Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses is not just one of the most significant Paraguayan features to have been released on the world stage, but a passionate bid in and of itself for a Paraguayan film industry and culture. The screenplay centres on an aging lesbian couple, Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), living in Ascunsion in a wealthy apartment that has been in Chela’s family for some time. For the most part, it seems as if they’ve enjoyed a relatively comfortable life together, even if their mutual exhaustion, and some of the small details of their rapport, suggest that they had to work for it as well, as much as money might have insulated them from some of the rawer experiences of homophobia. Nevertheless, as the film opens, they’re embroiled in a different kind of closet, since it quickly emerges that some fraudulent dealings on Chiquita’s part have bankrupted them, sending them into a spiral of downward mobility that eventually sees Chiquita being imprisoned for a short period, during which time Chela takes on a chauffeuse service for female clients. At first, she’s just doing it to have something to fill her time, and then it becomes a source of income, but a third motivation emerges, gradually, over the second half of the film, as her driving, like Chiquita’s time in prison, opens her up to a new kind of communal experience.
Before we even get to that point, however, it’s clear that Martinessi sees outing, and the precarity that comes with the fear of being outed, as integral to queer relationships, even or after the formative disclosure of sexual orientation has occurred. Similarly, as the film presents it, a gradual deterioration of status is inherent in even the most privileged of queer relationships, just because these relationships don’t tend to be marked by the same socially sanctioned moments of graduation that tend to typify heterosexual relationships. While Chela and Chiquita may have been a couple for longer than anyone they know, then, their queerness also means that they’re unable to mediate their private and public selves in the way that is managed by, and even the rationale for, comparable heterosexual relationships, with the result that even the smallest disruption appears enough to render every experience that ensues either too private or too public, let alone a disruption that is itself so redolent of the closet epistemology that still forms the main affective anchor to their lives.
Accordingly, Martinessi shoots the first part of the film so as to suggest that alternation between unbearable privacy and unbearable publicity, especially in and around their apartment, which is only lit with natural light, except in a very few nocturnal scenes. On the one hand, the casts everything in a pool of shadow, and rarely allows us to see the womens’ faces fully lit, creating a furtive kind of feeling that forces the camera to hug them doubly tightly when they venture outside. At the same time, the incursion of natural light creates an abandoned atmosphere, never quite allowing the couple to decisively inhabit their home, despite the fact that Chela was born there, making even the most private of spaces and objects feel vulnerable to the intrusion of public space and scrutiny, as the prospective buyers of furniture and valuables become more or less continuous with the gossip that emerges amongst their friends about their financial state of affairs. Indeed, from the opening shot, Chela and Chiquita barely seem to occupy this space at all, since they’re perpetually lurking around its fringes as if still watching people pore over their possessions when they’re alone, much as the camera hides behind half-ajar doorways even when it’s just focusing on the two women, as if its preferred position is also at the edges of the space.
With Chiquita sent to prison, however, both women are forced to encounter public space and the public interface of their relationship in a new way. At the entrance to the prison, Chela is asked if she’s a relation, and she simply replies that she’s “family,” a non-disclosure that sets in train the second half of the film, as both women have to come to terms with their separation without the reassuring affective architecture of matrimony. In Chiquita’s case, the change is forced upon her, since the prison yard leaves no space for genuine publicity, while with Chela, who forms the main focus, the transition is more gradual, and revolves around her ersatz taxi service. As with Chiquita, this is the first moment in the film in which we consistently see Chela in direct light, as she starts driving wealthy women to appointments, and gradually becomes an informal chaffeuse for her circle of friends, finding that the driver’s seat allows her an effective way of hiding in plain sight, and remediating her public and private selves in ways not available within the ambit of her relationship alone. As she becomes more confident with driving on motorways, and takes on a broader range of clients, her practice starts to converge upon Angy (Ana Ivanova), a younger (although still not especially young) woman who develops an attachment to her, and eventually invites herself back to Chela’s place, where she recounts her sexual history, discloses her bisexuality, and makes it clear that she is Chela’s if she wants to sleep with her.
This moment of disclosure from Angy is the first time we have returned in some time to Chela and Chiquita’s apartment, which has tended to be elided from the second half of the film, and while the most immediate impact may be the first really overtly sexual gesture from Chela so far – masturbating in her bedroom – the broader impact is to utterly dissolve the apartment into a more ambient and porous erotic ambience. As Angy is undressing, Chela doesn’t exactly accept or refuse her offer, but takes a moment to contemplate it, only to return from the bathroom to find Angy gone. In her place, however, she discovers a more permeable threshold to the outside world than she ever thought possible, as Martinessi shows us the threshold between the apartment and the street for the first time, before leading us into a languorous sequence in which Chela drives through the streets looking for Angy, before disembarking and trying to locate her on foot. Beyond a certain point, however, the journey becomes its own destination, as she sits down to eat at an outside food stand, before wandering in a state of flaneuserie that is its own erotic end, in what just may have been the greatest gift that Angy could have given her, and perhaps explains why Angy recedes from this point on.
What Chela realizes, then, is that the very closet epistemology that makes it unable for her to properly mediate her public and private self also has the opportunity to provide her with moments of erotic joy, if only she opens herself up to the erotics of public space, the presence of other female bodies, and the way that all this engenders a renewed haptic communion with her own body. It’s an inherently cruisey combination – or, rather, clarifies that cruising is nothing more nor less than an acknowledgment that publicity is calibrated differently for queer people right from the get go – and while Chiquita may have had a comparable experience in prison, it’s Chela who really embraces it, if only because she comes at it more gradually and tentatively. No surprise, then, that she responds with shock when Chiquita is suddenly released from prison and sells the car to the first and last man we see the film, prompting a moment of crisis that sees her running up onto the roof to feel the wind on her face, as all the domestic coordinates of the house collapse and dissolve behind her. No surprise, either, that the final shot of the film depicts Chiquita coming out to find the car gone, and nothing left of Chela’s presence but the open gate – an invitation, as much as anything else, to a renewed erotics of public life.
And in that final shot and gesture lies the film’s poignant plea for both the history and future of Paraguayan cinema as well. Like Chela and Chiquita’s relationship, the limited reach of cinema in Paraguay has meant that it has never settled into the seamless mediation of public and private life that it enjoys in most Western countries. Instead, Martinessi suggests, Paraguayan cinema suffers from its own closet epistemology, in which its gestures run the risk of being too public or too private, too confessional or too irrelevant, all at once. Yet what The Heiresses so beautifully demonstrates is that this risk can also breed great joy when looked at from the right angle, as Martinessi refrains from offering either a directly autobiographical or directly allegorical statement to instead evoke the conditions of possibility within which that statement might emerge in the first place. The result feels as close to a foundational cinematic gesture as any produced by any nation, and while it may be belated in many ways, that belatedness is also part of what makes it so reparative and creative as well, in one of the most beautiful testaments to cinema I’ve seen in a long time.