. Layered over, is also an impressive exploit of cinematic staging–camera movements, and edits, that seemingly integrate the flow of the different viewpoints of each character.
So to recap, I will be pointing out two things: how the story and its elements are referents to their own conception (self-reflexivity), and how most of the shots display a virtuosic mastery of movement as attached to the urges of the characters. For the latter, I think one has to watch the film to see the intangible, but I still will attempt to point out the overall qualities exuded by the different techniques employed.
The director’s obsession with the writings of D.F. Sarmiento has been well established in his first feature, El Hombre Robado. Sarmiento makes a more implicit appearance here, not only as writer part of Literature, but as the great grandfather of a character in the story. This creates a lot of backstory just from the beginning. We imagine wealth, a life of adventure, a lineage involved in the arts, and even political affiliations. Not all of those assumptions are true, but some do show up and play a vital role in the story.
Helena opens the film with a direct reading of a Sarmiento story. The choice of this story is interesting for the overall film because it brings up two themes that are fundamental to the story: chance, and the possibility of man ruling over his destiny by rule. In the story Sarmiento keeps running into the same person, across Europe and America. The last time they see each other, they promise to never run into each other again. They never did afterwards, as if the act of voicing the promise and setting the rule against fate, helped prevent their recurring meeting.
We know everyone has just arrived to the country house, and we know they are planning on leaving at any point in time. In fact, the first lines spoken in the movie are from Helena, who says she is waiting for someone to “come and take me out of here”. So we are aware that things will come to an end, and everyone will disperse. Put it another way–the movie announces its own demise at the beginning. This is a perfect framing strategy, it immediately implies the bookend of duration. “We have just got here, but we will all leave soon.”
1A The Games Begin
With Sarmiento’s story of chance encounters floating in our mind, we immediately plunge into a second story, a story that seems to be the driving line of Helena’s motivation for the gathering. As if she reunited everybody to air out her personal narrative, so that everyone’s reaction to it would work as a measuring rod to analyze her own persona. By this point, the parallels between the role of movie director, and the character of Helena, are very striking. Helena outlines her story, which is a story about her family history, the same way a film director gathers a group of actors around a script.
Helena’s story brings up the same themes of chance as Sarmiento’s opening story, but this time, Helena is part of the story, and so is Sarmiento. No longer is Sarmiento merely an outside reference, suddenly he is alive and related to a character, Helena. We can say Sarmiento has been inserted in Helena’s story, which is a real story taken from her life. In the same breath, Helena is part of Sarmiento’s life, which is to say, she is part of his writings. Any further reference to Sarmiento will imply the very existence of the characters of the film, due to their relation with Helena. Writing becomes an extension of a character, that is to say, it becomes part of her. Everyone that will be brushing against Helena’s story can be said to also belong to the family.
1B Helena’s Story
Helena’s story is simple, and has an interesting motif of repetition. It hooks us in, because it is linked like a chain, each story-unit representing a different generation of Helena’s family, all the way down to her.
The story is the following: Sarmiento, the writer, has an illegitimate child with a prostitute. This prostitute raises the child in a whorehouse, who eventually grows up to be the matron of the place. A German sailor impregnates her, she has a daughter, and he dies not long after. The curse begins. The new child grows up, marries, has a daughter, few months after the daughter is born, the father is shot dead. This latest daughter grows up and marries a John Pickford, Helena’s father, who dies shortly after her birth.
The story is told not by Helena, but by Monica (María Villar), who throughout the film is like Helena’s main confidant. The other girls help in the telling, by supplying details such as correct dates, locations, and orientation. The scene has been setup so that the guys are the listeners, and the girls are the storytellers in a kind of Arabian Nights way. However, the story is part of a game where the guys are supposed to detect a hidden pattern. This is complicated by one of the girls purposely spiking the drink of one of the guys so as to inebriate him faster.
So here’s what we get from this scene: we are told a story about Helena which is the framework for everybody’s current presence as active actors in the gathering and the duration of the film. Having said that, one of the “listeners” has been drugged so as to deliberately obfuscate and distort the remembrance of this already hypnotizing story.
What’s even more fascinating, is that during the telling of the story, Helena, and Chaz (Ivan’s brother), engage in play-acting, wearing different hats, and sweaters, kissing, so as to represent the different couples part of the story. The others are meant to pay attention and detect the answer of this live mimed charade.
