The Disquieting Aura of Fabián Bielinsky
“I said no to Hollywood. There you have no freedom to create.”
(Bielinsky to Federico Fahsbender)
“Film audiences won’t find in [The Aura] an accessible or agreeable story. Also, the film doesn’t show a bit of sympathy or good intentions for any of the characters. I’m talking not only about the near total lack of humor, but also that dramatic concessions were avoided in the screenplay – even though this is not a very good attitude when you think of a film as a product to be sold.”
(Bielinsky to Amadeo Lukas)
Fabián Bielinsky’s career was brief but incandescent, and yet his moment in the public eye came after years of hard work and apprenticeship. Born 3 Feb. 1959 in Buenos Aires, Bielinsky was obsessed with cinema from childhood, and by the age of 13 began making films while studying at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires, with the short film Continuidad de los Parques (1971), based on a short story by Julio Cortázar. After graduating high school, Bielinsky suddenly decided to pursue studies in psychology, but soon abandoned this to enter the Centro de Experimentación y Realización Cinematografia (aka known as Escuela Nacional de Experimentación y Realización Cinematográfica, or ENERC) where he directed another short film, La Espera (The Wait, 1983), this time from a story by Jorge Luis Borges, which also attracted favorable attention, winning First Prize at the International Festival of Huesco in Spain (Moviefone). This led to a plethora of work as an assistant director, and before his debut as a feature director with Nine Queens in 1998, Bielinsky drove himself into the ground working on roughly 400 television commercials, along with, in the words of one biographer,
“several high-profile feature films including Marco Bechis’ Alambrado, Mario Levin’s Sotto Voce, and Carlos Sorin’s Eterna Sonrise de New Jersey. Bielinsky then worked his way up the ladder, climbing up to the tier of co-screenwriter and second director on two projects for filmmaker Fernando Spiner: Bajamar, la Costa del Silencio and La Sonambula. Bielinsky’s graduation to director happened somewhat capriciously; he won first prize in a filmmaking contest sponsored by Patagonik Film Group, Kodak, Cinecolor, JZ y Associados and FX Sound – a cash prize that gave him the funds to shoot his debut feature. This effort, 1998’s Nine Queens, [won] awards around the globe, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and seven other accolades at the 2001 Argentinean Film Critics’ Association Awards; Best Argentinean Film of the Year by FIPRESCI 2001; and the Audience Award and Best Director prizes at the 2001 Lleida Latin-American Film Festival. The picture, a labyrinthine crime thriller sans the comic overtones of Pulp Fiction and True Romance that had become en vogue at the time, deals with two small-time con artists, Juan (Gastón Pauls) and Marcos (Ricardo Darín), who partner up for a hotel-centered scam that involves a philatelic forgery.” (Moviefone)
Indeed, the film was a worldwide hit, and even spawned a tepid American remake, Criminal (Gregory Jacobs, 2004), with John C. Reilly, Diego Luna and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Diplomatically, Bielinsky refused to discuss Criminal, telling Jorge Leterier that, “I promised not to talk about it. Let everyone draw their own conclusions. What do I know? It has very good actors.” But in the meantime, Nine Queens unexpectedly “typed” Bielinsky as an expert in “caper comedies,” something that he hadn’t fully appreciated when the film was first released. But even with Nine Queens, which is nothing more or less than a blinding series of double and triple crosses, coupled with “slamming door” farce dealing with inopportune and/or staged exits and entrances, Bielinsky was trying mightily to break out beyond the barriers of convention. Fluent in both Spanish and English, Bielinsky was courted by the World Press, and gave a series of valedictory press junket interviews on the film, telling the BBC’s Tom Dawson that,
“people told me that they wanted to make something more commercial. Before Nine Queens, in Argentina if you wanted to make money with your film, you had to do a stupid comedy with television actors. Nine Queens proved that you could make a personal film, without big stars, which wasn’t a comedy, and that it could still make a load of money and get good reviews.”
