Dreams of Masculine Fulfillment
The Bottom of the Sea is a thriller, but not for the usual reasons. It features no grand conspiracies, no back alley murders, just a simple case of infidelity (and the lovers aren’t even married). But the nocturnal setting, the layering of every scene with both ambiguity and inevitability, and a very tense soundtrack create an ambience that recalls classic noir.
Uncertainty over exactly what type of film we’re watching focuses our attention on the psychology of aspiring architect Ezequiel (Daniel Hendler). Suspecting his pretty yet distant girlfriend Anna (Dolores Fonzi) of cheating, he spends an entire night stalking the man he believes is her lover. By this point, we have seen numerous examples of Ezequiel’s fussy, neurotic character: he’s the sort of guy who has to rearrange his apartment every time he comes home, who takes a full minute to describe precisely how he’d like his latte and toast. He’s also clearly the jealous type. But is he dangerous?
This question provokes much of the initial suspense, as we wonder just how far he’ll go. The threat of violence also attends the other man, Anibal (Gustavo Garzón), who seems the opposite of Ezequiel, smooth, confident, and intimidating. It could be that Ezequiel is protecting Anna, not just being overzealous.
The film’s interest in the tension between weakness and strength exposes a preoccupation of young Argentinean director Damián Szifron, according to Diego Lerer’s DVD liner notes. Ezequiel, both in his relationship with Anna and his work as an architecture student, struggles for independence, though he isn’t always aware of it. When he discovers that Anna is hiding something from him, he sets out on his own rather than confront her for answers, as if her reticence is more of an excuse than a reason. His architectural project becomes more ambitious (though less practical) the more distance there is between him and Anna, culminating in a blueprint of an underwater hotel for scuba divers. There is a kind of madness to these dreams of masculine fulfillment, and they are as much a source of embarrassment and immaturity as power and confidence.
This potentially interesting premise suffers from a familiar narrative throughline: uncertain youth undergoes trial, becomes experienced man. Still, it provides a decent setup for a number of well-crafted sequences that balance humor and suspense. When Ezequiel lights Anibal’s car on fire in an abortive attempt at entrapment, each step leading up to and following this moment is surprising as the one prior. Working with little dialogue, the performers convey emotion and anxiety primarily through gesture.
Visual details lend the film a kind of warmth, holding our attention through the occasional banalities in theme and plot. Anibal has a habit of switching price stickers on minor purchases like food, a petty act that offsets his initially invincible demeanor. Ezequiel at one point brandishes a wooden T-square ruler as a weapon of revenge. Far from the kind of self-conscious quirkiness that sometimes mars independent cinema, these are instances of unusual behavior in a believable sense, the actions of strange, desperate people who are not so different from anyone else.
However, the film is finally too suggestive for its own good, leading to a disappointing denouement. It doesn’t help matters that the coda’s artiness is at odds with the rest of the film’s refreshing lack of pretension. Still, The Bottom of the Sea shows promise, especially in Szifron’s knack for externalizing internal conflict.