A confident debut from Argentina’s Natalia Meta,The Intruder (El Prófugo) takes the mystery framework, character tropes and lurid colour of Giallo cinema, using it to interrogate a woman’s psyche and hinting at Argentina’s colonial legacy, without making much of a statement at all. Érica Rivas, the breakdown bride from Wild Tales, transforms this genre hybrid into a star vehicle as a voice actress named Inés, who opens the movie like John Travolta in Blow Out by trying to perfect a horror movie scream. Opening clips of eroticised horror images, blocked faces and bound hands engulf her, and doing take after take, she cannot capture that perfect cinematic shock: here is a woman who hides her image behind her voice, and may be losing control of that, too.
Before long, Inés is on holiday with Leopoldo (Daniel Hendler), a man she barely knows who shouts at her in private and makes grand romantic gestures in public. Their interactions are full of strange gesticulations, threatening to go full tilt into foreboding horror. The Intruder’s opening 20 minutes are completely wild, setting up something violent and psychosexual. In cinema, a recent trend has been for a director to withhold the title card drop until a peak moment (see Mandy and Long Day’s Journey into Night), and The Intruder earns it. After some “mad shit” goes down with Leopoldo, Inés believes herself to be haunted by a supernatural “intruder” in both physical and psychological spaces.
The Intruder is a 90s erotic thriller in miniature, and the rest of the runtime slows down as Rivas investigates. The twists are predictable, and Cecilia Roth has fun as a mad mother, huffing a vape out the window (of course). She calls Inés’ boss as though her ward, and incessantly offers vocal training to her uninterested daughter. Doing voice over work, Inés meets a medium who offers advice a few times, climaxing in a hilariously tense scene where they record background dialogue while really talking about what’s happening between them.
This humorous touch is indicative of what Meta seems interested in, but perhaps unable to commit to. The Intruder interpolates the parts of Giallo without the scares, keeping true to the genre’s more strictly crime-oriented titles like The Cat o’ Nine Tails. But the whole affair hobbles along without narrative or stylistic force. The mystery and supernatural turns are fairly routine, and Meta doesn’t use her stylistic palette to comment on genre or delve deeply under Inés’ skin. Yes, when Inés’ blue nails match the coloured projection of the horror film she voices, it forms a link between her touch and blue as a colour of grief, which continues to be unmistakably patterned throughout the film. But is that as far as Meta can go?
Inés is a soprano in the choir at an opera house, opening up that space as a recurring location. Its modern walls become a labyrinthine tomb, with plush carpets and soft lighting hiding its cold impersonal nature. It reminds the audience that European art was built atop the bodies of indigenous people, and that the middle-class, all-white cast of The Intruder are blind to their own complicity in their nation’s bloodshed. At the opera house, Inés comes across an organ that appears to play itself, leading her to meet Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) a Phantom-like tuner who knows her name and everything about her. Introduced through bars like a confession booth, Biscayart is suitably creepy/sexy as a romantic interest with something to hide. His 120 BPM turn made an impact, and this goes some way further towards making him a star, as fluttering eyelashes and an incandescent stare give him a unique pretty-boy waif persona that doesn’t cross too closely into Timothée Chalamet territory. Maybe he’ll get that Marvel money some time.
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It doesn’t do to get too sentimental about missing the cinema experience, but I first saw The Intruder in the grand Berlinale Palast, a venue that would make the meekest of productions into something bigger than life — a venue not unlike the film’s opera house. Watching it a second time at home, with the sound of a car alarm going off every so often and light peeking through the curtains, one can’t help but lament what we are missing in this online festival. It can’t be helped, but a sadness persists. London Film Festival’s latest iteration has succeeded by removing its competitions, putting its entire selection, a showcase of the year’s cinema, on a level playing field. It is encouraging to see genre cinema appreciated by the festival as much as the latest Lav Diaz joint. The gloriously strange climax of The Intruder thrives by this lack of a pedestal, utilising deepfake technology in a thematically disjointed moment with no prelude in the film, other than as a reversal of an earlier class of voice and visage. It’s a muddled ending, but one that crystalises the blasé attitude of the whole film.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.