But of course, this really isn’t the case; Nine Queens is resolutely commercial from start to finish, and is seemingly designed to both dazzle and confuse audiences, in the most non-threatening fashion possible. One can hardly blame Bielinsky, though, for trying so ferociously to work his way out of the world of 60-second television spots and assistant director jobs with his first feature, for which he also wrote the screenplay. As Andrew L. Urban noted, while conducting an interview with Bielinsky shortly after the film’s release, Bielinsky has
“the odd phone call from those producers who had been offered the script but [rejected it]. ‘Some never called me again, but a few called and said “what can I say, I was wrong, I’m an [asshole]…everybody’s telling me I’m an [asshole] and they’re right”…but believe me, it’s nothing like revenge for me because I did end up with the right producers and I’m glad I didn’t make the film with those that knocked me back. Fate led me to the right place… [—] I’ve had a lot of phone calls […] something like 15 different production companies from all over the world, but mainly Americans – have approached the production company to buy the script and do an English language remake. But not only American… there were also people from England and France interested. When there was vague talk of me directing a remake, I said absolutely not. I’m not going to make my first and second film the same. That’s a crazy idea. [—] [Instead, I’m working on] a psychological thriller – or something like that… about a decent man who is tempted by crime […]. I’d like to…you know, make it a small, warm film and keep full control. But the most amazing thing that happened to me with Nine Queens is that everybody from all over the world is calling me and they want to work with me and they offer me production and everything. All these doors are wide open waiting for me. But I’m trying not to think about all that…just thinking of the script and to finish that first.’”
Of course, in refusing to try to repeat himself, with almost guaranteed diminishing returns – not to mention limiting his future creative options for the rest of his career, Bielinsky was already moving on, even disavowing the film that had put him on the map to a degree, refusing to categorize it as a comedy, but rather, a “personal film.” Yes, it was a film over which Bielinsky had total creative control, but if Bielinsky had followed in the ill-advised footsteps of such directors as Géla Babluani, whose slavishly uninspired 2010 American remake of his brilliant 13 Tzameti (2005), titled simply 13, pretty much finished his career, or George Sluizer, whose watered-down and fatally compromised 1993 American remake of his 1988 hit The Vanishing (Spoorloos) also caused a major career setback, he probably would have suffered much the same fate. As he told Urban of the proposed American remake, even at that early stage, the entire idea was inherently ridiculous; “You as director and the crew and the producers who made the film with you, we all agree that the film was perfect. Everybody loved the film, and it went great at the box office and we won all these accolades and awards and everybody liked the film…so, let’s do it again.”
No – that would not happen to Fabián Bielinsky. Even though, as Stuart Klawans would point out after Bielinsky’s death, Bielinsky received “no [financial] windfall from Nine Queens, having signed away the film’s rights to the [organizers of the competition that provided the financing]” (Klawans 2006: 348), making Nine Queens as his debut feature was still an exceptionally shrewd move. As Klawans notes, Nine Queens outgrossed Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in Argentinian cinemas, but such outsize success comes with a definite price. As the press junket for Nine Queens wore on and on, even into 2002, Bielinsky
“[began] to sound apologetic. Because of Nine Queens, ‘I’m in a privileged situation,’ he [said] in March 2002 to Anthony Kaufman, an American reporter for IndieWire. ‘I have international connections and European and American production companies contacting me to see what I want to do next. But filmmaking here is still very hard. I may be okay, but some of my friends are not, and the rest of the country is not, so it’s not exactly a happy feeling’ [—] To the world at large, [Bielinsky] embodie[d] the New Argentine Cinema; but to […] critics and festival programmers who support them, Bielinsky is more like a Hollywood director with a Porteño accent. They see that the intricate, money-driven plot and quick pace of Nine Queens might easily be translated into an American re-make […] [m]eanwhile, the upsurge of New Argentine Cinema is producing films that can’t be categorized, translated or easily financed: Lucrecia Martel’s brooding, atmospheric examination of middle-class rot, La Ciénaga; Adrián Caetano’s neo-realist portrait of an immigrant laborer, Bolivia; Diego Lerman’s lesbian punk road movie, Tan de repente; Carlos Sorin’s rueful and funny portrayal of small lives in large Patagonian spaces, Historias mínimas.” (347)
And money, as it always is, remains the real stumbling block to creating anything of lasting value and worth in the cinema: give the public what they want, and you’ll probably make a least a modest profit, even if you don’t hit the jackpot; try something riskier, and you’re in unchartered territory. As Klawans put it,
