Completed just a few days before its festival launch, The Heiresses was probably the best film at the 2018 Berlinale – and one that inspired both affection and a high degree of esteem. It won the Alfred Bauer Silver Bear and the FIPRESCI prize, alongside the Silver Bear for Best Actress awarded to Anna Brun for her nuanced portrait of a woman finding grace as she falls.
It’s a first film for Paraguayan writer and director Marcelo Martinessi – a finely crafted story, trenchantly witty, where the female gaze reigns. The uncertainty and ambivalence of a long relationship plays out in a world of light and dark, decline and hope.
I met Martinessi a few weeks before The Heiresses’s release in London, in the busy café of a Soho cinema. We discussed the significance of the writing process, and how it permeates every aspect of filmmaking.
Marcelo Martinessi: I wrote part of the film in France because I had a scholarship from Cinéfondation which is the academic branch of Cannes. I was there for six months and that’s where I wrote my first draft. That puts you on track. It’s actually a place where you go and you write for six months and they pay you to do it. It’s great.
Nadia Bee: That’s brilliant – do they provide a framework?
MM: No. The framework, it’s you. There are six filmmakers, so you have the possibility to exchange ideas, watch films, but you don’t have a tutor. But I did have tutors during Torino FilmLab, because I also went to Torino Film Lab.
NB: How long did the process take?
MM: From the moment I decided to sit down and write, until the Berlinale release, five years. Almost five years. Because I started writing at the end of 2012 but I wrote the first draft in 2013.
NB: I think it’s something you can see in the film, it is layered and precise. The passage of time must have had really an influence on your writing process. Why did you decide to do both writing and directing?
MM: This is my first film script and I feel film is about honesty, and sometimes when you sit down and write, you write things that really touch you, that are key to your life experience, and that helps you a lot on the set, to help you make decisions in the editing room, to choose music, to choose an actress. Everything makes sense for me if you start with a project early on with the writing and then you can create something that is really close to you.
In my case I needed to write a script. To write a script, I needed to go to a safe place, and that safe place is the voices of women I heard since I was a child: aunties, mother, grandmother, neighbour, sister. I grew up surrounded by women. In order to truly find out my place in the world, I said I have to go back to everything I know from my childhood, all the sounds that I’ve always heard and through them, tell more about my society.
NB: I could see that there is a strong element of political allegory in the film and thought that on the one hand there’s a political dimension to the environment in which these women live, but also within the relationship. I was wondering if one woman was exerting a degree of control over the other, and if there’s an element of dictatorship within their dynamic.
MM: There is. I thought this was something that wouldn’t travel outside of Paraguay because very few people know about the history, but we did have a 35-year dictatorship where somebody always told us what to do. When people said oh the dictator was bad, I always say there was a romance between society and the dictatorship – otherwise it wasn’t going to last 35 years.
When I started to write the story, I said there had to be an element of control, but also romance. That is something Paraguayan people really catch quickly. Chiquita comes back (from prison) and when she comes back, the romance is faded. But this is the only way Chela (her partner) knew how to live or how to survive. In a way for me, this failure from of us as a country to start driving ourselves, driving our destiny, falling in love and not understanding where we were going, allows the old system to come back.
NB: Chiquita was remarkable as a character, because she’s a woman in a relationship but unlike most women you see in cinema in a relationship, I thought there was a strong undercurrent of menace in her, of actually masculine menace, and I was wondering if it was intentional that she was a bit like a gangster?
MM: I think in a way she is the person that takes control. We have culturally a way of seeing men take control, in that kind of relationship, especially because Chela, being in a very grey moment of her life, at the beginning (of the film) she does very little. It’s more her body, the way she looks. And Chiquita is the one who keeps running the house, so of course that is why when I talk about allegory I want to be very careful, I don’t want to talk about the role of women only.
NB: The performances are so subtle and you say most of the actors didn’t have training. How did you create the space in which they could bring all of that out?
MM: Time. It’s the key, time is key. I don’t know how you guys work here in the UK, I don’t have much experience on set here except I went to London Film School, so I had some experience from that. But time is key. I worked with them, they knew they were going to perform a year before, so I was traveling a lot but every time I went to Paraguay, we met, we had rehearsals, I shot a bit to get them into that world.
With Anna Brun it was a very weird process because we did rehearse, over six or seven months, and she then came to me and said I cannot do this because my family don’t want me to play a lesbian character. I cannot play this character but I have a solution. I am going to change my name – and she changed her name to Anna Brun. It’s not a real name, and we never thought the film was going to be that big, so she said no one will ever find out that this is me.
And then the rest of the characters, I just wanted to give them space to breathe before. Because we knew when the shooting came, we are not going to be able to do much. But even during shooting, we shot it in forty days, which is a luxury for South American cinema, and my priority was them. The priority was to breathe with them and make them feel comfortable.
