Saturday, June 2, 2012

Penumbra: Having A Really Bad Day

There's an old aphorism that comedy is the absolute worst day of someone else's life. Which is sometimes true, I think, but not always - I mean, let's face it, the story of Oedipus isn't exactly a laugh riot, and I'm pretty sure the day he discovered that he'd inadvertently killed his own father and slept with his mother was the worst day of his life. So what distinguishes funny worst days from frightening or tragic worst days? I think it might be empathy. If we like or identify with the person, we don't want to see them hurt or suffer. If we don't, we're indifferent at best and rejoice in it at worst.

This is why I think it's so important to give the audience a connection to the protagonists of a horror movie - if we don't care, how are we going to be scared? Where it gets a little weirder is when the protagonists are actively unsympathetic, and you sort of find yourself rooting for their demise. Is that horror, or just really black comedy? I'm not saying there are clear-cut demarcations (American Psycho is a pretty tense, scary movie, and it's got some great dark comic moments), but if you're trying to make a scary movie, it helps if we're generally frightened for the protagonists. And I think this is where Penumbra runs into trouble.

Margarita Sanchez is having a very bad day. She's a high-powered yuppie lawyer from Barcelona who, much to her dismay, is stuck in Buenos Aires trying to unload an apartment her family inherited. She hates the country for its dirtiness and lack of sophistication and cannot wait to get back to Spain. She bears the sort of energetic contempt you associate with the aggressively upwardly mobile, perhaps someone trying desperately to outrun her own humble beginnings. She can't even be bothered to be polite to the people around her. She's rudeness and snobbery stuffed into a power suit and tethered to the world by a cell phone.

So Margarita's stuck in Buenos Aires, waiting for the realtor to come by to look at the apartment. The realtor keeps not showing up and not showing up, until finally he does - well, it turns out he was upstairs already, looking around. She lets him in, and he explains that he's still waiting for his boss to show up, and that he was sent ahead to look around. She's impatient enough to start to shoo him off, but his employer is willing to pay about four times what the property is worth to expedite the sale. That gets her attention, and so she suffers his presence while pacing around the apartment on her cell phone, juggling her sister, an annoyed co-worker, a lecherous client, and her boss, all without letting on that she's running late for her meeting because she's trying to get rid of this apartment. She's very busy trying to keep all of her lies straight.

So busy, in fact, that she doesn't take too much notice of the other people who start coming into the apartment, or the fact that none of them really seem like realtors, or that they're very insistent on taking this specific apartment by a specific time, or that Buenos Aires is about to experience a total solar eclipse.

What I think Penumbra is trying to achieve is a mixture of menace and surreal comedy like you might find in one of Roman Polanski's films, but the comedy almost seems more slapstick than anything else, and it's at odds enough with the menacing moments that both end up undercut - the funny stuff either seems less funny or the scary stuff seems less scary. And since we don't really identify with Margarita - she really isn't anything but unpleasant - the scary bits scare us even less. We aren't worried for Margarita because she's pretty much at fault throughout. At most, we watch as all of her previous bad behavior throughout the movie comes back to bite her on the ass in her moments of real need. So by the time things start going really bad, the appropriate response seems less "oh shit," and more "well, there you go."

There are some nice little moments throughout that, true to Polanski's approach, make you wonder not so much if it's all in Margarita's head or not (because we know it isn't), but just how deep the rabbit hole goes - other people's behavior does seem a little off, a little suspicious at times, and it's almost enough to keep you wondering, but not enough to mitigate the way the rest of the movie veers between creepy and goofy without really integrating the two. Our protagonist and her situation are both just terrible enough to leave us undecided between comedy and horror. It's the worst day of the worst person's life, so what are we supposed to feel?

Unavailable on Netflix

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