“Bielinsky was not an impractical man. He chose to put forward Nine Queens, rather than another screenplay on hand, because it was playful in spirit, full of trickery and imposture. So ingeniously constructed was this mechanical toy that it might have belonged to a fairytale Emperor of China. So smoothly did the device amuse its actual owners – the ticket-buying masses – that audiences could accept it as if it were a conventional product. Bielinsky started out by giving the people something he knew they’d want: a yarn about an inexperienced young con artist, a swaggering older one, a primly beautiful woman, and an allegedly valuable sheet of postage stamps. [—] Stylistically self-contradictory and precedent-defying yet instantly accessible, Nine Queens belonged to no category except the biggest of them all: the movies. The generic thrill that Bielinsky offered his audience, and shared with them, was that of a Saturday matinée. ‘I felt the pleasure as a spectator all my life,’ he told an American interviewer, Pam Grady, around the time Nine Queens was released in the United States. ‘A teenage feeling. Oh, two hours of movies! To see the Metro lion and the Twentieth Century Fox searchlight and the Warner Bros. WB… It’s like somebody telling you that you’re going to have a good time.’”(348-349)
Except that something terrible had happened in the interim – Argentina’s financial structure, always somewhat perilous, spiraled into near total collapse. As Anthony Kaufman reported,
“On Dec. 19 , mass protests erupted in Argentina over an economic crisis that was only getting worse. After riots in Buenos Aires resulted in a reported seven deaths, the economic minister and the president resigned, and what was South America’s second largest economy (after Brazil) lay in ruin. Subsequently, the country has had several interim presidents and seems to be on the road to recovery, but as [Argentine director Juan Jose] Campanella says, ‘No one knows exactly what’s going to happen. It’s even more complicated than Enron.’ At the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, several attending Argentine filmmakers issued a statement expressing their collective concerns. ‘Due to the lack of honesty and talent of the governing class,’ it said, ‘a richly endowed country was brought down at the very same moment that the Argentine cinema started to bear the fruits of the changes in the industry.’”
In this atmosphere of free fall, Bielinsky stood out as a commercial director, in both senses of the word – he not only directed feature films, on the evidence of Nine Queens, that were resolutely commercial, he also directed actual commercials for television, relying upon his skill in the medium to support his family, while driving himself harder and harder – in short, successful in the midst of catastrophe. Chain smoking, eating heavy foods, living on coffee and nerves, Bielinsky was soon diagnosed with hypertension, brought on by both overwork and overweight, but he could see no way out of his situation. To repeat himself would be both artistic and career suicide; he could see that clearly. What, then, to do, other than to continue on with his hectic lifestyle, living hand to mouth directing commercials, desperately trying to patch together funding for the project that would emerge as his last feature film, The Aura (2005)?
The roots of The Aura go way back in Bielinsky’s childhood, to a screening of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which so mesmerized the young cineaste that he refused to leave his seat until the management gave him a poster of the film as a souvenir (Harley 2013). Over the years, Deliverance occupied almost the entire space in the young director’s mind, and it’s worth noting that even as he suggested after the success of Nine Queens that he might next like to try his hand at “a psychological thriller,” the first draft of the script for The Aura was written in 1983, the year he directed the short film La Espera, and graduated from the national film school (Ibid.). The film was in every way darker and more fatalistic than Nine Queens; as he declared from the outset of the film’s production, The Aura was designed to please no one but its maker.
As Bielinsky told Jorge Letelier in the film journal Mabuse, “the [film’s] theme is crime, but its structure allows for more discussions because […] I decided to accept a series of brutal and dangerous breaks in the structure, because in a genre film audiences expect a certain type of structure and rhythm according to the rules of the genre in question. I opted to go on breaking those rules, so that things wouldn’t happen when they were supposed to happen.” And this, indeed, is precisely what sets The Aura apart from more traditional crime “thrillers” – it is, at its heart, a study in psychological penetration, gesturing back to the director’s early studies in psychology, and his examination of the ethos of machismo in Latin American society.
And it’s clear that as an omnivorous moviegoer, Bielinsky knew, much better than most of the people who interviewed him, that Nine Queens had been a work of precise calculation, every bit the same sleight-of-hand trick that the film itself celebrated. Make The Aura first? Not likely. Make a crowd pleaser first, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and then, if you were lucky and worked hard, you just might get a shot at a script that had been kicking around in your file drawers since your 24th birthday – a work so dark, so uncompromising, so willfully designed not to please, that it might as well have been Godard’s Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers (both 1963), films which represented an outright assault on their respective audiences. And when an unsuspecting critic suggested that someone like David Mamet might be an influence on Bielinsky’s work, the director was quick to disabuse them of that mistaken notion. When David Edwards ventured that Mamet might perhaps have been “a particular influence,” Bielinsky good naturedly, but firmly, put Edwards in his place, saying that,
“well, you know I was writing ideas like this before I even knew David Mamet existed! Of course, it’s flattering to be compared to him because he’s such a great scriptwriter and playwright. But, you know, Mamet didn’t invent this. There’s a whole history of con man movies before he came on the scene. I mean, I think about films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim Flam Man, House of Games, the films of Fellini and other Italian films I saw when I was a teenager.”
