POST-MORTEM discomfort

  • Datum 27-01-2011
  • Auteur
  • Deel dit artikel

Post Mortem

Pamela Biénzobas was taken out of her comfort zone by the final minutes of Pablo Larraín’s post mortem. Not just because of the action — utterly absurd murder, perpetrated by an alienated character that is nevertheless socially fit — but mainly because of its persistence.

A man shoves an old wardrobe, concealing the door to the small closet where the woman he is obsessed with is hiding with her lover. They ask him to do so, to protect them. But then he goes on dragging and throwing old furniture and objects, gradually burying the couple, who at some point start trying to push and bang. It is too late: they are locked in, with no food and soon no air, and with no chance of anyone coming to rescue them.
Mario, the extremely uncomfortable protagonist of post mortem, just keeps on piling things up obsessively inside the fixed frame, in an accumulation that soon becomes routine. Once the threshold of a "normal" duration is exceeded, the uneasiness turns into resignation and one no longer knows when the scene (and the film) should end.

post mortem plays with discomfort in all its aspects. It refuses the spectator the kind of complicity that makes a film pleasant. Mario is on the borderline between normality and marginality. He has a house, a car and a job, where he seems to be well integrated — it even seems that his colleague is an occasional lover. But he is awkward and aloof. Naturally magnetic Alfredo Castro (from Larraín’s previous film tony manero) is as charmless as he can be, with a character that is too unattractive even to be repulsive. Mario is strictly mediocre, ordinary. Not even pathetic.
If this alone would be enough to make a film experience uncomfortable, Larraín goes all the way, making everything seem mediocre and most often ugly. The image is dull, the framing slightly cropped, the impeccable artwork totally unflattering. post mortem enjoys kicking the viewer out of the comfort zone, turning everything ugly or ridiculous. Or indefinable. Like one of the few moments when Mario or his desired (and awfully skinny) neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers) allow their emotions to flow, breaking down and crying in a — once again — uncomfortably long (and gratuitous) scene.
Eventually the same feeling applies to the whole film, producing an ultimate discomfort (especially for the "professional viewer", namely the "critic"): post mortem is not an easy film to appraise. Its decided unkindness is not even provocative. It’s uneasy, disconcerting. It neither seeks to annoy nor to please. Not even to guide or be clear, especially due to the editing (the film’s weakest point), which makes several scenes feel unnecessary or bizarrely placed (particularly Nancy’s autopsy: dream? flashforward?…).

Another uncomfortable decision is to make Salvador Allende’s identity explicit. For part of the viewers, less acquainted with Chilean history — but also with the film’s plot, based on a mortuary typist who attends the overthrown President’s autopsy — it might be necessary, but for others it may feel superfluous, needlessly adding more elements to a scene that strives to find a delicate balance between pathos and absurdity. This announcement betrays the film’s tone, since it mostly — and remarkably — refuses to explain. The combination between excess (in the atmosphere, in the characters, in the situations) and restraint (in the expression and also in the information and images) is probably post mortem’s main achievement and the key source of malaise. It does make a (most welcome) concession, allowing one moment of catharsis through one of the characters that seems the most balanced and sane, Mario’s colleague Sandra. Her outraged cry, silenced by a gunshot, invokes a sense of humanity and of (violated) normality that is otherwise absent. And the violence of her outburst and of the response simply make its absence even more brutal.
Larraín’s tony manero, set during the first years of the dictatorship, is an unkind but more comfortable film: it is easy to quickly define the protagonist — marginal, psychopath… He can be seen as an extreme mirror of his society, amoral enough to come to terms with the criminal regime and go on living in a "normality" with requires, and therefore becomes, criminal complicity. post mortem (from the days right before to those right after the military putsch of September 11, 1973) presents, through Mario, a direct antecedent and predecessor for the character and the society that passively or actively came to terms with a dictatorship that lasted until 1990: mediocre enough to adapt to a new normality in order to defend its mediocre interests, with a "live and let (and sometimes help) kill" attitude.
That is why that closing scene is so disquietingly full of sense: because one knows that past the threshold of an expected (comfortable) length, it can go on and on. Its indefinite duration becomes normal. Therefore, why shouldn’t it last another 17 years?

Pamela Biénzobas

Pamela Biénzobas is a Paris-based Chilean film critic and co-founder of Revista de Cine Mabuse.