Smokers Only

English Title: Smokers Only

Original Title: Vagón fumador

Country of Origin: Argentina

Director: Verónica Chen

Producer(s): Verónica Chen, Martín de Arbelaiz, Donald Ranvaud

Screenplay: Verónica Chen

Cinematographer: Nicolás Theodossiou

Art Director: Julian D’Angiolillo

Editor: Verónica Chen

Runtime: 91 minutes

Genre: Urban Cinema

Starring/Cast: Cecilia Bengolea, Leonardo Brezicki

Year: 2001

Other Information:

Composer:
Edgardo Rudnitzky

 

Format:
Colour, 35 mm

 


Synopsis:

Reni, a singer, and Andrés, a prostitute, meet in an ATM vestibule. She becomes fascinated by Andrés, and befriends him. They wander around the city at night, discussing their thoughts about life, sex and money. When Reni is told by her bandmates that they want to replace her, she decides to turn tricks with Andrés, and they coordinate servicing a client together. After spending a few more nights with Andrés, Reni leaves the city.


Critique:

A hypnotic and complex character study, Smokers Only is Chen’s exquisitely filmed drama about two aimless youths drawn to each other in the Argentine night. This haunting film – leisurely paced and episodically structured – boasts a seductive yet seedy urban nocturnal atmosphere that pulls the viewer into its dreamscape.

 

Reni is a possibly suicidal singer in a band who feels that her life lacks meaning and purpose. One night, she meets Andrés, a bisexual hustler, who has sex with men in the city’s bank vestibules. After watching him participate in several of these encounters that explicitly link sex with money, she befriends him. Although Reni is attracted to the sexy Andrés, she claims she ‘does not pay for love’, and while she wants to sleep with him, she also admits a desire to work the streets. Andrés, however, is mostly concerned with getting paid. Sex, he says, is what he does best. He also likes to be watched and his anonymous encounters in the city’s banks, captured in grainy black and white on closed circuit video cameras, are quite erotic.

 

Smokers Only adroitly chronicles the unusual relationship that develops between Reni and Andrés with appropriate detachment. Chen casually observes her protagonists –  alone or together – as they wander the empty streets of Buenos Aires searching for their self-respect, holed up in a cheap hotel room or eating pizza on Lavalle Street. The quasi-lovers slowly reveal themselves to each other as Reni hopes for some kind of intimate emotional connection. Perhaps the most moving image in the film is Reni clinging to Andrés as if for support as they embrace in the dark city. The scene grows more powerful as the camera circles around them, capturing Reni’s expressions of despair. Chen wisely refrains from providing her characters with any history or background, nor does she try to explain or even understand their behaviour. The director simply presents them as they are, filming them in close-up, reflected in glass or against urban backdrops. The images have a documentary feel – all vivid urgency and visual texture. Andrés rollerblades around the city, waiting for johns. Reni wanders the streets at night, observed by a moody, dark sky and threatened by ominous skyscrapers. A luminous shot of shimmering light and water reflecting on the pair’s underwear-clad bodies as they stand against the wall in a swimming pool is mesmerising. Chen artfully composes her shots and frames her characters, freighting each image with meaning.

 

As part of the New Argentine Cinema, Smokers Only emphasises mood over plot. The film has gritty atmosphere to spare. There are several astonishing, impressionistic – and often wordless – sequences that show the city and its inhabitants eking out an existence late at night. Chen films the unknown faces that populate the bars, streets and cafes with blurry camerawork and insistent music. These visuals are suitably poetic, and they speak volumes about the protagonists, lost among them. Chen is not so much making judgments about Andrés and Reni as she is stylistically commenting on the characters’ isolation and loneliness.

 

Not all the pieces fit together in this mosaic. The film has a thin narrative, which some viewers may find to be little more than a series of beautiful images that sometimes fail to connect. The title is referenced only in the final scene, and never spoken. These aesthetic elements are indicative of developing trends in Argentine cinema to create an unconventional cinematic language.

 

Despite the lack of a strong central narrative, Smokers Only benefits from the leads’ bold performances. Bengolea gives a stunning portrait of a young woman looking to be transformed by some experience. She makes her character’s journey compelling at all times. Likewise, Brezicki has a cool moodiness that is wholly appropriate for Andrés. He keeps an air of mystery about his character, and his naturalistic performance is highly sensual and effective.

 

So too is this striking film.

 

 

 

A version of this review appeared in Gay City News, 20 December 2002.

 

Author of this review: Gary M Kramer