So the roots of both Nine Queens and The Aura run deeply into not only Bielinsky’s past, but the past of cinema as a whole, and now, with the immense success of his first film, and the American remake racking up acceptable grosses, producers who were formerly unwilling to take a chance on Bielinsky’s pet project now agreed to participate. True, he had to cobble together financing from a variety of sources, and especially in the wake of Argentina’s financial collapse, everything – not just filmmaking – was a daily struggle, but at length, all was in place, and Bielinsky was allowed to embark upon the dark journey of The Aura which, though he did not know it at the time, would be his last testament as a filmmaker. If Nine Queens presents the picture of a world becoming undone, a picture, in the words of Michael Chanan “of a corrupt society, where everyone is conning everyone else, a metaphor for a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head, with a closing scene – as a bank puts up its shutters and depositors clamor for their money – that is nothing short of prophetic,” then The Aura shows the aftermath of that society’s collapse, which is now no longer a joking matter, but rather a deadly serious fight for survival.
The Aura’s central plot, in contrast to that of Nine Queens, while equally complex, takes on a much more sinister hue from the film’s first moments. When we first meet The Aura’s protagonist, an epileptic loner named Esteban Espinoza (Ricardo Darin again, in a superb performance), we’re introduced to him in a vertiginous overhead crane shot as he regains consciousness after passing out at an ATM in the deserted lobby of a Buenos Aires bank, with no one around to help him. From the opening of The Aura, Esteban’s isolation from society is complete; afflicted with blackouts he can’t control, alienated from the world, and utterly alone, Esteban is the epitome of the modern man – solitary, hopeless, friendless. Pulling himself together, Esteban marches his way back to his house, where he works on some stuffed animals for a museum display while listening to Vivaldi’s Sinfonia alla rusticaon his radio.
In the next room, his wife pounds on the translucent glass door to Esteban’s workroom, but Esteban ignores her, and turns up the radio to drown out her voice, continuing with his work in a calm, unconcerned manner – it’s clear that whatever relationship they might have had is over. And indeed, we never really see his wife, just her shadow, as she tries to get his attention with shouts and threats, but none of it touches Esteban in the slightest – he’s in his own world, bringing the dead “back to life” with artificial eyes, fur, and other totemic aspects of existence, even if this imitation of life is utterly superficial and phantasmal.
At the museum, Esteban meets a fellow taxidermist, who is also bringing along some dead animals for display, but though the two men “know” each other, one could hardly call them friends. Sontag (Alejandro Awada) is a gruff, brutal man, utterly lacking in compassion or humanity, and both men readily admit that they’re trying to pawn off some inferior goods on the museum; recycled trophies that they’ve previously used in other dioramas. Wandering through the museum while they wait for the display director to decide what he’ll buy from them, Esteban and Sontag walk through the halls of the decaying building, commenting on how rundown the place has become.
When Esteban gently touches one of the stuffed animals on display, its antlers immediately fall off – everything is appearance, and fragile appearance at that. A few minutes later, in the payroll office for the museum, as Esteban and Sontag line up for their checks, however, the film’s central narrative kicks in – Esteban’s fantasy life as a master criminal. In a superbly executed “fantasy projection” sequence, Esteban describes to Sontag just how he would rob the payroll office with a group of imaginary accomplices, as Bielinsky shows us the entire robbery in detail in a blur of activity, while Esteban and Sontag remain in the center of the commotion, unaffected by the events around them. None of this is “really” happening, of course – it’s all in Esteban’s mind, and his calm detachment as he narrates the details of the crime to Sontag, a crime we are “witnessing,” is in stark contrast to the sleek efficiency of the phantom criminals, who pull off the “robbery” without a hitch, and vanish down a secret catwalk to make good their escape.
