El Apego

El Apego (The Attachment Diaries) (2021)

El Apego (aka The Attachment Diaries) opens with a tracking shot that follows, from behind, a pair of legs in high heels, walking along a roughly cobbled pavement in heavy rain at night. This is pure film noir – an impression greatly aided by the strict monochrome presentation – yet this woman’s progress is intercut with a subtly animated title sequence that, in stark contrast, features splashes of colour (mostly deep red), suggestive of giallo. These coloured illustrations are cut-outs, which we will later learn are the chosen artistic medium of the woman in the rain, Carla Patrici (Jimena Anganuzzi). With a blade, she slices up pictures from magazines, and reconstitutes them in collages so that, though still recognisably female in form, they have been made to look disturbing and grotesque. Valentín Javier Diment‘s film might be said to be doing something similar. For it introduces two women, Carla and Irina (Lola Berthet), and ever so gradually exposes their backstories, deconstructing and reconstructing them into a pair of femmes fatales, or perhaps of sadistic psychokillers, in keeping with its initial promise of both noir and giallo

Sharing El Apego‘s close focus on women, keen diarist Irina is herself a gynaecologist. Though professionally successful, Irina is also a virgin and, owing to the dominant rôle played in her life by her man-hating, now ailing mother, sexually repressed. Four or five months pregnant but without money, Carla has come desperately to Irina to get rid of the baby, claiming that the father of the unborn child was one of three male strangers who had entered her lodge one night and gang-raped her. Irina, who was herself born out of rape and is therefore sympathetic with Carla’s predicament, makes a proposal to the mutual benefit of both women: on condition that the unstable, self-harming Carla remain under the watchful eyes of Irina and her dedicated maid Dominga (Marta Haller) until the pregnancy is brought to term, Irina will provide Carla with food and lodgings in her own opulent home, and will find a well-paying couple to adopt the baby. Meanwhile Irina gets Dominga’s friend Ortiz (Germán de Silva), a private detective and fixer, to do a background check on Carla, who is plainly being economic with the truth about her past and present circumstances – and even about her identity. Yet as both women’s prior attachments (‘apego’ means ‘attachment) are in different ways severed, they reattach intensely to each other, with the damage from their respective histories curdling into a caustic, corrosive mix. There will be blood.

There is a moment in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014) when the sudden broadening of its protagonist’s hitherto narrow horizons is graphically rendered by the stretching of the film’s squared-off Academy ratio presentation into a widescreen format. El Apego features a similar moment – although it is realised through a different visual effect – as the curtains are suddenly thrown open on Irina’s drab, austere existence, letting brightness in for the first time. From this moment, she both sees the world in a different light, and also risks losing everything that she has carefully built around her to this new, tainted love. For Diment has crafted a tale of amour fou, where Irina’s awakening is also a swooning surrender to passion and madness. 

As a specialist in women’s anatomy and disorders, Irina spends much of her time with her head between her patients’ legs, examining closely the female portal of parturition and pleasure. Yet as her professional and personal lives grow ever more confused, the tools of her gynecological trade – the scalpels, the straps, and even the potassium that she occasionally uses for the illicit DIY disposal of aborted foetuses and stillbirths – get increasingly repurposed for non-medical usage. The film’s preoccupation with surgery and more specifically its images of Irina and Carla in a car at night evoke Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (1960), and the two women’s murderous plotting recalls Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), while cinematographer Claudio Beiza’s deployment of canted angles and deep shadows point to the same age of hard-boiled noir – yet the setting is in fact the Argentina of the early Eighties, a time when pagers were a novelty and mobile phones were nowhere to be seen, and when abortion was outlawed and homosexuality, still regarded by many as a sick deviance, was in the closet after years of repression under the dictatorship.  

El Apego is a rape revenge films of sorts, even if some of the charges of rape are fabrications (albeit echoing primal scenes of real abuse), and if the revenge is by proxy and misdirected. For this is a messy investigation of feminine pathology, whose heroines are capable of cruelty and contradiction (“First you slap me and then you treat me with respect?”, Carla asks Irina). These women are also products of their upbringing and environment, and therefore as much victims as predators – in an era when anyone exhibiting unorthodox views or behaviours might simply disappear.

Accordingly, El Apego is extremely elegant on the surface, but deeply perverse underneath – a bizarre, violent romance that unfolds with surgical precision. For here, we get to know two disturbed women inside out as they prove equally adept in the art of carving up bodies (whether magazine images or real corpses). This film of two halves, whose narrative is literally split by the first on-screen appearance of the title just past its halfway point, and whose editing (by Diment and Martín Blousson) often intercuts jarringly between one scene and another, captures two selves divided between their fragile histories, and the complementary, symmetrical fulfilment that they are able to find in each other. The problem is that one of the ways in which they express and reinforce their mutual attachment is through the repeated reenactment of past trauma, resolved only through vindictive murder. Like a state emerging slowly from the horrors of a Dirty War, these lovers bear scars that will not quickly heal, and long for satisfaction that will not come easily. Still, love – however toxically – finds a way.

strap: Valentín Javier Diment’s noirish psycho-erotic thriller takes a gynaecological view of a damaged relationship between doctor and patient

© Anton Bitel