Dispatch from the LA Film Festival 2015: ‘The Vanished Elephant (El elefante desaparecido)’

El elefante desaparecido1From the very opening, we are warned that this is a film of doubling and illusion. A car slowly pulls up and to a stop in a nighttime Lima street, but we gradually realise that we are observing the scene through a large window, with the street and headlamps subtly reflecting and shifting in the pulled focus. It turns out that this sequence – man with gun stealthily enters house – forms the final chapter of Edo Celeste’s latest in a long line of successful detective novels, and he is composing it as we watch, before deleting it in disgust at his reliance on cliche – a black cat. It also turns out that later on Edo himself will repeat the exact same actions, via the same shots, trying to find the woman who can help him find the mysterious man who has posed for a photographic project depicting his works’ hero, Felipe Aranda, who also seems to be the presumed-dead husband of the mysterious woman who kickstarts the plot by summoning Edo to a clifftop rendez-vous and presenting him with a package of photographs allegedly mailed to his name to her address by said deceased husband, Raphael Pineda (yes, it’s an anagram of Felipe Aranda). And that black cat will turn up again, more than once.

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The photos appear to be of nothing, but are gradually revealed to be part of a large collage, arranged via the words of a short story of Pineda’s. This is writer/director Javier Fuentes-Léon’s metaphor for the piecing-together of the (literary) detective process, as Edo is led on a wild goose chase to discover what happened to his fiancée, vanished seven years ago, and what Pineda has to do with it. Doublings and reflections recur throughout, but that sequence where Edo replays his own chapter is the first indication that the film is ready to step outside of conventional reality. We cannot be certain whether Edo is aware that he is replaying the exact same actions, although he does acknowledge the background radio with annoyance, which suggests perhaps he does. Later on, however, there can be no doubt, as he steps through a wall to observe events of seven years prior, time, and even death, lose their conventional meaning, and Edo discovers that he himself is a character in Pineda’s books.

El elefante desaparecido3All very Borgesian, then, as the man and his character swap places, and the whole film can be read as the dream of a fictional personage. Fuentes-Léon is giving nothing away, the point being the enjoyment of the detective story, and the metaphysical possibilities. And it is indeed enjoyable enough, although one could wish that Salvador del Solar as Edo were a little more charismatic or even likeable. Not that he is the opposite, just a rather uninteresting focal point whose character is defined solely by still missing his lost fiancée. He is also a former policeman, although apparently not a very good one, as he blunders through his investigations, even at one point – yes – shooting his own reflection in a mirror.

The ending achieves a real eeriness, as the bounds of reality and personality are well and truly transgressed, but as confusion and non-logic mount throughout the preceding events, interest flags with a feeling that there is nothing comprehensible on which to hang it. Also, for a story based around photographs – the title itself is borrowed from a photo collage of a striking coastal rock formation partially destroyed by the 2007 earthquake – the film is fairly casual about how it looks, with frequently obtrusive digital noise and fuzzy focus, and beyond the repetition of the opening sequence, little attempt made to translate the tricksiness of the plot onto the visual plane. Fairly entertaining, and well-enough executed to hold the attention, but ambitious enough to let one imagine something better and more genuinely disconcerting – “Las ruinas cuirculares”, for example..

d/sc Javier Fuentes-Léon p Javier Fuentes-Léon, Delia Garcia, Michel Ruben ph Mauricio Vidal ed Philip J. Bartell pd Susana Torres m Selma Mutal cast Salvador del Solar, Lucho Cáceres, Angie Cepeda, Andrés Parrar, Tatiana Astengo, Carlos Carlín, Vanessa Saba

(2015, Per/Col/Sp, 109m)

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