This is the most visceral scene in the film up to this point in the narrative, and makes it clear that Esteban lives more fully in his imagination than he does in real life. Sontag has heard all this before, in various other scenarios – how Esteban would pull off the “perfect” robbery in any number of locations – but he is still amazed by Esteban’s photographic memory. Without looking twice, Esteban is able to instantly memorize the serial numbers on the bags of money carried by the payroll guards; perhaps this is a side effect of his epilepsy, of the “aura” that envelopes him with inexorable inevitability just before each attack. But, with the fantasy robbery “complete” in Esteban’s imagination, Bielinsky returns us to the quotidian drabness of the payroll office, and the dull certainty of everyday life. It’s just a dream, after all, though we sense that Esteban, if given the chance, might just follow through on such a scenario.
Returning home, Esteban discovers that his wife has left him, leaving just a cursory note that we never see, and when Sontag suggests that the two men take a vacation to do some hunting, they eventually arrive at the forest lodge of Carlos Dietrich (Manuel Rodal), a mysterious figure who keeps a secret hunting lodge deep in the woods, and, as it eventually becomes clear, is involved in preparations for an elaborate payroll robbery. However, we don’t meet Dietrich at this point in the narrative; he is out on a hunting trip, leaving his abused wife Diana (Dolores Fonzi) in charge of the lodge. In the meantime, Sontag has become disgusted with Esteban’s inability to effectively stalk and kill the very same animals he stuffs for a living, and after a quarrel, the two men separate, with Sontag essentially abandoning Esteban at Dietrich’s remote hunting lodge. Alone, unsure of what to do next, Esteban ventures deep into the forest, determined at last to hunt and kill a deer to prove, in some fashion, that he has the cojones to take a life.
But just as he is about to pull the trigger, and bring down a magnificent stag that seems unaware of his presence, Esteban suffers another epileptic seizure, which Bielinsky signals with a series of sweeping tracking shots, as the world seems to collapse around Esteban, obliterating his conscious existence. When, at length, Esteban wakes up, not knowing how long he’s been unconscious, he instinctively grabs his rifle and aims at the first thing that moves – unfortunately, this turns out to be Dietrich, whom Esteban, in the first genuinely violent act of the film, kills with a single shot to the head. This is the first time we’ve seen Dietrich, and it’s also the last; a figure viewed in distance, his living presence in the film is confined to a matter of seconds, but the corpse of Dietrich is a different matter altogether – it reveals, upon examination, a host of information on Dietrich’s planned payroll job and a key to the cabin in the woods where Dietrich secretly made his plans, and with Dietrich’s death, Esteban is also “adopted” by Dietrich’s dog, a massive animal with one blue eye, and one brown eye, who seemingly transfers his loyalty from his dead master to Esteban, and serves as Esteban’s erstwhile guide into Dietrich’s dark domain. Entering Dietrich’s cabin, Esteban discovers the complete plan for the robbery, and with his photographic memory, absorbs every detail of the plan.
Returning to the lodge, Esteban is confronted by two of Dietrich’s criminal associates, Sosa (Pablo Cedron) and Montero (Walter Reyno), and passes himself off as Dietrich’s partner in the proposed payroll robbery, explaining that Dietrich had to leave suddenly on business. Dietrich’s wife, Diana, is completely unaware of her late husband’s plans, although she knows that something is in the works. But at the same time, the much younger Diana, who bears the scores of Dietrich’s savage beatings on her back, is really more a prisoner of Dietrich’s lodge than anything else; it’s clear that she long ago ceased to care for her husband.
As Esteban, Sosa and Montero proceed with their plans for the robbery, Diana keeps her distance, even as she befriends Esteban, recognizing that there’s some good in him; the robbery, for Esteban, is more of an adventure than a criminal enterprise – for once in his life, Esteban would like to see one of his schemes played out for real, but he doesn’t really understand the potential consequences of what he’s doing. Esteban is a dreamer, not a hardened criminal; in contrast, Sosa and Montero are utterly ruthless, willing to kill at a moment’s notice. As the plan picks up speed and starts to unfold, Esteban finds himself utterly alone in a hostile world of greed, violence and brutality, far more vicious than anything he could ever have imagined. “Perfect” crimes happen only in daydreams; in the real world, with everyone out for themselves, things will unfold in a decidedly different manner.
I will leave the rest of the narrative to the viewer to discover; indeed, all I have sketched is the first thirty or so minutes of the film, which then embarks on a series of spectacular double crosses and deceptions reminiscent of Nine Queens, but far more sinister in both their implications and their consequences. Through it all, Esteban sleepwalks through the steps of Dietrich’s plan as if lost in a dream, in which reality and fantasy are impossible to separate. The music for the film, a stunningly hypnotic drone score composed by Lucio Godoy, suitably amplifies this “disconnect” from society. Even though he is “part” of Dietrich’s scheme, he is still in the dark about many of the twists and turns in the plan, and is left to discover – often, to his detriment – numerous aspects of the scheme that aren’t readily apparent.
