Wednesday 6 December 2017

Get out: "Most Beautiful Island"

Just as society has to work out how to come to terms with migration - extend a hand, or raise a flaming torch? - so too do our filmmakers. Last week saw Michael Haneke rather brusquely nudging on a huddled mass of Africans as the punchline to his Happy End; later this week, we'll see Ai Weiwei's compassionate overview doc Human Flow. Landing somewhere between the two approaches is Most Beautiful Island, a throat-grabbing B-pic of the old school in which writer-director-star Ana Asensio comes to address the plight of undocumented workers in latter-day Manhattan through the framework of genre: in some ways, she's picking up where 2004's much-admired Maria Full of Grace left off, though the new film pushes on still further, into the realms of outright horror. It opens as a character study in a familiar indie social-realist mode: Spanish heroine Luciana (Asensio) has reached the United States, albeit in a somewhat precarious condition, uninsured, and falling ever more behind on the rent for an apartment that has turned out to be riddled with cockroaches (early warning: this is not a film for bug phobes). Collecting only the modest income that follows from handing out flyers for a chicken restaurant, she naturally jumps at a hostess gig held out to her by a Russian co-worker, a job that apparently requires no more than to report at a warehouse wearing a little black dress. This, it transpires, is a bad move, and - if she's not careful - one that could well end up being her last.

There is no grandstanding or chestbeating about the drama that subsequently unfolds, nothing that would announce Most Beautiful Island as An Immigration Movie; its final movement, I suspect, would rule it out of serious Oscar contention. Instead, Asensio composes a simple, slender fable - barely 80 minutes short - which contents to stick the camera over our heroine's shoulder, and thereby illustrate in the most matter-of-fact manner just how easily an ordinary day can shade into nightmare for someone without the usual safety nets of privilege. The film is deliberate indeed about withholding the exact nature of that nightmare from us: it's one of those unnerving constructions that delights in keeping heroine and viewer alike in the dark for as long as is narratively feasible. As the assembled women are assigned numbers and told to wait in the chalk circles scrawled for them on the stone floor of the warehouse's unfurnished antechamber, we can be fairly certain they haven't been invited round for afternoon tea - unless they themselves are on the menu. (When asked what became of her former friends, the Russian girl replies with a lingering "New York ate them up".)

No spoilers from me, but the whole could well be filed alongside that wave of plutocrat-age media - including such diverse TV projects as Twin Peaks: The Return and The Girlfriend Experience - which insist that very bad things indeed are going on the other side of doors that will only rarely be opened to the likes of you and I; it's only once those doors have been opened that light is cast on the extent to which we've become the playthings of the well-to-do. (That title, scrawled by Luciana on a hopeless paper plane, has surely been formulated to recall the Depression-era The Most Dangerous Game.) Asensio - tall, athletic, combative; not an obvious patsy - gives a strong portrayal of a young woman whose better nature (her capacity to trust strangers, and convince strangers to confide in her) may very likely be her downfall. Even more striking, though, is the steel in her direction, her willingness to put her onscreen self through the wringer in a dozen or more ways while holding firm and letting the threat levels around her build quietly and steadily. The result generates some of the clammy, skin-prickling panic of a superior urban legend: rough-edged yet supremely vivid, possessed of an internal logic that makes its so-called true story terrifyingly easy to believe, this is termite art that sinks its teeth right into you.

Most Beautiful Island is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream.

No comments:

Post a Comment