As Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born dominates the UK box office and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux stirs conversations amongst critics who attended this year’s London Film Festival, another film stands in the shadows, a darkened image of their notoriety. Depicting another life of limelight, at its borders rather than its centre, Carlos Vermut’s Quién te cantará — translated as Who Will Sing to You? — abstracts the popstar persona into shapes and surfaces, revealing the silent, asphyxiating mechanics that turn a life of fame, or the aspiration for one, into a self-constructed coffin. With immediate and curated access to celebrity lives, viewers of Vermut’s disco downer may recognise the gap they fill between themselves and their faves by co-opting their tastes, views and identities.
After a collapse on the shore, yesteryear’s superstar Lily Cassen (Najwa Nimri) has lost her memory, including her pop persona. She inhabits her old life like an alien amongst ruins, signs and traces of the old civilisation left behind in the form of golden records, specialist diets and music videos. Given the financial necessity of a comeback tour, Lily’s loyal manager Blanca (Carme Elias) needs her to shine again and finds a solution in Violeta (Eva Llorach), a karaoke bartender and Lily superfan. Her performance of Lily’s back catalogue inspires an offer to “imitate her for real” as a coach to the amnesiac singer. Violeta jumps at the chance, not just to meet her idol, but to escape her painful homelife catering to abusive daughter Marta (Natalia de Molina), who steals and threatens self-mutilation at the refusal of her demands. As Lily and Violeta work together however, the bounds between their identities are blurred, and the popstar they’re creating might not be the Lily from before.
Capturing the sensation of living life beyond its sell-by date, the four central actors embody varying shades of the same utilitarian trauma. Their roles as mothers and daughters consume their identities, as immovable responsibility tears away at these women while they compete for a piece of the prize in ways outright and insidious. For a greater portion of the film, the reconstruction of Lily drives this theme forward, but with Marta’s arrival (and Molina’s fearsome performance as a terrified, blinkered youth), the “getting the band together” thrust is put on hold, as a detour is made into the violence and resentment of inherited dreams. Some viewers may see Marta’s plotline as extraneous, but it’s her disruptive presence that elevates the film from an ornate study of how stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be into a clear-eyed gaze at longing ambition. Early into her amnesia, Lily searches inward, stating “I feel a rhythm… constantly,” — an irrepressible call to action.
With inflections of Alfred Hitchcock, shifting identities and a focus on motherhood, eager yet glib comparisons to the films of Pedro Almodóvar will be made, however Quién te cantará’s forlorn tone and icy demeanour relate more closely to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), even so far as including origami metaphors relating to the fluid nature of persona and its reconstruction, although Scott wouldn’t have had the opportunity to use a clipping of Shakira to foreground Deckard’s questionable identity. Quién te cantará is also aesthetically elegant and nostalgic like Scott’s film, as the title is a reference to the 1978 Mocedades song of the same name, and Lily’s costumes (designed by Ana López Cobos) have an edge of 70s chic via her cleopatra bob and sequined gowns. Edu Grau’s sleek cinematography deftly captures shifts between the elusive shapes of Lily’s amorphous personality through muted shadows and abstractions, along with the concrete hardship of Violeta’s day-to-day through natural sources and unflattering domestic lighting.
Quién te cantará is a cold, mournful study of mothers and daughters living despite each other, filtered through a mystery with a popstar shaped hole at its centre. By tracing the lines between surface personalities and inner motivations, Vermut and company have constructed an exquisite obituary to the broken dreams of karaoke crooners and the singers they admire.
Paul Farrell (@InPermafrost) is a freelance writer and programmer. He has contributed to MUBI Notebook, The Digital Fix and BLAM! Magazine. Paul also programmes independent & community cinema events in Birmingham, UK. When he grows up, he wants to be Zazie from Zazie in the Metro.