There are some very interesting elements to Argentinian director Natalia Meta’s The Intruder, a supernatural psychodrama about a woman struggling with the effects of a traumatic incident. Although it has its flaws and doesn’t quite work as a whole, these elements were enough to keep me interested, including an ending that I found genuinely disorienting.
Inés (Érica Rivas) is a middle-aged woman living in Buenos Aires. A soprano in a professional choir, she also dubs foreign films into Spanish. Inés is unwell and has problems with her vocal cords that threaten to affect her career. Doctors can’t identify any physical cause and suspect psychological issues due to the stress she is suffering after a traumatic and violent ending to an unsuccessful relationship. Experiencing bad dreams and confused memories, her inner demons threaten to overwhelm her.
The film adopts some of its influences too obviously. When Inés works in a recording studio adding breathy vocals and screams to some kind of Japanese bondage flick we can’t help but think of Berberian Sound Studio, particularly when the madness begins to set in. But these derivative sequences have none of the impact or bold extravagance of Peter Strickland’s film. Similarly, the primary-colour lighting that mimic Brian de Palma’s films (which themselves mimic gialli movies) are a weak dilution of their progenitors.
However, other elements are more original and successful.
The extended prologue (it’s a full twenty minutes before the opening credits) injects some caustic satire, introducing us to Inés as she embarks on a tropical beach holiday with a new boyfriend Leopoldo (Daniel Hendler). Leopoldo is a monstrous creation; he’s a textbook narcissist with a controlling streak and Inés is already realising the romance is a mistake. It’s a superb and uncomfortable depiction of an emerging abusive relationship. Leopolo is continually trying to reinforce how much she must love him, diminishing and ridiculing her genuine fears, relentlessly insisting on control over the tiniest of elements. He’s even jealous of her dreams! Despite this, Inés remains determined not to succumb.
Meta’s direction expertly balances tone by drawing out some uncomfortable humour without ever cheapening or mocking the situation and Hendler’s comic timing is superb (a ghastly karaoke scene is a highlight).
If The Intruder had continued with this trajectory it would have been a very different film, but instead Meta changes direction to a muted paranormal horror, abruptly ending this act with a tragedy that would come to haunt Inés.
The middle act slumps a little as the attention turns fully onto the damaged Inés, who is unfortunately a bit of a blank. Rivas is admittedly quite good at portraying Inés’s blank despair, an exhausted, empty shell with sallow complexion and shadows under her eyes. But not enough to keep us invested in her. Inés’s drugged-out paranoia seems oddly muted.
It’s here that the supernatural plot elements emerge, which are a little vague and underwhelming. The drugs don’t work for Inés’s vocal problems so cue the obligatory mystical silver-haired woman to tell us that she’s been possessed by ‘intruders’, a brigade of malicious spirits that seem intent on disrupting her vocal acuity and occasionally blurring her dreams and reality. It’s too inexplicit to be an effective metaphor for an ill-defined psychological ailment and the lack of danger means there’s little real tension through the film’s middle third.
What is interesting, however, is the way the film uses sound to express the uncanny. These ‘intruders’ manifest themselves in barely detectible arrhythmic noises that mar her soundtrack recording much to the puzzlement of the technicians, sounds that seem to emanate from Inés but are only heard on tape. Guido Berenblum’s sound design is excellent – part way through streaming the film I switched to headphones to get the full experience: thin buzzes, clicks and static, perhaps even indistinct voices.
The film now becomes a sort of detective story: is it a supernatural entity or a faulty cable? This is actually more interesting and less silly than it sounds, particularly when concert hall organ tuner Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) comes on the scene and describes how his organ pipes intended to sound in unison can create audible ‘beats’ when slightly out of tune, sonic artefacts that exist between the notes. Those audible illusions, created when something is out-of-joint, could have been a great metaphor for how Inés’s grip on reality becomes increasingly distorted by blurring dreams and reality. But unfortunately the film doesn’t really develop this idea despite investing a lot of screen time building this up; a missed opportunity.
Alberto’s character is put to more substantial use as a new love interest. He comes across as a genuinely nice, caring and sensitive individual, contrasting with the toxic Leopoldo from the film’s prologue. This blossoming romance brings a lightness and hope to the film.
Unfortunately for Inés, this doesn’t halt her worsening grip on reality, as her dreams and imagination get increasingly blurred with real life affecting her relationships with Alberto, her mother and others. Perhaps it’s because the middle section has been so low-key that Inés’s descent feels muted and inevitable, but somehow I found this quite affecting. It’s a peculiar ending that will leave many scratching their heads, and it managed to pull the carpet from under my feet.
This is a peculiar film. In some ways it’s far too derivative and it also feels thin and underdeveloped, but there are some very effective individual elements. It’s always good to see a film make good use of music – the soundtrack and the choral pieces are expressive and there’s even some manic gothic organ playing ala Carnival of Souls (was this another influence?). The sound design was very impressive and nicely linked into the plot. The opening prologue was great and the potentially cliched ‘descent into madness’ elements were oddly effective perhaps because of their perverse lack of drama. But ultimately Meta failed to bring all these elements together in a satisfying way: the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.
Nevertheless The Intruders an intriguing and enjoyable muddle that’s definitely worth watching.
The Intruder steams in the London Film Festival from 12th October 2020.