NB: There is an ambiguity. I didn’t make up my mind about whether Chiquita was financially exploiting her lover. I wasn’t entirely sure if she had gone to jail – maybe because there had been some fraud.
MM: Sometimes you don’t know if your partner is exploiting you, you have this doubt. Maybe this person is with me because of this or that. For me, this was a relationship, at some point a normal, beautiful relationship, and now it’s fading and they are lost. Both of them.
Chiquita with all this need to keep Chela in the lifestyle that she was used to, and she is a woman who will adapt easily to anything because she has more life experiences than this woman who has always been in a prison of a house. I always saw this house as a prison, and the prison, somewhere people are more free than in the outside world, and then the car as this thing in between.
It was always in my mind because also I couldn’t make a film with a lot of locations. Sometimes limitations work in favour of the film because we could not have many locations. It’s very complicated in Paraguay to move everything so it was the house, the prison, the car and then this other place where they play cards.
NB: At one moment it took me a few seconds to determine when Chela was looking out of a window if she was actually in the prison visiting, or if she was in the house. It was fascinating because it was such a beautiful positioning within the picture and so I imagine as you say you have to work within limitations, so on the one hand that restraint is due to practical elements but I also saw much more into it.
MM: That wasn’t a practical limit only, we knew we had to create this claustrophobic feeling, so we spoke about it with the director of photography, Luis (Luis Armando Arteaga). I was always sure that I wanted her in hiding and looking through the door.
We are so much with Chela in the film, it also has to be constrained with the limits of what she sees. I think it’s lovely that cinema gives you the chance to use the power of framing to portray that, subconsciously. I think it’s a story of darkness, this woman in the case of Chela who doesn’t see much, so then only at the end do we see the patio, when Chiquita walks outside.
NB: The colours are very deep, and saturated. At one point Chela looks out, and she sees the housekeeper watering the plants. That is just so green. And you establish Chela as a painter at the beginning, and I was wondering about your choices in terms of colour and texture, because the image is very textured.
MM: Well, we work a lot with this art director – I have now been working with him for over 20 years – his name is Carlo Spatuzza, and Carlo focused mainly on the house. The house was the big challenge because we spent half of the film in the house. At some point in my head, I did consider if this was a black and white film or not, and then said, let’s make a colour film – as if it is in black and white. And you know, black and white films always have a lot of texture, and so the wallpaper and everything around the house is full of texture.
For Luis, as a director of photography, colour is also key. Because he knows that then in the colour correction room he will go crazy if he doesn’t have the right colours to play with. Tania Simbron, the costume designer, she had ten possible dresses for the ladies playing cards – I think cinematically it’s beautiful, but it was a lot of work, having options, testing, seeing how it all looks together. We didn’t have the budget to do it ahead of time. As a director I didn’t have the knowledge to decide ahead, yes, this is what I want. I love going through uncertainties.
NB: You didn’t go down the identity road – it’s not because of their sexuality that they have a different social or political identity. They are in so many ways the same as all the other women in the film, and they are treated the same.
MM: Yes, it’s because they’re not open, that open. If you look at Pituca (Chela’s sharp-tongued friend), she knows, and you can guess that Pituca and Chela never talk about sexuality. I wanted to make a universal story told through the eyes of a lesbian woman. This is a coming-of-age film of a lesbian women in a world in which she was never really a protagonist, in that she could never really live her life.
In portraying this generation of women loving women in my country, constraint was key. And every time I talk to a lesbian woman in Paraguay that is the first thing that catches my attention – a bit of homophobia, that everyone has even though they could be a lesbian woman or a gay man, and also the amount of constraint to talk about anything, this uncomfortable feeling.
NB: One last question – will you continue to both direct and write?
MM: Yes! I feel I will always continue directing and writing. When you read the script, you have the opportunity to still, at whatever stage, rewrite the process. You write the screenplay, you rewrite in the edit, you’re always writing in a way. I really enjoy writing. Now that I’m doing this crazy travel with the film, the only thing I really miss is my writing. I like getting up in the morning, listen to music, have my coffee, and then, four hours of writing. When I did that for The Heiresses it was paradise. You shoot the film in forty days, so the rest of the years, you are a writer. Even in the editing room you are a writer, so I see myself more of a writer than a director.
NB: I understand that. I heard Sean Baker talk about writing, he wrote and directed The Florida Project recently. He said you write three times: you write when you write the script, you write – he also works with non-professional actors – when you’re directing, and you write when you’re editing. It’s a continuous process.
MM: The idea for me with this kind of process is to allow the audience to do the last writing, to write in their head, to do this last process. People come to me and talk to me about things in the film I never even thought about. I really love the fact that people see all this, something that probably is somewhere there. And they find it. I always think that the films I like the most, are the ones I can continue writing in my head when I come out of the cinema