When Camilo offers an explanation for the story, all the girls laugh. Nobody knows if he cracked it. But in this case, it seems like no answer means “yes”. Camilo’s theory is that the “curse” is set to repeat itself, which means that Helena will be the next one to give birth to a daughter, and soon after the father will die. Everyone laughs it off, but this morbid reasoning underlies Helena’s motivations for the different role games she’ll play or talk about during the film.
One of the underlying subtexts throughout the film is gossiping. The girls gossip about the guys, and the guys about the girls. Helena starts off the film appearing to be involved with Ivan, but she starts kissing Chaz, not before Camilo tries to kiss her. But Camilo is supposedly with Isabel (Julia Martínez Rubio), but she is falling for Chaz. Who’s left? Helena tries to convince Monica to hook up with Camilo, but she’s not interested, she says she’s “not good at being in a relationship”. On the other hand, Emilia (Pilar Gamboa) is a crab, she talks to no one, so she kisses no one. She’s the neutron of all the excited particles frolicking around the house. The quantum physics of courting are verbalized subtly, through glances, kisses, and matter of fact small talk. The effect is that there is something playful that links everybody, more than the abstract theatrical games spearheaded by Helena.
It’s like a play about the situation of a play, which includes the roles set out by a given script, but also the relationships between the role-conscious actors. I think what Pineiro is doing by showing these dynamics, is trying to represent the spirit of the collaborative endeavor he is engaged in. It is a cinema that seeks to represent its own mechanics. I’m not sure if it’s a desire to be truthful, because that word might be too limiting. If anything, the situations inside the movie explain best the intended goal of the director. A group of friends gathering to partake in a getaway otherworld where they enjoy collaborative role playing. Part theater, part just hanging out with friends, partly embedded in a technical cinematic machine that captures it all according to its own external structure.
1D JMR or The Artistic Ethos
A crucial plot element is the presence of a painter named Joaquin Martin Rosas whose paintings are described as having a “geometry that recovers the order of things”. This is the same JMR who Helena is supposedly waiting for to be taken away. Whether this means that JMR will help her escape her fate is unclear. He might just come to extricate her from the machiavellian hold the house has on her. Her constant ruminations about the genetic curse running through her lineage which causes her to involve her group of friends in machinations and charades as if she was exorcising ghosts of a troubled past that still lives through books, documents, and family names.
Part of Helena’s instructions to her friends was for someone to call JMR and pretend to be a gallerist seeking to buy his paintings. We find out that JMR doesn’t actually paint, but Helena makes sure someone paints for him and signs his name. The profit from the sales are supposed to help publish a book Helena is writing.
If this sounds too convoluted to be taken seriously, allow me to offer a simple explanation as to what Pineiro might have intended with the inclusion of this story element. JMR, I believe, is a surrogate figure for a film director. He is a painter with some amount of success, but he does not make his own paintings. They are produced collectively by his friends. So, JMR is only a designated avatar for a collaborative endeavor. The publishing of the book that Helena is writing is supposed to be an expose of the collaboration process.
The paintings are Rothko-like monochrome tableaux w off-white vertical stripes of different thickness. More than one copy is made of each painting. The purpose is to create identical pieces for different buyers who unaware of the other existent copies believe they are unique. This allows them to sell more copies on the basis that they are originals, when they might be considered fakes. Since all the copies are original, the idea of a “fake” JMR painting, collapses. There are no fakes, there are only identicals. The buyer is unaware, but the creators are able to profit, and at the same time, they appropriate ultimate ownership of their own creations.
This paradox of a copy of a painting not being a fake, but just being a copy, and still holding value, is representative of Pineiro’s idea of his own creative work. Like the saying that most directors make the same movie over and over, Pineiro seems to think there is some truth to that. Each project is a recreation of the previous one. The motif of repetition surfaces once again, like it did in Helena’s story. When Emilia calls JMR to setup a meeting and discuss his paintings she speaks of history being the main motor of artistic creation in his work. She asks him if he has ever felt possessed by a force that dictates his brushstrokes.
JMR is later revealed to be related to a 19th century governor of Buenos Aires who was also a tyrant and an enemy of D.F. Sarmiento, another JMR, Juan Manuel de Rosas. In a dream sequence, the real JMR shows up to the house and orders every one to climb up a tree, paint their face red, and recite war slogans. Could this be something like the anarchic free spirit of artistic creation, merging with the authoritarian, iron fisted dictatorial spirit of command?
