The Heiresses (2018) is a film by Paraguayan director Marcelo Martinessi, which charts the decay of the wealth and relationship between two heiresses living in the capital, Asuncion. It is the debut performance of its lead actress, Ana Brun, who won the Best Actress Award at the Berlin Film Festival for the role. Dealing with themes of aging and the decline of love, the shallowness of inherited wealth and learning to accept yourself, despite fears your best is behind you, it is a slow but marvellous film, that could have never come out of Hollywood.
Chela and Chiquita are a pair of wealthy heiresses who’ve been living in an intimate relationship for three decades. While there is love there, when we enter the story the romance has gone. Chiquita’s carefree and fun-loving attitude having landed her in severe debt, being charged with tax fraud. Because of this, the couple has had to begin selling their expensive furniture and antique paintings; inviting hordes of other rumour-mongering heiresses inside their home to gawk at their stuff and whisper about the pair’s circumstances. Chela feels ashamed and judged because of this, their relationship being an open secret, with them only being protected by their wealth and privilege. Her insecurity leads her to question whether her partner is flirting with other women, or if they are being gossiped about at a party that they visit early in the film.
The film wastes no time setting this up, as we are thrown intimately into the brambles of their relationship, seeing them at their lowest while their long-lasting partnership quietly decays. This frequently places the viewer into the perspective of its characters, framing shots from their point of view, and lingering on close-ups to make us feel the yearning decay of their love. During dialogue scenes the film will often reject the common technique of shot-reverse-shot, instead, lingering on one character while they talk to another off-screen, skewing us to their perspective and heightening the sense of distance the couple feel, as we are trapped by being unable to see the person they are talking to.
This sense of collapse is heightened by how co-dependent the nature of their relationship seems. Chiquita pressures her aging lover into attending a friend’s party as if she is a reluctant child. She manages her partner’s antidepressants and meticulously arranges her pedantically particular tray of drinks (a glass of black coffee, a cup of tea with milk, a glass of diet cola with ice, a glass of water sans ice and a decanter of orange liquor). It is evidence of a deeply loving care, one which lets Chela paint in peace, but there are aspects to it that are also narrow-minded and coddling that belittles her ability to function by herself and feeds her obsessive tendencies. So when the couple receives a letter summoning Chiquita to prison for her tax fraud, it leaves her unable to care for Chela’s needs, having to instruct their illiterate maid on the correct ways to line Chela’s drink tray. Even then Chela chastises the maid for not placing the cups in the right location on the tray, highlighting the brattish entitlements she feels as a member of the wealthy class.
The film has a rightfully harsh outlook on the wealthy, the cast of characters largely comprised of wealthy women who inherited their riches, and they are portrayed as vapid, gossiping and passive-aggressive. The way that they treat their maids serves as a prime example of this, her elderly neighbour, Pituca, bemoaning the quality of Chela’s new maid, Pati, fondly recalling their previous one, who is described like a well-trained dog. Set against a backdrop of extreme poverty, the portrayal of the rich highlights how the wealthy protect the wealthy, putting together pity funds for the couple and her elderly neighbour paying Chela to play taxi for her and her flock of friends. Yet, despite the pretence of aid, it is clear that as soon as she is out of earshot, the other heiresses gossip and whisper behind her back. The offer of petty cash is an insult to Chela’s wealthy sensibility, and it is this shameful greed that drives her away from Chiquita. For despite what love there once was, Chiquita is all too willing to play the part of the wealthy socialite, all the while inviting vultures into their house to paw over their possessions. This careless greed and insouciant attitude to consequence is what drives a wedge in their relationship. For while Chela struggles on the outside, Chiquita seems almost at home within the prison; her status and gossipy nature placing her high on the rungs of the community. She carries on and gets her hair done as though she were still living as a free woman of money.
Yet, at the same time, it is also a film about aging and coming to terms with the decline of a relationship. Chela is almost like an infant being forced into the real world for the first time, her partner no longer there to protect and coddle her, and the wealth which shielded her vanished into the past.
This experience of aging and feeling unwanted is heightened as Chela develops an infatuation for her wealthy neighbour’s servant, Angy, putting on makeup and doing her hair to try to appeal to her. There is a sad tragedy to her crush on the girl who makes her feel younger and wanted, as she gradually realises that this attraction may likely be one-sided. She drives Angy’s sick mother to the hospital, overcoming her fear of driving on highways, and letting the younger woman introduce her to smoking because of the intimacy it offers her. Yet the younger girl is constantly texting deadbeat men she is dating, even leaving Chela at the hospital to wait for her mother, while she goes off with the same man she had broken up with earlier in the film. There are lingering shots of Chela’s scenes of longing, placing the viewer in her shoes as she drifts about feeling unwanted, stealing guilty glances at her flame’s bare legs, as she drives her home. This is followed by a scene of Chela masturbating to the memory, which is not shot gratuitously, rather it is just a static shot of her from behind in plain satin undergarments, the air filled with the lonely awkwardness of real masturbation. To make matters worse, while she is drowning the guilt of her adulterous infatuation, she discovers Chiquita has been carrying out an affair with another woman inside the prison. This leads to her struggling with even greater feelings of being unwanted, now having evidence to suggest a possible infidelity in the partnership before this. This comes to an overwhelming head when Angy offers herself to her (possibly mockingly) and Chela runs and hides in the bathroom because she cannot believe she is wanted by this younger woman. Another reading could be that she hides, because of the feeling of shame and persecution due to her sexuality, so much that this potential is lined with so much dread that she is frozen in place. Regardless it leaves her unable to act until it is too late.
Thus when Chiquita returns from the prison it is not the sweet reunion that might have been anticipated, but rather Chela finds herself dissatisfied and betrayed, kept awake by her partner’s snoring and no longer in love with her. She goes up to the roof, cries into her maid’s arms, and comes to the realisation that she doesn’t have to live this life anymore. When Chiquita awakes she calls out to Chela, but she cannot find her; ending with a lingering shot of her staring out at the drive seeing nothing and wondering where she could have gone. What has happened is that Chela left in the night, her experience freeing her to make her own decision and removing herself from the tomb of their wealthy nest. While it is left open as to whether she went to find Angy, I personally feel it is better to think she didn’t. For while the experience freed her to pursue her desires, it seems stronger to me to feel she was able to move on without the same need of coupling she felt with Chiquita. This leaves her opportunities unknown but limitless.
Photo: The Heiresses (2019) from Palace Films available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.