This is Cristina
The title is a deliberate misdirection. This is Cristina (Mariana Derderián) … but there’s also Susana (Paloma Salas). Best friends, most of the time. They share roughly equal time in this feature debut by Gonzalo Maza – previously a noted critic in Chile (I’ve published him in English, he helped publish me in Spanish), and then acclaimed screenwriter for film (several Sebastián Lelio movies) and television (political crime/corruption series Bala loca, 2016). Maza’s wife and collaborator Carmen Luz Parot (Estadio Nacional, 2003) is the chief co-producer here, with Salma Hayek lending her status as an executive producer.
We follow the daily misadventures in love, family and creative life of Cristina and Susana: when they are together, when they are apart (an argument splits them), and when they reunite (a tenderly touching moment in a generally wry, dry film). Friendship demands work, dedication, commitment, and it’s hard to maintain across the years – that’s underlined in the side detail of a street memorial to their departed mutual friend, Eva … a memorial they don’t remember to visit (or honour) much. The everyday wields its demands, and takes its toll …
It’s not a queer story, not even in its undertones. But it could so easily have gone that way, considering what deadhead dudes populate the romantic affairs of these two women. Rubén (Néstor Cantillana) has separated from Cristina; he flirts with her anew, and seems to be on the verge of proposing reconciliation … when he reveals that what he’s really after is the finalisation of their divorce, so he can move on with his life. An earlier scene has shown us what a crashing male bore Rubén can be: always butting in when Cristina and Susana speak to each other, always recentring the conversation on himself, his observations and achievements. Susana makes her opinion of him plain, and storms out; that’s what leads to the break between her and Cristina.
Cristina herself moves on to a fellow she has been observing warily, and did not expect (of course!) to fall for: the drama/writing teacher Rómulo (Roberto Farías). Another egocentric type, this time with a histrionic, slightly menacing flair (he yells, which we hear, and smashes a lot of plates, we are told). But also, in his way, a full-on romantic, and (at least according to the logic implied by the editing) the first explosion of passion between himself and Cristina immediately leads to pregnancy and living together. Until, that is, Rómulo begins “transferring” his creative drives onto a suspiciously dark, sullen figure on the margins of the action, Luciana (Daniela Castillo Toro).
Susana’s problems are less romantic, and more familial. We observe the last phase of her relationship with the very tight-lipped and over-tolerant Marcelo (Bernardo Quesney), but her main issue is with her papa, Pablo (Alejandro Goic). An intriguing detail in Ella es Cristina is the presentation of the older, parental generation in relation to our central characters. Both Cristina’s mother and Susana’s father are more gregarious, flakier, more willing to pronounce their attachment to the waves of erotic life. They head off on trips, lose their jobs, need money … which is where the complication sets in between Susana and Pablo. Susana – in fact, her entire generation – appears more circumspect, rather disapproving of their wilder elders … even as they make the same old mistakes and suffer the same old heartbreaks. They have no surer, and perhaps less joyous, a path to equilibrium.
That generational difference is significant. We observe, with an at times near-ethnographic or anthropological eye, the lifestyle of a particular age group (early 30s) and a specific class fraction (bohemian middle), in an educated and cultured slice of urban Chilean society; in this respect, the film reminded me of Susan Seidelman’s œuvre in its New York context. Not only do characters wear groovy glasses or possess autographed copies of Slavoj Žižek tomes (there’s a nice gag in that throwaway detail); they also eke out their living as graphic novelists (Cristina’s own budding artwork in this genre leans to auto-fiction), actors, writers, directors, performance artists. There’s an echo of many Philippe Garrel characters in that precisely situated emplacement, but perhaps with an extra layer of irony, the merest hint of an auteur’s smirk behind the camera.
Generically, This is Cristina is, in some respects and only approximately, a romantic comedy (I notice that it shares some cast members with the 2017 Chilean portmanteau project An Ordinary Day). It works a space somewhere between Woody Allen (in his more melancholic moods) and Garrel (some compositions in Benjamín Echazarreta’s black-and-white cinematography, especially out in the streets against fence railings and doors, reminded me of the crisp, artful, on-the-fly feeling of recent Garrel). The clear division of the narrative chronicle into parts is reminiscent of Allen.
Maza doesn’t aim for out-and-out jokes, but there’s a constant low-level ripple of amusement – particularly in the bemused, beautifully etched reactions on the faces of Derderián and Salas, both of whom do excellent work here. Meanwhile, a pleasant piano-and-percussion score by Cristobal Carvajal provides pace, colour and reflective shadings (another semi-Garrelian touch, but a little more in the Cédric Klapisch or Noah Baumbach ambience).
The film aims for a stoic, only slightly regret-filled wisdom and whimsy, and it largely succeeds in this goal. Maza captures well something that is both intensely sentimental and, at the same time, emotionally reserved in these particular Chilean characters of their modern time and place: greeting kisses come naturally, but placing a hand on the back of a relative stranger in need, or allowing the touch of an ex-partner, present a more tentative, even fraught scenario.
Female friendship, ultimately, offers both a “safer” and more reliable basis for long-term, communal, even child-rearing relations – or so it is quietly suggested in the film’s framing images of hauling stuff in and out of apartments, up and down stairs. As many a romantic comedy has gently and (bitter)sweetly concluded: life goes on!
© Adrian Martin 9 April 2019