English Title: Musical Chairs
Original Title: El juego de la silla
Country of Origin: Argentina
Studio: Tresplanos Cine, Universidad del Cine
Director: Ana Katz
Screenplay: Ana Katz
Cinematographer: Paola Rizzi
Art Director: Astrid Lund Petersen
Runtime: 93 minutes
Genre: Modern Families
Colour, 35 mm
Víctor emigrated to Canada for professional reasons eight years ago. On his first visit back to Buenos Aires on a business trip, he visits his family for less than one day. His mother, two younger sisters, younger brother and an ex-girlfriend, who does not seem to know their relationship is over, all expect him with enormous excitement. They have prepared a long list of activities, performances and childhood games to share with Víctor, which will not make him as happy as they expected
Musical Chairs has the virtue of making spectators laugh and cry (or laugh until they cry). At the same time, viewers feel embarrassed and sorry for the characters. Katz’s first feature film is a hilarious black comedy about a family reunion that reaches excessive and extravagant proportions. Not surprisingly, it has been compared to Festen/The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) and Storytelling (Todd Solondz, 2001) for its portrait of dysfunction.
The way the cast works together in roles they know well makes Musical Chairs sing. With the exception of Bank, who plays the mother, they all performed the same characters in the play of the same title, also directed by Katz, that was on stage between the making of the film in 2000 and its release in 2002. These fine performances are as engaging as the incisive construction of the characters. The script subtly captures the social and historical context of the times.
The characters are all dealing with problems they try to hide from Víctor; more broadly, these problems refer to the country’s economic situation. The lives of the family members who stayed in Argentina have been stagnating economically, professionally and personally while Víctor was making progress in Canada. This has a formal expression in the film’s treatment of time. The narrative, framed by Victor’s arrival and departure, involves less than 24 hours. Yet the repetitive staging of performances prepared by the family to share with him, together with Katz’s editing style that adds a few extra seconds to each scene, creates the feeling that time, which has not passed for the Lujines, is not passing for the spectator either.
The Lujines have prepared a tight agenda of activities, games and performances in Víctor’s honour. There are, however, two kinds of performances: the ‘artistic’ spectacles staged to showcase the talent and accomplishments of the family members, and the family rituals and childhood activities and games, reenacted in the present to reincorporate Víctor back into the family fold from which he has excluded himself. But Víctor does not want to be reintegrated into this community.
As he faces a series of failed performances and rituals, Víctor’s gaze becomes more and more rarefied, foreign and alienated, from his amused initial smile to his condescending, concerned smirk later, to his plainly irritated and angry gesture during his mother’s 3:00 a.m. ballet performance. While he looks at the female performers, he is also carefully looked at, surveyed by the camera or by the women who keep their eyes on him while they perform, or while other women perform. Víctor’s progressive uneasiness is not only related to the failure of the performances he is attending, but also to the fact that he is being permanently surveyed. His gaze thus become the main show that the film stages.
An expanded version of this critique was published in Copertari, Gabriela (2009) Desintegración y justicia en el cine argentino contemporáneo,Woodbridge: Tamesis.
Author of this review: Gabriela Copertari