The opening scenes of “The Heiresses,” Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature, play a subtle game with the audience’s assumptions. At first, responding to hints in the composition of the shots and the demeanor of the performers, a viewer might deduce that this movie, set in Paraguay, is about a domestic worker in a wealthy household, something of a subgenre in recent Latin American cinema.
The way the practical-minded Chiquita (Margarita Irún) deals with prospective buyers of inherited silver and crystal, and the way she caters to the needs of the flighty, aristocratic Chela (Ana Brun), reminded me, for example, of the central relationship in Jorge Gaggero’s “Live-In Maid.” It quickly becomes apparent, though, that Chela and Chiquita (also known as Chiqui) are longtime lovers and that the asymmetries in their relationship are the result of temperamental differences and deeply embedded habits.
Later, on the way to and from a party, Chela and Chiqui wonder if members of their social circle are privy to information the two women would prefer to keep secret. This, too, turns out to be a sly misdirection on the part of the filmmaker. The secret is not that Chela and Chiqui are gay, but that they are broke. The grand house they share, inherited from Chela’s parents, shows signs of decrepitude. They are looking to sell the furniture and the finery, and possibly the Mercedes, which looks at least 20 years old.
So before you quite have your bearings in the story — just as you are trying to absorb the basic facts about the characters — “The Heiresses” almost subliminally alerts you to complexities of sexuality and status that many films would prefer to simplify. It also draws you into a social milieu that is both highly specific and intuitively accessible. Chiqui and Chela belong to Paraguay’s privileged class, and the movie is about what happens when the privileges and comforts that Chela in particular has taken for granted begin to crumble. It’s also a vivid and affecting character study, anchored in Brun’s remarkably vivid and nuanced performance.
When Chiqui is imprisoned for financial fraud — the result of an unpaid debt to a predatory bank — Chela falls back on her own fragile resources. Chiqui hires a housekeeper to see to Chela’s highly specific needs. The centerpiece of her daily routine is a tray laden with beverages and medicines, all of which must be arranged in a particular order. She is used to being taken care of, and the extent of her dependency becomes apparent only as she deals with the prospect of Chiqui’s extended absence.
Brun, a well-known stage actress in Paraguay making her first appearance in a film, is an intriguing screen presence. The sometimes contradictory facets of Chela’s personality are revealed through a gradual and elegant kaleidoscopic motion. She is sophisticated and naïve, self-assured and terrified, armored in cynicism and open to astonishment. All of this is conveyed through the shifting geometry of Brun’s patrician features and the weather of her almost scarily expressive eyes. Partly because she does not bother to try to make Chela sympathetic or likable, she succeeds in making her interesting.
You get the impression that “interesting” had been Chiqui’s department. She was always the more outgoing partner — the funny one as well as the capable one. She embraces prison life as a new set of challenges and social opportunities, perhaps enjoying a break from Chela’s neediness. Chela, meanwhile, wanders into a state of greater autonomy and wider possibility.
Though she doesn’t have a driver’s license, she starts using the Mercedes to shuttle an older neighbor to her regular card game and then becomes the designated driver for the other players. They insist on paying her, which is at first humiliating and then liberating. Even more so is Chela’s friendship with Angy (Ana Ivanova), the daughter of one of her passengers.
Angy, who carries herself with a movie star’s self-confidence, is unlike anyone Chela has encountered before. Her manners are direct and democratic, in contrast with the fussy decorum of the older generation, and she speaks frankly about money, sex and other matters generally veiled by discretion and euphemism. (She also provides occasional reminders of the existence of men, who are otherwise almost entirely absent from the movie.) Chela’s infatuation seems fated. The possibility that it might be reciprocated gives “The Heiresses” a jolt of erotic possibility and emotional risk.
This isn’t a perfect movie — sometimes the machinery of plot-focused screenwriting hums a little too insistently, especially toward the end, disrupting the quieter, richer music of everyday life — but its clearsighted sensitivity makes it a satisfying one.