Vidas Privadas Review
By Jake Euker
The melodrama in the 2001 Argentinean release Vidas Privadas ("private lives") is pitched so high that even Douglas Sirk might have balked at it. And it's immediate: The film's opening scenes find preparations being made for the return of beautiful, 42-year-old Cármen to her family home in Buenos Aires after a 20-year absence in order that she might finalize a transfer of her terminally ill father's property. Awaiting her are her mother Sofia (played by Chunchuna Villafañe, an Argentinean Film Critics Association nominee for her work here), her father's peculiarly sensitive doctor, an old friend who works as a kind of talent agent/procurer, and a virtual army of skeletons in the family closet. Among these latter we find one who is very much alive and breathing: the young model Gustavo (played by that hottest of Latin American actors, Gael García Bernal), who is initially hired by Carmen to sate her unusual sexual appetites and with whom she eventually falls in love. At the heart of Vidas Privadas are the unexpected (though easily deduced) complications that arise in this romance.
Sirk aside, the actual inspiration for Vidas Privadas appears to be the recent work of Pedro Almodóvar. The real-life connection is that Cármen is played by Cecilia Roth, wife of Vidas Privadas director Fito Páez and star of Almodóvar's All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Artistically, the connection is that Páez emulates the tone of those two films in his own: Vidas Privadas is directed in a similarly deliberate and tasteful manner, and the melodrama is offered with the same straight-faced, unadorned factuality that seems to have descended to Almodóvar via Robert Bresson. In Almodóvar, the director's unflappable cool counters the outlandishness of the proceedings and his presentation of it; it's like a staring match in which he dares you to take his predicaments lightly. (And in a film like All About My Mother he wins.) In Vidas Privadas the line between the melodramatic and the overwrought is crossed, sometimes with both feet; in a scene such as one in which Gustavo confronts his father about a family secret, the temptation to laugh is too great to ignore.
Which is another way of saying that Vidas Privadas is a lot of fun. Páez has updated this more-or-less traditional, star-crossed romance with such modern themes as sexual dysfunction and political persecution, and he's set the whole thing to his own somber, spare score, one in which strings build to minor-key crescendos or single notes found in a piano's lower register. (Páez is the composer of several film scores.) Vidas Privadas is unrelentingly autumnal, from its solemn (but effective) performances to its dimly-lit interiors, and the plot coincidences are awesome in their implausibility. But its dead-serious comportment is both unflagging and, ultimately, appealingly goofy as well. It requires a willful suspension of disbelief even greater than that granted most sci-fi and a tolerance for bare emotion at least equivalent to that needed for One Life to Live. But in today's age of irony, flat-out melodrama is ever rarer on the big screen - let alone tasteful melodrama - and Vidas Privadas, for some of us, will answer that need.
Vidas Privadas is newly available, minus extras, on DVD as part of 20th Century Fox's Cinema Latino collection. Other titles in the series are Cleopatra and Dos Tipos Duros.
Aka Private Lives.
Facts and Figures
Cast & Crew