Santiago 2019 Review: HARLEY QUEEN, Not The Comic Book Adaptation You Were Expecting
Maybe the most daring, interesting, conflicting and controversial Chilean directors working right now are Carolina Adriazola and José Luis Sepúlveda.
They've amassed critical praise, as well as hate from other sectors of the Chilean Audiovisual Industry, with a series of films that blend and distort the barrier both between fiction and documentary, as well as the moral boundaries that are inherent to a portrait of reality and the people that live in it. And this latest film, which had its world premiere at the Santiago International Film Festival (SANFIC), deepens that transgression, while at the same time becoming one of their most humane portraits so far, sometimes akin to a tribute to its protagonist.
Harley Queen isn't only the name of the film, a clear nod to the DC character who's usually associated with the Joker in the Batman DC comics, movies and shows, but it's also the name of the alternate personality of the protagonist, a stripper-paranormal investigator-mother who lives in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in the capital of Chile: Bajos de Mena. Her attitude is always jovial, but she's always on the verge of ferociously defending what she does, how she does it and what she's got so far. With time, we know that she's lost more than a few things in her life, and that she will fight for whatever she can get.
The film opens with her intent of creating a production company that would promote and organize her striptease shows, but we see how that opportunity slowly fades away as her friends start to stray away from the prize. It's fascinating to watch how the film starts as a portrayal of a small group of people, all of them interesting on their own way, all of that to be distilled away into a singular portrait of a woman who wants to do what she thinks is best for her, her family and her only child, even if that means dressing up as Harley Quinn and dancing in front of her daughter while practicing.
There are a few segments of the film in which we see our protagonist become some sort of spiritual medium, and thus the images turn into the visual language of your average "ghost hunting" TV show, shot in night vision, filming very extreme closeups of faces reacting to things that we never see, having them asking questions to supposed spirits that inhabit the houses of her neighbors while doing psychophony with their cellphones. There's an aura of death that surrounds her and everyone else, as the danger of dying is more present than ever where they live. The film achieves that sort of mixture between ridicule and profoundity in these sequences, when we know that it might all be a ruse, but it also reveals so much about each of the people present in those demonstrations.
The most fascinating aspect of it all is the kind of access that Adriazola and Sepúlveda have managed to obtain, as they settle into their protagonist, we see more and more intimate moments of her life, from the constant fighting for money that she has with the father of her daughter, to a shower scene. All of that, instead of being felt as morbose or unnecessary, brings us closer to her, and thus makes us care about her advances in the realm of strip-dancing, as she goes to classes, competitions and public showings. We feel it's her passion, and so we go with her in that trip.
Although there are some extremely unsettling sequences, like the speech of a neo nazi, the wails of a moribund cat, the signs of clear mental problems when she "turns" into Harley Queen, the movie becomes more than that seemingly cheap attempt at crossing moral boundaries. Eventually, the film becomes about Carolina, the woman behind Harley Queen, about her life, her struggles, and how we might not know how many like her are around us, it's just that we don't want to see them.