Esteban seems almost more like a spectator, rather than a participant, in the film’s action – he’s along for the ride, but he has no real idea of how things will eventually turn out. During one memorable sequence midway through the film, as Esteban tracks the various ancillary characters in Dietrich’s scheme, he witnesses a payroll robbery at a manufacturing plant from his car across the street, not more than 100 feet away from a scene of violence and mayhem. As the robbery unfolds, viewed exclusively from Esteban’s point-of-view in a series of long shots, Esteban leaves his car and wanders across the street, right into the thick of a vicious gun battle between the thieves and the police, seemingly oblivious to the risk he’s taking – and indeed, he is oblivious. None of this is real to him. His entire life is a dream. Indeed, all of the events in The Aura may well be entirely imaginary – is any of this really happening at all?
As Bielinsky’s friend Diego Lerer noted, after the director’s death,
“In the world of Fabián Bielinsky, behind every corner there was darkness. The unexpected, the impossible, the surreal could come up at every turn. In El aura, his second and, sadly, last film, the main character walks in the woods, surrounded by shadows and fog, with only flashes of light illuminating the tall trees. The light is out there – the world, the possibility of happiness – but he can’t see it. His mind is somewhere else: planning the next step of an elaborate robbery, stealing the identity of the man he just killed. Obsessive to the point of memorizing every number, every face, every step he had to walk to get out of the woods, the protagonist cannot, finally, control everything that’s around him. Because real life, real things, can’t be controlled, processed, written down on a piece of paper and handled as if it were a map, where space and time are fixed and easy to follow. His mind controls him, but can’t control the world. [—]
[Like Esteban, Bielinsky’s] mind was always somewhere else, maybe a few steps ahead of yours, like a great chess player that has the entire game in his mind before even moving the first piece. [—] He would shoot and reshoot every scene until it looked exactly the way he had conceived it in his mind. He fought to maintain a very long cut of El aura (at the expense of a tighter editing that would have given the film a better and longer commercial run) because he believed that was the only way the audience could get into the mind of the protagonist. He also made the entire film from the main character’s point-of-view, forcing the audience to be outside the main action during long sequences. But he had a vision of what he wanted. And he stuck to that, with great results. [—]
[Bielinsky] was able to show a strong command of storytelling in Nine Queens. But that film was – still is – basically a great script, shot in a very classical, unobtrusive way, helped by a career-making performance by Darín. No wonder it was compared to the films of David Mamet, another great storyteller not particularly famous for his visual skills. El aura was a different thing altogether. Standing apart from the precise logic of Nine Queens, Bielinsky dared to abandon the big city and go to the woods in Patagonia, when time, space and events are harder to predict. The wildlife, the guns, the mysterious animals, the traps were not as easy to handle as they had been when the main character […] was in Buenos Aires working as a taxidermist. These animals, these people, these guns were real, and they could turn things around at any given time. Even the shooting of the film ended up being more difficult than the production company had predicted: they couldn’t control the weather, the light, the hundreds of things that can go wrong when you are out in the wilderness.
With El aura came a different approach in terms of screenwriting, a decision to let things more open to interpretation, to avoid closing all the doors to the audience for a satisfying and conclusive ending. With that, also came a more lyrical approach to filmmaking. Longer takes, moody atmosphere, a visual palette that’s closer to a painting created by a disturbed mind (the mind of the protagonist), and a filmic style you can compare to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan.” (Lerer 2006)
Bielinsky’s achievement in The Aura, then, is one of transcendence, of escape from the real into the zone of imagination, which then doubles back up on itself to encompass actuality. It’s also worth noting in passing that this idea of a “sleep walking” protagonist was not new to Bielinsky, who scripted the equally dreamlike The Sleep Walker (La Sonámbula) for director Fernando Spiner in 1998, and when working in commercials, assisted none other than Wim Wenders in the shooting of a Renault Mégane commercial – the Mégane is a small family car manufactured by Renault – in Argentina, which had a similarly surrealistic bent (Chanan 2006). As Esteban tells Diana Dietrich in The Aura, he lives his life in a state of perpetual uncertainty, never knowing when an attack will come on, simultaneously dreading each episode, and yet anticipating it, as if his hold on reality remains very slight indeed; as he describes it, “there’s a moment, a shift… things suddenly change… The fit is coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing. It’s horrible… and it’s perfect. Because during those few seconds, you’re free. There’s no choice. No alternative. Nothing for you to decide.”
