The walls are closing in on Coco…
(Fase 7, Nicolás Goldbart, Argentina, 2010, 96 mins)
Coco (Daniel Hendler) and Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) are not, despite their names, a pair of Argentinean glove puppets. Rather, they are a young couple living a somnambulistic existence in their new-build city-centre apartment. Phase 7 at first appears to be a peculiarly lifelike domestic sitcom, whose tone rapidly establishes this couple as believable and sympathetic protagonists. But wait, isn’t this supposed to be another post-apocalyptic shoot-out? It’s certainly described as such in the press notes.
It’s easy to sell Phase 7 short, and a lot more complicated to sing its praises. What it really evolves into is a claustrophobic chamber piece. Director Nicolás Goldbart plays with a self-conscious, lovingly-crafted (almost ‘sweded’) transplantation of survival-horror into kitchen-sink realism. Quarantined within the building by an officious collective of hazard-suited G-men, it’s only a matter of time before the sink starts to overflow.
It’s not the epidemic, per se, that drives the action. Goldbart is more interested by man’s ready contempt for fellow man; once outside contact is severed, and cabin fever sets in, paranoia about possible victims of the mysterious virus and violent claims to their limited supplies are forthcoming. We only witness a single victim of that plague, but it’s not pretty (and by virtue of its realism, more vile than any zombie might have been).
Their sticky situation is compounded by the apparent presence of one or more armed psychopaths among the innocuous neighbours. In the weeks that follow their lockdown, we are privy only to the minimal details known to Coco (and by leaving so much in the dark, we empathise strongly with the unhappy couple).
Domestic drama undergoes a strange transition into taut thriller, via nightly excursions with new friend, hard-man and all-round nutcase Horacio (José “Yayo” Guridi). The man in the gas-mask acts as Coco’s mentor, giving him a pistol, and delivering most of the film’s zinging wisecracks. Our hero is sucked into the scheming of his neighbours by virtue of his politeness and propriety, standing in stark contrast to the gratuitous violence to follow.
As the cast begin to turn on one another, or fall foul of their own tricks and traps, the walls seem to close in on Coco. Yet he still manages to keep Pipi out of the loop: a noble effort at protecting her from the brutality that unfolds, which predictably backfires into the nightmare of domestic passive aggression. Their domestic fracas ramp up the tension yet further, and our only possible release is afforded by Horacio’s sarcastic putdowns (one can imagine this really tickling the Argentinean audience; Yayo was once a star comedian of their premiere late-night television show).
Phase 7 is compelling, grotesque, with tongue placed firmly in cheek. Goldbart was an editor by trade, and this first effort at direction (screenwriting and production, to boot) is quite formidable, with glistering moments of genius. Surely a sequel beckons…