Ego (2021)

Ego has its European première at Grimmfest Easter Edition 2022

Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas’ Ego, written by Jorge Navarro de Lemus, begins in a recognisable reality, before retreating into an inner space. The opening sequence is set to the sound of a news report situating events in Madrid on Friday 13 March, 2020 as national lockdown is announced in response to the Covid outbreak, and we even hear an address from Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. The camera pans across the capital’s residential skyline before settling on unhappy-looking 18-year-old Paloma (María Pedraza), out on the porch of her bedroom in the apartment where she lives with her mother (Marian Álvarez). “Play sad music,” Paloma instructs the Siri-like device in her room, in an attempt to capture her melancholic mood – but then, as she searches for potential dates on an app, she requests “sexy music”, and after that “upbeat music”, in a sign that her emotions turn on a dime. The final track that she plays, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, will recur at various points (and in various covers) across the film that follows, underscoring, often ironically, Paloma’s mercurial shifts in mental state as she endures life under quarantine in a home whose harrowing associations both mother and daughter had been hoping to leave behind them once and for all.   

Paloma (María Pedraza) in the mirror

The word Ego is both the Latin first-person pronoun, and the term in Freudian psychoanalytic theory for that part of the self that must mediate between the conflicting demands of one’s own basic drives and impulses (the id), of one’s internalised template for moral and cultural norms (the superego), and of reality itself. Sure enough, Cortés-Cavanillas’ Ego is essentially a psychological film about an individual’s identity breaking down and apart into fragments. Before its narrative starts, Paloma has already regularly been consulting a psychologist (Alicia Borrachero) and taking medication, after the trauma of discovering her artist father hanged in his work room had driven her to depression and acts of self-harm. Now, as she seeks other girls with whom to flirt online, Paloma finds the screen reflecting her own likeness back at her from the account of another woman her age. Initially suspecting identity theft, Paloma soon learns that while the account holder’s moniker Goliadkin (an anagram of ‘dialog kin’) is fake, her lookalike, Olga (also played by Pedraza), is real (or at least real enough). The two enter a virtual dialogue to determine who is the original and who the copy, who the ego and who the alter, in a relationship that seems all at once sororal, sexual, narcissistically masturbatorial, and deeply (self-)destructive. 

Paloma (María Pedraza) and her painted likenesses

What ensues is a doppelgänger story, falling somewhere between Isabel Coixet’s Another Me (2013) and Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam (2018), in which unstable, isolated Paloma finds herself – indeed her self – divided and falling apart, with paranoia, anxiety and delusion filling in the cracks. “Is it because of lockdown?”, Paloma’s mother will ask, alarmed to see the symptoms of her daughter’s previous problems returning. “Is it because of dad?” Paloma just wants someone, whether it is her mother, her psychologist, or her childhood friend Jorge (Pol Monen), to listen to her, maybe even to believe her – yet in an apartment full of Paloma’s reflected or painted images, the psychologist will insist, “The only real thing is you,” and because this story is told from the inside, from Paloma’s entrapped, unravelling perspective, a careful ambiguity is maintained as to whether this unfolding body snatchers scenario is both actually happening, and spreading like a (Corona)virus throughout the city, or is all in our adolescent heroine’s confounded, Capgras-afflicted head.

Either way, Ego allegorises the damaging disruption that virtual house arrest has inflicted upon our everyday identity, as we have all been forced to spend so much time alone, staring into screen or mirror for company, and not always liking what we see. The film’s final image, reminiscent of the red lights at the end of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015), suggests that Paloma may be only one of millions having to deal with mental illness in the naked city, thus universalising her interior experiences as part of a more collective consciousness behind closed doors.

strap: Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas’ pandemic-set psychological horror finds doppelgängers and divided selves in a locked-down Madrid

© Anton Bitel