And yet, for all of its sophistication – or rather, precisely because of it – The Aura failed to duplicate the commercial success of Nine Queens, but then again, Bielinsky made it manifestly clear going into the project that he more or less expected a lukewarm public reception. Never mind; he would keep directing commercials until a new project presented itself; though not a box office smash, The Aura had been an overwhelming critical success, and that was all that mattered. But it was not to be. As Vince Keenan notes,
“El aura did not achieve Neuve Reinas’s level of exposure in the United States. It was distributed via the Independent Film Channel’s First Take series, released on demand and in theaters simultaneously. This approach makes films available to a wider audience […] but at the expense of publicity. Even being named one of 2006’s best films by The New York Times’s A. O. Scott didn’t garner El aura additional attention. On June 26, 2006, El aura swept Argentina’s film awards, taking home prizes for best picture, Bielinsky’s script and direction, and Darín’s performance among others. Two days later, in a hotel room in São Paulo, Brazil where he was casting a TV commercial, Fabián Bielinsky died of a heart attack at age 47, leaving behind a wife and a young son.”
In one of his last interviews, conducted on 21 Apr. 2006 by Mariano Colalongo and Alvaro Fuentes at Bielinsky’s home in La Plata, Buenos Aires – “a comfortable and bright house with a home theater, with DVD shelves of some 400 classic American films” – Bielinsky told his two listeners that, with regard to The Aura,
“I am glad to have done what I did in terms of the whole work. I was convinced I wanted to open the picture to other completely different spaces, to precisely my own decisions… The Aura is a more personal film, from a different place, linked to certain obsessions or fantasies or thoughts that are mine… [At the premiere of the film] I remember [Ricardo] Darin [saying] ‘It’s you that you see on the screen – it’s you’… Yes, the truth is that there is a personal component in terms of atmosphere, climate, a level of obsession.”
But who is it that Darin saw on the screen? As Megan Ratner noted,
“Despite their tight narratives, Bielinsky’s films pose questions about the suppositions and assumptions most film viewers make, even about the very act of viewing itself. The taxidermist especially is remote, unable to be in life except as a kind of fill-in. Even in the midst of a shoot-out, he seems invisible to those taking part, protected by his semi-existence. Later in the film, deep into a heist, one of his unwilling associates accosts him: ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’ as if unable to imagine this man is flesh and blood. What he responds to is the taxidermist’s lack of affect, the profound uninvolvement that allows him to watch even a gunfight as if at a screening. Though his plotting and techniques drew largely on traditions of Wilder and other established masters, Bielinsky set challenges as far-reaching as Michael Haneke’s in Code Unknown and Caché about our roles as actors and witnesses and about the soothing passivity so easily abetted by standing by and watching, watching, watching.”
Thus, Bielinsky, the obsessive moviegoer, the perpetual spectator, the creator of hundreds of television commercials that sold a lifestyle that never existed, seems in the end to have had a similarly disassociated view of life itself. Nine Queens was a commercial entertainment that put him on the map, but in The Aura, he reveals what’s behind all the duplicity, greed and violence – emptiness. Esteban’s greatest moments of clarity, by his own admission, come right before the seizures that render him unconscious; in the real world, he observes, but doesn’t really interact. It’s only when he accidentally stumbles into some else’s fantasy projection that he actually embraces his existence, and only then because he’s caught up in the excitement and intricacy of Dietrich’s scheme.
It’s telling that the only time we see Dietrich is for a split second before Esteban accidentally shoots him; although there’s no actual communication between the two men, Dietrich does leave behind his master plan, his own dream of a life beyond the insulation of a remote hunting lodge, located at the outmost margins of society, catering to a clientele of losers, misfits, and violent outcasts. It is very much like the world of Deliverance – Dietrich’s hunting camp can only exist beyond the boundaries of conventional society, in an outlaw zone where the only law is the rule of brutality and greed. In this phantom zone, people cease to exist as we know them; they become only the manifestations of their primal designs — to hunt, to kill, to steal, to break all the rules and somehow get away with it. The question is really apt – “Who are you? Where do you come from?” No one knows; and there really is no answer.
