El Rey

El Rey de la Fiesta (King of the Party) (2021)

Salomón Askenazi’s El Rey de la Fiesta is – much like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. (2002) – concerned with identical twins and twinned identities. Where 50-year-old husband and father Héctor (Giancarlo Ruiz) is uptight, unhappy and deprived – self-deprived, even – of everything that he desires (sex, fun, freedom), his brother Rafael (also Ruiz) is Héctor’s polar opposite: a work-shy, commitment-phobic hedonist who is the titular ‘king of the party’. 

If Héctor dislikes Rafael, that dislike is rooted in jealousy – for Rafael is everything that Héctor would like to be, the unrestrained id to Héctor’s highly strung ego. And then one day, when the plane to Hawaii which Rafael had caught on a whim crashes killing everyone on board, Héctor assumes the identity that his brother has left behind, inserting himself into Rafael’s clothes, home, and even relationships. It is a move which is part expression of grief, part midlife crisis and part exploration of an alternative life he might have had, and might still have  – and the more Héctor masquerades as Rafael, spending time with Rafael’s lover Nicole (Paulette Hernandez) and even playing the cool uncle to his own daughter Carla (Mar Mediante), the more he comes to despise himself, his marriage to Adela (Daniela Bascopé) and his past life. 

Mirrors and reflections form a recurrent motif here. When we first see Héctor (or is it Rafael?), it is not actually him but his distorted silhouette in a rippling watery surface, as a signifier of his fluid identity. The home of Héctor’s retired architect father Don Nicolas (Juan Carlos Colombo) – where Rafael had been staying and where Héctor moves in – is a hall of reflective surfaces that reduplicate the image of Héctor even as he has already begun splitting from himself. Films too are mirrored: not only is Carla’s kitchen decorated with a prominent poster for Denis Villeneuve’s doppelgänger-driven Enemy (2013), but El Rey de la Fiesta corresponds closely in its themes (accident, assimilation, identity, alterity) with Askenazi’s own previous feature Two Times You (Dos Veces Tú, 2018). One might even think of Askenazi’s two films, like the feuding twin brothers, as forming a diptych together.

Héctor’s struggle with himself, his search for liberation and a different life, and his reengagement with his more risk-taking, artistic side, is all an experiment in seeing how the other half lives. This is a philosophical quest, bookended by quotes from Buddhist theologian Alan Watts on the disillusionment of the self and the living of life to the fullest. Meanwhile Ruiz more than meets the challenge of not only playing Héctor and Rafael, but also playing Héctor playing Rafael, in a complicated personality swap (and rôle reversal) which reveals just how similar these paired siblings ultimately are, no matter how slow Héctor might be to realise their shared nature. Héctor has always wanted what Rafael has – but it is only at this midpoint of his life that Héctor finally takes it, becoming simultaneously both himself and the other. 

Accompanied by increasingly surreal imagery to suggest the dream from which the protagonist is trying fully to awaken, Héctor’s gradual emergence from himself comes with a double edge: for while he might eventually succeed in escaping a life that leaves him uncomfortable in his own skin, and while he might manage to metamorphose into the part of himself that he has long since left behind, he also ends up a little boy lost, even more childish and irresponsible than his twin brother, and with much more to lose, as this game of mirrors brings out the protagonist’s most narcissistic side. It is this ambivalence in El Rey de la Fiesta, this hesitation to celebrate or to condemn the transformation of its hapless hero, which allows the film to stay with the viewer. Here we are left to do the work of interpretation ourselves (and in our own image), and to fix this fractured character with our own identity, as each of us becomes all at once Héctor’s invisible co-worker, dance partner and alter ego, in a collaborative construction of one person from two mirror images. Look hard enough at Héctor’s incompleteness, at his yearning to be someone else, and you risk seeing yourself reflected in all his itching emptiness.

El Rey de la Fiesta is a funny, mannered and often confronting journey through a middle-aged man’s sense of dissatisfaction, regret and loss – and any glimpse of hope for a better future that comes in the end is decidedly bittersweet. For if Héctor gets to become the king of the party, he is left, like Galoup in the final scene of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), to party all alone.

strap: Salomón Askenazi’s philosopho-comical follow-up to Two Times You takes a twin approach to one man’s mid-life crisis of identity

© Anton Bitel