The press material for Suddenly, the first feature-length film from Argentine director Diego Lerman, is lush with promise. In no uncertain terms, we are invited to meet “a feisty, leather-jacketed, crop-haired, punk girl couple” who kidnap a “frumpy lingerie salesgirl” and see that she “claps eyes on the sea for the first time in her life.”
Oh, baby. Cropped hair? Leather? The clap? It sounds so medieval. Here, at last, is the equation that alchemy, that ill-fated field of science, once sought so nobly to discover: lesbians plus kidnapping. It’s straw into gold! Even without Gina Gershon and endless frames of saturated reds, this formula all but assures us of a rollicking good time.
Yeah, well. Maybe not. There are lesbians (sort of) and a kidnapping (sort of), and the lingerie salesgirl is actually kind of delectable in her own right, which is a pleasant surprise. In fact, there are any number of potentially electric elements to this dramedy, including a fatal truck crash, some hungry killer whales, and a resplendent seventy-year-old who lip-syncs to bolero music with a shimmy in her hips. Go, Auntie Blanca! She is so totally all that.
Unfortunately, what the movie does not have is a coherent emotional trajectory. For most of its moody, meandering 94 minutes, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on — not what’s literally going on (girls steal taxi, cruise highway, run out of gas, hitch with trucker, etc.) but what’s going on going on. Yes, we get Marcia (Tatiana Saphir), the lingerie salesgirl, whose forlorn longing the movie sets up in the opening scenes; we sense that she just might be lonely enough to let a couple of “punkette malcontents” take her on a trip to someplace new. But the two other protagonists, who call themselves Mao (Carla Crespo) and Lenin (Veronica Hassan), are merely ciphers, empty of motivation, their faces blank with boredom. These crop-haired leather girls, be they ever so sexy (check out the fetching cowlick of facial hair slightly south of Lenin’s right ear), are all but opaque until the last fifteen minutes.
Which is precisely when the movie begins to find itself. Eventually, the girls make their way to the home of Lenin’s aunt, Blanca (Beatriz Thibaudin), the aforementioned chanteuse of the wiggly pelvis. Blanca runs an eccentric ship, replete with attractive boarders (a female painter, a male student) and a bunch of sexy chickens. Okay, just kidding. The chickens aren’t sexy, or not that sexy, anyway. But, in the way of all chickens, they are profound. In fact, they are part and parcel of the film’s crowning directorial moment. Immediately after Blanca sings for her guests, Lerman cuts to a shot of the hens in the yard. It’s perfect. It’s exactly what, you sense, he was trying to do with the entire film: show us something beautiful and something mundane, both hilarious and lovely, both necessary and somehow full of wonder, even amid sheer banality. I laughed out loud.
Alas. By this time, it’s a little late for the juice. Lerman has taken so long to establish the girls’ aimlessness (long shot: empty beach; close-up: bleak face) that he’s all but lost us before he gets to the film’s heart. (It seems, perhaps, that somebody has been renting a little too much Godard lately. It’s Breathless, Diego, not Pointless.) Aunt Blanca seems like yet another meaningless stop on the ennui train until we wake up and see that, wait, there’s something here that wasn’t here before. With her arrival, the film gets not merely a heart but any number of crucial body parts: a gut, a brain, a couple of swishy legs. All of which are more than reason enough to bring Blanca in far earlier in the film, and to allow the film to be about what happens to each of the girls as a result.
For most of Suddenly, the title seems perplexing. Even though several things happen quickly and out of nowhere, the mood of the film is so attenuated and mute that nothing feels important enough to be called “sudden.” Ultimately, however, a specific event is identified: It comes as a shock to the characters and, more than anything else in the film, it begins to reach us.
But not enough. And not nearly as much as it might have, had the director tightened his ship and gotten his plot into some kind of working order a long time before. Worse, Lerman cheapens his own climax by reducing the denouement to a set of easy couplings that serve as convenient indications that people have learned and grown. Now, if ever, is the time for lingering grief, but instead we get a light step, a lifting of weight, and something approaching cheer. Yuck.
And now for the thing you really wanted to know: There is lesbian sex in this movie, though it is brief and mostly hidden from view. More notably, there are naked, partly naked, and clothed women of widely varied size and age. What is quite possibly the best thing about this film is that they are all photographed with respect and care; they all look, as well they should, beautiful and real. It might not be leather, but it is skin, and we can be grateful for that.