Monday 31 October 2011

Fashion nightmares: "Miss Bala"

In the opening moments of the Mexican thriller Miss Bala, we watch aspirant teenage beauty queen Laura (Stephanie Sigman) as she moves about her bedroom in Baja California, putting the final touches to her clothes, hair and make-up in preparation for a night on the tiles. The camera, like a waiting suitor, grows restless, and begins to scan the girl's bedroom walls, with their collage of icons (Madonna, Cindy, Naomi), to distract itself. Briefly glimpsed are the words "FASHION VICTIM", the set-up for the grimly ironic gag that we'll observe playing out over the subsequent ninety minutes.

For, in the wake of a nightclub party that turns into all-out warfare between drug enforcement agents and local crime bosses, Laura will be betrayed by a policeman and taken prisoner by a cartel, to be used as both bait and bargaining chip. This ordeal has its odd perks. The gangsters have pull enough to get her reinstated in a beauty contest after she's thrown out for missing rehearsals, and they have cash enough to bankroll her new dress after she makes it through to this contest's final stages; in every sense, she becomes the respectable face of the organisation, offering a prettification of some otherwise distinctly ugly business.

Miss Bala is one damn thing after another, pitching us headlong into the chaos, and ascribing to its heroine a nightmarish upward mobility: it's possible that being kidnapped allows Laura to unlock hidden reserves of vulnerability and strength that make her a more attractive proposition to the beauty competition's judges. Such unlikely alliances have apparently become all too common in latter-day Mexico, but the film is propulsive rather than preachy: it puts us through the mill, only glancingly wondering what an audience might be prepared to do (if there is anything we might do) to stop kidnappings like these from occuring.

Writer-director Geraldo Naranjo's energies were rather squandered in his previous film, I'm Gonna Explode, when its tearaway protagonists holed up on a rooftop, and Miss Bala, relentless as it is, feels like a better outlet for his undeniable talents: he can afford almost to throw away such moments as a parallel between the taping of banknotes to Laura's chest and the corseting we commonly associate with beauty queens, and his camera movements are more often than not faultless. (Take the pan over a wall of photographs as the gang storms Laura's family home, a deft underlining of what's at stake.)

For all this, I wasn't entirely as convinced or as blown away by the new film as many have been, in part because that technical facility left me suspicious. Miss Bala doesn't allow itself the time to analyse the Mexican drug wars in any particular depth; the carnage it engenders is merely a colourful backdrop through which the director can pull us on his Steadicam-travelator, and not too much of the film sticks in retrospect. For much of its duration, the film plays like an exercise - a skilful exercise, granted - in wiping the smirk from Sigman's face, the smirk of a teenager rather too aware of her own beauty, and a beauty that, for all its superficial value, counts for nothing when you're being shot at from every side. (The prize in this contest is getting out alive.)

Between the guns, bullets, the whip pans and the pretty girls, Naranjo's film is a combustible mix, to be sure, and I'm entirely certain it's possible to sit back, grab hold of the armrests and enjoy the ride it offers. Yet Miss Bala's signature scene struck me as coming late on during the concluding stages of the beauty pageant, when - emerging onstage to be asked by the event's host about her plans for the future - Laura seizes up, struck with absolutely nothing to say, only for her silence to be mistaken by the judges for a show of hidden depths. Put it this way: it wouldn't surprise me if Naranjo's next move was over the border.

Miss Bala is in selected cinemas.

No comments:

Post a Comment