film review: La noche

The night is long

La noche
Written and directed by Edgardo Castro
2h 15 min, Argentina, 2016

I had some trouble getting through Edgardo Castro’s sometimes grueling 135-minute art film from Argentina, La Noche. (But now after rewatching it twice, and several scenes more than that, I’m beginning to feel that it’s a near masterpiece.) The film presents a series of rambling sex-focused vignettes, more or less lacking narrative drive and resembling observational shots from a intimate documentary.

40-something main character Martín, played by Castro, single-mindedly pursues sex and drug-fueled experiences with strangers. He chooses as partners mostly, but not exclusively, cisgendered straight or ambisexual men, often with trans women and cis women as bait or companions — seemingly one night after another in the city of Buenos Aires. In most cases, *la noche* continues on into *el día*. Considering the obsessiveness of the activities shown in these scenes, “chooses” might be a word we’re meant to question.

Castro plays Martín in a fog of intoxicated confusion, fear, and boredom, verging on stunned at points, as if he’s constantly asking himself, How did I get here? and never able to give himself a decisive answer, or shocked at the fact that he has none.

The character spends lots of time in *telos* — the Argentine slang word for sex hotels — snorting coke in the toilets of gay bars, stumbling home way past dawn, and at least once passing out on the stairs inside his building, unable to make it into his own flat.

The repetitive nature and sameness of these encounters wore me out, along with their general lack of passion. Among the four or five cocks we’re shown, there’s only a single hard one in the whole movie (the taxi boy’s as Martín sucks him) ; the rest can’t get fully or even half-hard; Martín’s is the most flaccid of all.

Also, the familiarity of the film’s shooting style put me off at first, a style that’s become a predictable and somewhat tired marker for “art film” — shaky, handheld tracking shots that follow characters from behind or from the side, showing everyday chores and actions in the lives of the characters; long takes with extreme focus-contrasts between foreground and background, shot in enclosed, cramped “real-life” spaces. Ostensibly, these techniques reference a particular kind of documentary-style realism, but it’s rarely as easy as that to untangle the real from the artificial.

La Noche’s first scene is typical of this style.

In it, we see Martín wake up, retrieve some cold pasta leftovers from the refrigerator, shake some oil on top of it in its plastic container, and without heating it up, sit down at a small table to eat. The camera follows him closely in the cramped space, not quite being able to shoot him en toto as he moves around the flat. In his bedroom watching television, the camera either can’t or won’t come all the way into the room, shooting around or through furniture and partially obscuring the POV.

We don’t know what time of day it is, and there’s a cut in the middle of this sequence that presumably elides a whole day. That’s a consistent tactic throughout the film — an avoidance reflecting a disinterest in knowing precisely when or where we are, or suggesting that the (day)time doesn’t matter at all. Exempting the film’s final scene, and to some extent its second, we could shuffle the rest of the film’s scenes like cards and still arrive at the same place, or non-place, or the same time, en la noche.

In addition, everything that Castro chooses to put in the frame — neighborhood streets, the interiors of bars, hotels, apartments, and stores, but also the clothing and bodies of the characters — looks and feels as nondescript and unmemorable, bordering on unpleasant, as you could imagine, for good reasons. Or at least, for *his* good reasons. Considering the film takes place in picturesque and historic Buenos Aires, this is certainly some kind of accomplishment, and not the only sign that descriptions of the film’s imputed “realism” are in fact far-fetched and misplaced, or at least misleading.

I finally did make it through the film, after three attempts, and was rewarded by an unexpectedly emotional ending, and ended up learning how a filmmaker can undermine expectations (or accusations) of realism, and overall how strategies for representing various states of mind, such as intoxication or being high, or indeed being bored during both, can be expressed as style intended to deliberately produce boredom and alienation in the audience, among other effects, not just show them to us. We may not like the effects of such strategies, but we don’t have to dismiss them as illegitimate.

Some parts of this film, maybe most for many viewers, are difficult to watch, to sit through, and much of that discomfort seems deliberately induced, in terms of both what we’re seeing and with how we’re experiencing it. La Noche shows intimate encounters, but the way they’re depicted is far from elegiac or poetic, as they were in Weekend, for example, or as we’ve come to expect perhaps from many if not most GTMs that glorify or extol gay male sexual pleasure, but they are stylized.

For instance, in the film’s second extended sequence Martín chats up a short, kinda chubby and sexy taxi boy on the street and ends up taking him back to a telo to fuck and party. The room is lit with violet light so the shots appear as duotones.

This scene comes across as the most innocent, and in it Martín seems the most content, but the color scheme still suggests a kind of technical or artificial aesthetics rather than a natural one. A much darker scene echoes this one much later, also in a telo, but lit like a doctor’s office, and containing its own degree of artificiality, as a straight trick he’s picked up teases him with the possibility of his bisexuality and allowing Martín to suck his cock. But he gives him something else. Martín’s humiliation at the end of the pickup’s piss stream, shot for real, marks the nadir of his self-degradation, in this film anyway. The camera shoots this scene from outside the bathroom, with the door partially closed.

