At DIFF 2017, two productions bear the influence of what critic Miriam Bale has deemed the “persona-swap” film. Both Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl and Los Presentes (The Present Ones) feature female protagonists caught in a performative flux of self. As Bale cites in her formative essay on the genre, persona-swap films are about distinctly feminine experiences wherein the main exertion of personality is performance. She also points out that these films are of a certain tonal reality where magical events are accepted in reality. Think of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Each inhabit a certain psychic milieu that accommodates a slippage of personas between or amongst multiple women. Naturally, it’s a genre with great yield within the cinematic form. Film can show distinction between bodies/selves, and yet by the sleights of hand possessed by a cast and crew tapped into the film’s reality, those bodies, and thus personas, are able to fold in upon one another to materially portray a fluctuation of psychic reality.
Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl and Los Presentes are both written and directed by men, A.D. Calvo and Alejandro Molina, respectively — as are most of the films within this genre. There’s a delicacy to be taken in crafting these stories because, by nature, they are works of a certain fragility that a less careful artist could demolish with even just the slightest misplaced shot or edit. For as robust and jarring as they play, these films convince by their minutiae. Unfortunately, both Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl and Los Presentes slip away from their premises to make for a couple of half-formed endeavors. They have faces but no psyches.
The more accomplished of the two is Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl. From the first frames, the film locates its psychological center in the character of Adele (Erin Wilhelmi). She walks into frame down a rural farm road as the Classics IV’s “Traces” plays. The warm, sunlit afternoon is soon cut by her dreary home life, where her mother insists she live with her rich Aunt Dora to serve as her caretaker. Wilhelmi plays Adele with a bewildering gentility; she’s refined and servile, submissive to the point of being a non-entity. Essentially, she’s a ghost. And when she moves into Aunt Dora’s, she’s treated as such.
Dora is evidently wealthy. She lives in a Victorian-era home in the film’s non-descript town and time. Her hermetic lifestyle eludes her fair niece, and the audience, as Adele serves her day and night from the other side of the door. Like Adele, the film is stricken by a ghastly anemia. Literally, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is color graded as to mimic its protagonist: a bathwater, milky-blue hue sits atop every frame, which is unfortunate for a film that barely seems able to putter through its 76-minute runtime. Things don’t come back to life until the enigmatic Beth (Quinn Shephard) is introduced. She is brunette where Adele is blonde, darker-complected where Adele is translucent. And of course she is rebellious and free-spirited.
Beth’s role in the film is muddled from the start. She is posited as both a real flesh-and-blood character and a specter of Adele’s troubled psyche. As the two strike up an affection, Adele finds a new vigor for life, her aunt be damned. Done with the gaslighting and emotional abuse of her family, she tries to love herself — and Beth. Naturally, Adele’s obsession isn’t met with equal desire, and she winds up victimized by her willingness to assume some form of autonomy. The climax concerns some muddled details about Aunt Dora’s past, including a handful of strange, unidentified artifacts from her home and a bewitched or demonic presence. Calvo also tries his hand at elements of the persona-swap film. Adele hears Beth’s confessions of love whispered in her subconscious; a scene from Bergman’s Persona is referenced when, on a bankside with Adele, Beth recounts a salacious sex encounter; and the two even share a passionate kiss which yields to nightmare, playing to a genre trope that often materially signals the slippage of personas (e.g. the love scene in Mulholland Drive).
With a tighter visual rhythm and another 30 minutes of runtime, Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl could’ve been the potent hybrid of gothic horror and persona-swap film that it tried to be. Unfortunately, not enough is fleshed out by the end to make sense of its conclusion. Its anemia runs through to the very end.
Alejandro Molina’s Los Presentes is another story. It’s the tale of a failing marriage, framed within the narration of an Aztec myth of a soldier gone off to battle and his love falling for another man. Ana is an actress who suffers a sort of mental breakdown (understood by the bisection of her persona or what sometimes plays as a full swap) that leads to her infidelity. The event is triggered both by her husband’s growing indifference and her role as Ophelia in an adaptation of the post-modernist play Hamletmachine. The film finds its closest avatar in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (which also centers around the existential/metaphysical breakdown of an actress), yet it lacks the rigor to establish a world wherein this event makes sense.
Ana’s psychotic break, or persona swap, is a confusing mess to sort from the beginning. Molina visualizes this early on by having two actresses play her, switching the women from scene to scene without any cinematic logic. The original Ana is played by Marianna Burelli, a woman who feels the guilt of her infidelity and seems the victim to her afflicted self. The bizarro Ana, or Ophelia, is played by Camila Selser. The two are fine actresses yet fall victim to Molina’s ambition and, at times, his unfortunately-placed, sexual gaze.
Los Presentes lacks the self-awareness and rigor needed to present a concept of this pedigree. It never sets a visual logic and doesn’t present a world wherein these occurrences make sense. And by the end, it’s so hampered down by its literary references, it is unable to deliver a meaningful sense of conclusion.
Both films end up stuck in a genre that their filmmakers don’t fully embrace, and they are left wanting. The ambition and concepts are good to have, it just takes a lot more work to match the craft and care of Bergman, Altman or Lynch. I won’t blame them for trying, and I hope better films come of these two directors.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.