2. The Undoing
Helena is paranoid that her next boyfriend might be a victim of the family curse. She warns Ivan to get away from her because if he fathers a daughter with her, his death will be imminent. While everyone sleeps (in the same room), she stays up staring into emptiness, searching for some kind of reassurance. The world around her exists only as far as the gears of fate grind to their inevitable conclusion. She orders Monica to tell the guys about a “secret tape” she recorded where she dictates her novel. Monica has to pretend this mystery is of her own doing, thus amplifying Helena’s paranoia in the eyes of others. On top of that, they must read Sarmiento’s book of Travels to Monica who is now play-acting to be unconscious after a loaded rifle she was cleaning goes off.
There is no real dramatic tension anymore. Just some kind of random madness, and automated duties. Everyone concerns themselves with their tasks, and keep gossiping about potential romantic interests. The tenets holding up the game are quietly disintegrating. Regardless, dutifully, they keep recording, painting, playing music, cleaning, burning paintings, emptying closets.
Ivan announces he’s leaving, Helena gives him an envelope full of money. Chaz who has seduced Isabel wants to leave too, but Isabel only agrees if she’s able to score a bullseye at darts (she fails). Emilia finds a bottle buried in the garden, inside there is a transparency document outlining Helena’s family tree and confirming Sarmiento as her great grandfather.
3. Hooks and Motifs
Helena records into a dictaphone her readings of Sarmiento’s book of Travels. Monica, her “assistant” has to transcribe it. These texts are supposedly part of a novel she is writing, which is about the events currently taking place. The need to reflect on the now is ever present, as well as understanding the past (the Sarmiento stories, Helena’s lineage), with only the future as a constant uncertainty. “JMR will come and take me away”, and he does show up, on horseback like the real JMR (dictator), might have returned.
The girls are likened to the Queens in playing cards by the guys who are trying to understand them. Monica and Camilo perform a song titled “The Four Dames” which sums up the movie and the role each girl plays in it (watch the trailer for the song). Everyone is always looking for bags to put things in, sometimes they find bags within bags. They garden, they paint, they play croquet, and darts. They are strangely attracted to one another, openly kiss in front of each other, then feel repelled, settle in with someone else in a sort of quantum attraction of particles. Messages preserved in buried bottles add to the fiction and seem to authenticate it when in fact mostly everything might have been imagined.
What’s at play here, is some kind of potpourri of metaphors for the artistic process of creation. Friends gather to create, various urges propagate through them. The Ringleader is a paranoid sociopath bent on distorting the truth for no other reason than to indulge in chaos. But everyone plays along, because nobody is getting cut, everyone is allowed to leave, their only sin is indulging in nonsense.
From close-ups to long takes, each scene shifts between those two registers. The close-ups are never stationary, they wander from face to face, to hands, sometimes with different planes in the same shot so as to get a reaction shot in focus while the action was out of focus–faces and bodies are entwined. The same long lenses are also used for long shots where the characters move from one end of the garden to the other
The light is always soft and sparse, yellow and brown, filtered through the leaves, and rounding contours and edges. The long takes move in places that can frame up to three different locations, indoors and outdoors. Clever cuts of characters throwing bags at each other link different long takes in the same scene. The shots are designed so that characters speak to each other, and never at the audience (there is hardly a single character in frame, always more than one). The camera follows their movements and in doing so becomes invisible (not noticeable). Night scenes are shot elegantly through blocking that appears to discover the light sources. During movement it tilts up, down, and sideways, and it moves a tad slower than the action, giving the effect that the world exists before it is even made to be recorded.
This is a very inspiring work. With very little, and with the power of suggestion, a complete netherworld is created. Of course, like any other movie, you have to fill in the blanks, you bring your own imagination to complete it. In this case, the canvas was blank enough for me to fill it in with my own thoughts and feelings. Part of the reason why it appealed to me is because it seems to be so much about what cinema can be. It negates the falsity of the overly dramatic, it insists on its own existence as artifice, and it seamlessly integrates elements of its making. It’s the equivalent of being given a bare rock and cutting it and polishing it to make a sharp tool. What ends up sticking, for this viewer, is not the mannerisms, or the references, or the images, it’s the methods underlying its construction.