Pop stardom is having a movie moment. Every sentient being in the universe is about to be far-from-the-shallow, engulfed by Bradley Cooper‘s tsunamic “A Star is Born,” while enthusiasts for the weirder things in life also have”Vox Lux,” Brady Corbet‘s barmy brainiac take on the same to look forward to. And now comes a third, making it a definite trend, Carlos Vermut‘s terrifically noirish Spanish-language thriller “Quien Te Cantará” which boasts neither Lady Gaga nor Natalie Portman, lies somewhere in the middle of the axis of mainstream-to-arthouse those two represent, and yet indicates that there is plenty more to say about the nature of pop celebrity in this modern moment.
But having established its similarity to those other big-noise movies, what’s most striking is the different focus of Vermut’s film, which does tell the story of a celebrated pop diva, but intertwines it with that of her biggest fan (sinister Annie Wilkes resonances very much intended) to become a glistening, licorice-black tale of that sweetly venomous, symbiotic relationship. In “Quien Te Cantará” (which if you translate it as “Who Will Sing For You?” has the added entendre in English of who will sing in your place) what separates star and stan is really only a matter of degree, of where they are on the journey toward a manufactured, aspirational identity that is authentic to neither, but which might just be realer than both combined.
The star is Lila Cassen (Najwa Nimri) who in the first shot of the film is having CPR administered to her unconscious, designer-dressed form by her frantic longtime assistant/manager Blanca (Carmen Elías) on the shore near her gorgeous modernist beachside house. Her vertiginous high heels have been removed and are beside her prone body in the sand — a fact which eloquently suggests that whatever has happened here, it was not the mere “fainting on the beach” that Blanca will report to the press.
The fan is Violeta (Eva Llorach) who lives relatively nearby geographically, but a world away in circumstance, with her utterly hateful, spoiled bully of a daughter Marta (Natalia Molina) in the sludgy little seaside town of Rota. Violeta works in a karaoke bar, where she also regularly appears, singing Lila Cassen songs wearing a wig cut into Lila’s trademark short-bang bob. When Lila wakes up with amnesia (before she sees her own reflection she can, however, identify a photograph of herself as “the singer Lila Cassen”) Blanca extends the offer of a lifetime to Violeta, asking her to come and spend her days teaching her idol how to be herself again, in advance of her big comeback tour.
Edu Grau‘s photography is wonderful, slicked-back and stopped-down with the metallic finish of brushed steel, and it is accompanied by a typically terrific score from Alberto Iglesias (which lends the film even more late-Almodovarian ambience than its female-oriented melodramatics already conjure). If anything, the songs themselves, hyper-produced, glitchy electronica that sound like Shakira fed through feedback loops of experimental remixing, are the least convincing element: one would expect a star of Lila’s level to have a few bangers tucked away in all those album tracks.
But it doesn’t really matter: the performance of the songs is what has significance, not the songs themselves, just like the performance of stardom — its attitude, its confidence, its assumed nature — will be the making or breaking of Violeta and Lila’s scheme. And the singing sequences, which almost all cleverly center on Violeta (the fake) and not Lila (the genuine article) are themselves powerhouse moments that the amazing Llorach tears into with mighty, devastating relish, imbuing Violeta’s karaoke of Lila’s songs with such fervor and feeling that it starts to become obvious why she is not the star that Lila is: she feels them too much. And after a particularly toxic argument with Marta, during which the young woman foreshadows the violence to come by threatening, with a knife held to her neck, to slit her own throat if she does not get the money for a new phone, when Violeta screams a silent scream of frustration into her pots and pans in the kitchen, it’s also clear that Lila’s songs, Lila’s persona, the very idea of Lila, gives Violeta a voice and strength she cannot summon on her own.
Vermut has a lot of fun creating a suspenseful, Hitchcockian atmosphere of impending doom, full of fake reflections and false idols and “Vertigo“-like physical doubling through clothes and shoes and, especially, hair. And in compositions that bisect or behead the women, merge them together or substitute one for the other he brings in a kind of Bergmanian slipperiness as Violeta and Lila elide in a quest for an identity that neither of them really owns anymore. A fair bit of this texture is lost when the film goes into its highly improbable, wildly salacious dismount, which is further overexplained in a final, unnecessary twist in its home stretch, but it doesn’t detract too much from the more lasting resonance of this classy but trashy, lurid but elegant thriller. As vacuous and insubstantial as we usually consider pop stardom to be, and as emptyheaded and pathetic as fandom is usually portrayed, here there is the oddly respectful idea that obsessive fandom might actually be a place where the lost can find themselves, the poor can enrich themselves, and the timid can discover strength through impersonation — and impersonation is really all there is. Whether they’ll like what they discover, and whether everyone else will survive this painful process is, in the deliciously blackhearted “Quien Te Cantará,” another matter entirely. [B+]