As the title suggests, game playing is key to Macarena García Lenzi and Martín Blousson’s Rock, Paper and Scissors (Piedra, papel y tijera), from a screenplay by the directors and their co-writers Julieta García Lenzi and Valentín Javier Diment (The Rotten Link). In a multi-storey house in contemporary Argentina, María José (Valeria Giorcelli) and her brother Jesús (Pablo Sigal) live in agoraphobic exile from reality. For these infantilised adults have retreated into a world of whimsical fantasy, informed in large part by María’s obsessive repeat viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Together, they play dress-ups and even make their own semi-animated movies – with María as Dorothy Gale, and a pet guinea pig serving as Toto – while their own names suggest a rather different, Biblical frame for this domestic narrative.
No longer able to ignore the insistent buzzing of their doorbell, María and Jesús play rock, paper and scissors to determine who should go downstairs to answer it. It’s their estranged stepsister, the actress Magdalena (Agustina Cerviño), who, following the recent death of their invalid father, has come back from Spain to help with the dissolution of the property. This encroachment from the outside world threatens to unsettle María and Jesús’ fragile idyll – but then an accident leaves Magdalena bed-ridden and unable to leave the house on her own two feet. Now it is the older sister who longs, like Dorothy, to go home – and her increasingly desperate attempts to do so will expose the tragic dysfunction at the heart of this madhouse.
“This house looks just the same,” comments Magdalena when she first arrives. “As if time hadn’t passed.” Indeed, María and Jesús are locked into games of delusion and dominance that have not essentially altered since their childhood, and they cannot imagine ever leaving the nest. Now the returned Magdalena has become trapped with them in a toxic scenario, as her promise of a life outside the house is met with suspicion, panic and a dangerous instinct for self-preservation. What ensues is like a manic blend of Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975), Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990), Mitzi Peirone’s Braid (2018) – and especially, with its staircase falls, incest and domestic imprisonment, Juan Fernando Andrés and Esteban Roel’s Shrew’s Nest (Musarañas, 2014). Initially María and Jesús’ attempts at putting on a front of normality for Magdalena are simultaneously funny and disconcerting, with Gabriel Barredo and Emilio Haro’s jauntily discordant score suggesting the strain of their efforts to achieve harmony – but once Magdalena is bedbound, the siblings become less guarded about their unhinged natures, and accordingly DP Nicolas Colledani’s camera angles grow ever more canted.
Rock, Paper and Scissors is all at once a claustrophobic chamber piece and a deranged three-hander, as its trio of characters find that they are as mutually incompatible as the three items in the game after which the film is named. Each is a threat to at least one of the others, and their enforced co-existence must clearly end with some form of elimination. Great tension is maintained as we are left wondering just how this impossible situation will play itself out, and how often it has been staged before – even as we remain uncertain for which precise rôle Magdalena is being cast. Of course, no matter how excessive the behaviour of these three becomes, we recognise in their destructive dynamic of mutual jealousy, resentment and recrimination an exaggeration of the trap that every family makes for itself, and of the regression involved in any clan reunion. There really is no place like home.
© Anton Bitel