The endless pursuit of sex and drugs is pretty boring, La Noche reminds us, and produces observable desperation, boredom, humiliation, and alienation in the characters, and to the extent that we’re paying attention and sharing these moments, in us.

The brief moments of connection, affection, or joy therefore carry so much weight that when they come they almost crash the movie, or at least divert it briefly into feeling like we can hope for something else, something redemptive, as if the narrative will reveal that the life and the lifestyle it depicts will lead to some lasting connection.

Or that Martín will experience the daylight as something other than an extension of the night, or its undesired interruption..

All these tiny moments are exactly that — momentary, such as: A spontaneous kiss and a smile from a stranger after sharing coke in a toilet; a tender inspection of a taxi boy’s burn scars; those gestures of affection to, with, and from the sexy taxi boy; the offer of non-judgmental comfort from a close friend, a light hand on an arm. Even in the mentioned scene of humiliation, the trick shakes his dick off and then shares his cigarette, sliding it into Martín’s mouth while he remains kneeling on the bathroom floor, absently pulling on his own soft dick. The film provides these provisional moments of connection but surrounded as they are with the detritus and dust of alienation and addiction, it may be hard to recognize them as such.

It’s obvious that that the bulk of Martín’s experiences lack intimacy, and become routine drudgery, despite their ostensible goals of pleasure and connection. But one of the effects of these deprivations is that we might end up longing for these isolated moments of friendship and companionship, and thus reinterpret and critique all the other moments we’re shown — less positive but just as human — in that context. In that we can see that the elements of the film’s style that suggest documentary realism have a pointed purpose.

The film’s final 15-minute scene shows how difficult it is for Martín to negotiate a friendship, perhaps the only one he has, without the mediation of drugs or alcohol or both. He calls his trans friend Guadalupe, who works as a prostitute, ostensibly to see her but also to ask her if she has any cocaine. In his mind, the motivations for his call mix it up with his need for chemical stimulus. We can doubt whether he knows himself which reason weighs the heaviest.

Guadalupe meets up with him in a bar, fresh from a job. Quickly, he brings up the topic of blow, and can be seen throughout the scene as antsy and impatient. She claims she doesn’t have any, that she left it at home, but in a cutaway to her taking a piss in the toilet, we see that she does have some. She has a phone conversation with a potential client, and also messages someone who might have some blow. I began to suspect she was putting Martín off for a reason. Martín continues to look impatient and agitated, rocking in his seat. The Eagles’ One of These Nights plays in the bar.

When she returns to his table at the bar, as the camera follows her out closely, hiding briefly behind their booth so it can frame Guadalupe through the wooden dowels, he gives her a gift of new sneakers, all wrapped up in shiny pink paper. She loves them, and exclaims how much she does.

There’s a jump forward in time, and they are quiet together, sitting in the booth sharing a cigarette. He reaches across the table and clasps one of her hands; she responds with both of hers.. They rub each other’s hands for a bit, silently, until she has to brush a tear from an eye. Her lips are trembling. The music in the bar is Tom Petty’s The Waiting. The film doesn’t give a precise indication as to what the tear is for.

Suddenly, the POV of the camera changes as the film cuts to a medium long shot of the same scene, of Guadalupe and Martín still holding hands, but from outside the bar, through the window. The song remains the same, but the quality of the audio shifts, still sounding like music coming out of a crappy bar speaker but without the echo we hear inside the bar.

I can’t precisely describe or assert how this difference in audio and perspective comments on the scene itself. It’s a subtle shift in how we’re asked to consider what we’re witnessing, this time without total access to the characters provided by the close-in, handheld camera’s series of close-ups and medium shots, and the sound of theirs voices and the content of their conversations. Perhaps this subtle violation of diegetic, documentary filmmaking tactics asks us to dial back the judgment we might be feeling, or to consider the power of friendship and connection to ground or comfort a lost man.

The song now combines with street sounds and we can no longer hear the conversation between the two friends. In this medium long shot that simultaneously shows the window’s reflections of the street, as well as the interior of the bar, we see Guadalupe get up and hug Martín, he kisses her twice on the cheek, she gets back in hers, and then strokes his face several times, wiping his own tears away.

She talks to him in concentration, emphatically. We have to guess what they’re talking about, but now we have some idea of why she might have withheld the coke. Tom Petty continues to sing, with some irony in this context. The Heartbreakers’ guitars slice and keen and warble.

Then the film cuts to the main credit, normally placed at a film’s beginning. The film’s title declared with a bold all-caps display font in orange-gold, tacked on at the film’s very end.

Watch La Noche on the BFI’s website.

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La Noche
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