By SEAN MCGEADY
Starring Érica Rivas, Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, Daniel Hendler, Cecilia Roth
Directed by Natalia Meta
Written by Natalia Meta, Leonel D’Agostino, CE Feiling
Inés’ voice is work and play. Brought to life by a sparkling Érica Rivas, Inés is an actor who provides dubbing for foreign-language schlock, screaming and gasping in the studio until the engineer calls “cut”. After hours, she puts her vocal range to use as a soprano in her local choir. But when Inés’ voice comes under threat, so too does her source of income, her creative expression and her very identity.
Premiering in the UK at London Film Festival 2020, this is a journey into sound. Based on CE Feiling’s novel THE LESSER EVIL and unfurling largely inside recording studios, this Argentinian genre-bender blends the conspiratorial thrills and spills of Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT with the dreamlike paranoia of Peter Strickland’s BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO. But in many ways, THE INTRUDER’s clearest touchstone might actually be another Spanish-language melodrama whose protagonist is run ragged by forces beyond her control.
Like Pedro Almodóvar’s landmark WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, director Natalia Meta’s sophomore feature concerns a voice actor whose life and home is infringed upon by interlopers. Both are colourful, frequently funny and use canny audiovisual editing to blur the lines between their realities and fictions. But where the former deals in gazpacho-based farce, the latter leans towards more ghostly goings-on.
The film delivers its most shiver-inducing sequences as Inés confronts those she suspects of being an imposter
Following a traumatic event in THE INTRUDER’s uneasy prologue, Inés struggles to sleep, an issue exacerbated by prescription drugs, persistent nightmares and the unexpected arrival of her mother (Cecilia Roth, an Almodóvar regular). Meanwhile, the studio microphones seem to be picking up an almost imperceptible hum whenever Inés is near, rendering her recordings unusable. With the sound engineer positive his equipment isn’t to blame, wizened actor Adela (Mirta Busnelli) offers a more menacing explanation: Inés has an intruder.
What exactly an intruder is is never adequately defined. Adela’s diagnosis is delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner that it’s as if the concept is meant to be familiar to Inés (and to us) already. The script’s studio-based pseudoscience – all trapped energies, pacemakers and electromagnetic interference – clashes with its more folkloric aspects to leave this core component frustratingly vague.
Whatever it is, be it a demon, a gremlin or a kind of ghost in the machine, Inés’ intruder has latched onto her vocal chords. Not only can she not work, she can’t sing. Unable to hit the high notes required of a soprano, Inés’ maestro moves her down to the contralto section. As her nightmares intensify and she begins seeing ghosts from her past, it’s clear Inés is not in control. Someone or something else is pulling the strings.
Like BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO, Meta’s movie features a film professional whose grasp on reality crumbles before the very screen for which she’s supposed to perform. But even though THE INTRUDER frequently muddies the boundaries between dreams and reality, for better or worse, its presentation is far less slippery than that of Strickland’s flick. Even its most cryptic sequences are relatively straightforward, and Inés’ nightmares – an opportunity to turn the screws and really kick into high-gear horror – aren’t especially memorable.
But THE INTRUDER isn’t without tension. According to Adela, intruders have to be allowed in, which raises questions about practically everybody Inés interacts with, including her mother, and willowy new love interest Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The film delivers its most shiver-inducing sequences as Inés confronts those she suspects of being an imposter.
The message here seems to be about the dangers of unresolved traumas, the ways they can affect our performance and our perception of the world, and the ways they leave us vulnerable to the whims of others. In the film’s transcendental and confounding finale, it seems that, having pushed away her influencers – the lovers and mothers and those who might, surreptitiously or otherwise, seek dominion over a woman’s mind – Inés finds her voice as part of a new, alternative family. It’s a radical idea but it doesn’t quite work. Inés’ suspected ‘intruders’ aren’t explored in enough depth to make her resistance of and eventual triumph over them clear, necessary or satisfying.
But maybe that’s not what’s going on here. There’s a flicker of something that suggests that, rather than dispelling her intruder, Inés has embraced it. This and the movie’s many other ambiguities contribute to its own unique arrhythmia. In combining psychosexual thrills, twisted gialli and tongue-in-cheek melodrama, <em>The Intruder</em>, like its protagonist, finds itself with too many voices. Each of them struggles to make itself heard.