EL AURA (THE AURA)
Argentinian moviemaker Fabián Bielinsky may have always had a sense of doom. He died when he was 47 years old. Bielinsky carried extra weight and he possessed a serious sense of purpose. Both burdens may have contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack. Before he died he wrote and directed only two films. These were Nueva Reinas and El Aura. Both are ambitious thrillers and great but they are also very different. Neuva Reinas is a tale of conmen and double cross. The movie is an energetic crowd pleaser packed with a plot full of twists. El Aura lasts for two and a quarter hours yet has a script that could have been condensed into eighty minutes by a Hollywood B Movie producer. But if El Aura is a slow moving film, all the extra minutes are something to be cherished. The cautious pace helps an audience to see the world in the same way as the timid hero, a man defined by wary curiosity and his need for creativity and the transcendental. We watch what happens in El Aura with puzzled and suspicious eyes. Not everything that happens in the film is obvious to either the hero or the audience. Halfway through the film the complicated hero watches a robbery from the other side of the street. He knows a robbery is happening because he hears gunfire and sees men running around but the details and understanding he craves are denied him.
In the end credits we see the names of the other characters but the main protagonist is identified as ‘Taxidermist’. Before the end of the film it is clear that we are in Ernest Hemingway territory albeit with an essential Argentinian dose of Jorge Luis Borges. The existentialism of Hemingway insisted that we were defined by what we did rather than what we thought. Luis Borges imagined people confused not only by a mysterious world but also by their own spirits. The achievement of Bielinsky is that these two contradictory elements coexist in El Aura.
It is clear from the opening scenes of the film that in his work this taxidermist is paying homage to other creatures. He accompanies a friend on a hunting trip but only because his wife has had enough of a taxidermist whose work and creativity make him remote. The desire to create and the need to experience the transcendental mean that the taxidermist is an anxious and frustrated man. He fears failure and unpleasant surprises but, when he does meet criminals, the taxidermist is obliged to first pay attention and then become involved. His epilepsy may weaken the taxidermist but the aura he experiences before an attack has also whetted his appetite for something other than normal experience. Unlike his friend on the hunting trip or Francis Macomber in the classic short story by Hemingway the taxidermist will not satisfy these desires by hunting and killing animals. Instead, he is drawn to the planning and detail of a crime.
Without the trip to the hunting lodge these desires of the taxidermist would have remained harmless fantasy. How he becomes involved in the robbery requires a couple of advantageous coincidences but none should offend a viewer. They are elegant coincidences rather than crude contrivances. At times the plotting of El Aura and the patient approach evoke the novels of Patricia Highsmith. El Aura is the type of story that would have tempted Highsmith if she had not been quite so well bred and perhaps been a man. Highsmith redefined what was possible in the narrative of a thriller. She also understood anti-heroes as well as anyone and how the heroic is a consequence of something other than heroism.
At the beginning of the film we see the wife of the taxidermist trapped on the other side of the closed door to his workplace, a barrier created by the taxidermist. The wife shouts ‘if only you told me …’. It could be that she needs to be told she is needed or that she wants to hear him proclaim his love for her. To do his work, though, the taxidermist needs isolation. What he really wants is to be left alone to discover exceptional inspiration but, like most people, his life is burdened with routine demands and intrusions. Sympathy for creative entitlement can tilt any thriller towards pretension and become tedious self-pity in a writer or filmmaker. In various ways El Aura avoids taking itself too seriously and being obvious. Technical skill and careful positioning of a camera with frequent single frame compositions help us share the world that a modest unfulfilled man experiences. The impressive music on the soundtrack, which consists of minimal melody and extended chords, also suggests hidden psychological depth. The plot is detailed but remains a discrete infrastructure. Characters appear and disappear. Each has their secrets, and everyone finds everyone else puzzling. The characters are allowed to unwittingly influence events and sabotage plans. The great and magnetic Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin broods and is nervous throughout. In El Aura he somehow looks smaller. His walk, slumped shoulders, haunted eyes and tentative breathing transform Darin into a different and burdened personality.
El Aura is constructed with considerable skill but more important than craftsmanship in avoiding pretension is the decision by Bielinsky to locate curiosity and creativity in not just the taxidermist but also a small child and a very large dog. In a makeshift brothel we watch the child create drawings with crayons. She may misunderstand the world that exists around her but, like the taxidermist, she is compelled to create, record and imagine. The very large dog may lack the ability to handle coloured crayons but the animal does possess curiosity. The dog forages for food and is a searcher. He is also curious about his human neighbours and their behaviour. This very large dog likes to watch, smell and ponder. The film finishes with a close up of the curious eye of the dog. Bielinsky insists that curiosity and reflection is not restricted to the sophisticated and the intellectual. Our curiosity and need for wonder is rooted in our animal rather than our cerebral natures. Both the very large dog and a man who suffers epileptic attacks experience a world that is mysterious and confusing and both will be tempted and made uneasy by curiosity.
The end credits of El Aura imply that something called Bariloche Hosteria was involved. Hosteria is the Spanish word for inn. The tourist town of Bariloche is located in the Argentinian region called the Lake District. There are forests, empty roads and mountains in El Aura. The landscape, though, is not used to aid pictorial compositions. The lyricism and visual poetry in El Aura is related more to what is happening inside the head of the taxidermist. Blue tint on minimum colour makes the spectacular appear bleak and inconsequential, as it would be for a man who has ambitions beyond an impersonal landscape.
Like the first, the second robbery is not filmed as a suspense sequence. Again the taxidermist is an observer although on this occasion he is closer to what is happening. His mistake in the planning is revealed before the robbery takes place. A less serious filmmaker than Fabián Bielinsky would have delayed the revelation until a key moment in the action. Rather than nail biting drama the robbery is revealed to be nothing more than destructive chaos created by men who have overestimated themselves. The criminals are not as omnipotent as they imagined, and unpredictable events have intruded into the fanciful dreams of the taxidermist. The sequence compares to the messy shooting filmed by Jean Luc Godard in the climax of Vivre Sa Vie. In the real world failure and death are tragic and devoid of romance.
In El Aura the deaths that happen could be avoided. The robbers of the casino consist of not very bright criminals and a frustrated taxidermist, the sad disenfranchised. Whatever his grievances Donald Trump cannot claim to be excluded from authority and decisions. He made an important judgement or decision this week. If Trump and his ridiculous statements about Iran are an embarrassment to those of us in the West, in the Middle-East they are preparing themselves for more unwelcome chaos created by limited and misguided men. Unlike the sympathetic taxidermist in El Aura there is a lack of modesty in Trump. Men or women who enjoy exceptional success, wealth or fame are often deluded. Excessive ambition often requires naivety, and distorted rewards can compound naivety into something dark and irrational. If the practice of self-deceit were a contest with measurable results, Donald Trump would be setting records. In his campaign to be President he resembled a buffoon. Now those hysterical rallies appear to be much more sinister.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.