Nine Queens



Nueve Reinas : Argentina 2001
director/script : Fabian Bielinsky
cinematography : Marcelo Camorino
editing : Sergio Zotyola
music : Cesar Lerner
lead actors : Ricardo Darin, Gaston Pauls, Leticia Bredice
also : Ignasi Abadal, Oscar Nunez
114 minutes

According to writer-director Bielinsky, audiences should watch Nine Queens knowing zero about it beforehand. He’s right – part of the fun is second- and third-guessing which way the plot is going to twist next, and we’re constantly projecting forwards in search of double- and triple-bluff. But it won’t do any harm to reveal the opening is lifted straight from Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut Hard Eight, transplanted to Buenos Aires: twentysomething Juan (Pauls) needs cash to spring his father from jail and his clumsy scams attract the attention of an older con artist, Marcos (Darin), who’s on the lookout for a new partner.

Marcos takes Juan under his wing for a day to teach him the tricks of the trade, and the pair soon learn of a golden opportunity involving the Nine Queens, a rare set of stamps printed during the Weimar republic and now expertly forged by Marcos’s ex-partner Sandler (Nunez). Shady businessman Vidal (Abadal) is the ideal ‘patsy’ – he’s collects stamps, is loaded, and he’s being deported to Venezuela tomorrow. Even better, he’s staying in the fancy hotel where Marcos’s sister Valeria (Bredice) works …

Needless to say, nothing and nobody is quite what they seem, since we’re firmly within the twisty mini-genre typified by David Mamet’s House of Games – cited by Bielinsky as his chief inspiration. But as the plot rapidly escalates, it never falls into the Mamet trap of becoming too clever for its own good, even if it is hard to keep track of exactly what percentage of the final haul is going to which crook. This is a pleasurable kind of confusion – Bielinsky keeps us constantly on our toes, aware that we’re almost-but-not-quite keeping up with the rat-a-tat dialogue, the coincidences and contrivances, the dizzying switchback of double- and triple-crosses.

It helps that all the action occurs pretty much over a single day, with economic use of a small number of well-chosen downtown BA locations: though the film presents the city as a seething hotbed of crime and deceit (“so good for business deals,” purrs Vidal), it somehow does so in an appealing way. The highlight is a sequence when Marcos points out various crooks, swindlers, bag-snatchers to Juan, describing them in increasingly archaic, lurid phrases (“mustard chuckers”!), with Zottola’s rapid cutting building up a strangely agreeable form of urban paranoia.

Camorino’s camera is almost invariably hand-held, but without being intrusively wobbly – we’re only mildly disoriented, and it’s enough. Likewise, though the general mood is light – Darin’s comic timing nails plenty of laughs – there are moments of real tension, as when Vidal’s philately expert scrutinises the stamps with a loud paper-shredder droning away ominously in the background. Nerve-jangling tension then gives way to a palpable sense of relief, as Juan and Marcos strut down a plush hotel corridor, scarcely able to believe their luck or contain their excitement – it’s a terrific contrast in moods.

As one character remarks, snapping out of a convincing bit of ‘acting’, “I should go to Hollywood” – and Nine Queens is an impressive calling-card debut for Bielinsky, who’ll have the big studios burning up the fax lines in search of a remake and whatever else he’s got lurking in his sock-drawer. He’s promised to avoid this mini-genre in future – wisely, because any film that relies so heavily on twists, no matter how well it’s done (The Others, The Score, and Mamet’s Heist, The Usual Suspects, etc) is essentially a cheap, manipulative, if entertaining, use of celluloid. Nine Queens is about as good a twist-pic as there’s been in recent years – but Bielinsky’s better than this genre. And, thankfully, he knows it.

20th November, 2001
(seen Nov-17-01, Odeon West End – London Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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