In the end, the genre trappings of The Aura fade into insignificance – the film is more concerned with the human condition than any quotidian criminal enterprise. That, and the uncertainty and ephemerality of existence, the unknowable interior of each person’s individual being. “Who are you? Where do you come from?” – there will never be an answer to these questions, not for Esteban, or Bielinsky, or for any of us. The triumph of The Aura, then, is to make the mystery of our being a question that perpetually hovers over every other aspect of the film. We can’t know ourselves, or each other, or even the motives that drive us towards certain specific actions, and away from others.
For me, at least, the career of Fabián Bielinsky had just begun, and his death has robbed us of one of the cinema’s most original and deeply penetrating talents. What he might have accomplished had he lived is, of course, a matter of utter conjecture, but there can be no doubt that, in his brief time on earth, Bielinsky was moving toward a meditational cinema that extended beyond the boundaries of the known, both in life and in art, and extended out far beyond the vicissitudes of daily life, towards larger questions of metaphysical existence and philosophical contemplation, a journey he had only just begun.
The author wishes to thank Richard Graham for research assistance on this essay, as well as Arso Risteski for three translations of interviews with Bielinsky originally conducted in Spanish.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University of Kentucky Press, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; reprinted in 2011), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 6 times through 2012, with a new edition in 2013). His website, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
Works Cited and Consulted
Abraham, Jugu (2010), “104. The Late Argentine Director Fabián Bielinsky’s El Aura (The Aura, 2005): A Mind-Bending Thriller That Takes You Beyond Guns, Women and Lucre”, Movies that make you think, August 24.
Chanan, Michael (2006), “Fabián Bielinsky: Fresh New Spirit of the Mainstream Cinema in Argentina”, The Guardian, July 19.
Dawson, Tom (2002), “Fabián Bielinsky: Nine Queens”, BBC, July 2.
Edwards, David (2002), “Fabián Bielinsky: Nine Queens”, The Blurb, September 26.
Moviefone (no date), “Fabián Bielinsky Biography”.
Fahsbender, Federico (2005), “‘Le dije que no a Hollywood. Allá no tenés libertad para crear”, Gente. Translated by Arso Risteski.
Falicov, Tamara L. (2012), “Argentine Cinema and the Crisis of Audience” in Daniela Ingruber and Ursula Prutsch (eds.), The Argentine Film, Münster, Berlin, Vienna and Zurich: LIT Verlag, pp. 207-218.
Harley, Kevin (2006), “Fabián Bielinsky”, The Independent, July 20.
Kaufman, Anthony, (2002) “World Cinema Report: Argentina’s Next Wave Struggle Sustains Momentum Amid Economic Collapse”, Indiewire, March 20. 2002.
Keenan, Vince (2009), “Too Soon Gone: the Noir Legacy of Fabián Bielinsky”, Vince Keenan: Movies. Crime Fiction. Baseball. Jazz. Cocktails., July 3.
Khasnis, Giridhar (2012), “Aura of a master”, Deccan Herald.
Klawans, Stuart (2006), “Imitation of Life: A Valediction for Fabián Bielinsky,” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 30.1/2, pp. 347-354.
Knipp, Chris (2006), “Fabián Bielinsky: The Aura (2006)”, Film Leaf, December 19.
Kusmin, Nicolás (2006), “Fabián Bielinsky”, Leedor.com, July 3.
Lerer, Diego (2006), “Fabián Bielinsky, 1959-2006” Fipresci.
Letelier, Jorge (2006), “Fabián Bielinsky, director de El aura “El apoyo de la crítica para las películas pequeñas es decisivo” Mabuse, January 29. 2006. Translated by Arso Risteski.
Lukas, Amadeo (2005/2009), “An Interview with Fabián Bielinsky”, originally published in Raíces del Cine 2005. Reprinted in Hungarian in Odeon 9 Apr. 2009.
Nord, Cristina (2005), “Dead Skin”, Fipresci.
O’Brien, Geoffrey (2006), “Best Laid Plans: The Aura”, Film Comment, Nov./Dec.
Ratner, Megan (2007), “A Legacy Slight But Substantial”, Bright Lights Film Journal 55, February.
Urban, Andrew (2002), “Four Aces for Nine Queens” Urban Cinefile, September 26.
Young, Neil (2007), “A Fitting Epitaph?: Fabián Bielinsky’s The Aura”, Neil Young’s Film Lounge, June 24.