In the opening scenes of Paraguayan director Marcelo Martinessi’s debut feature, The Heiresses, we’re quietly introduced to Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), two women in late middle age who have lived together as a couple in Chela’s grandly fading family home for decades, watching their inherited fortune wane in step with their surroundings. When Chiquita is sent to prison for obscure charges of fraud apparently related to the women’s rising debts, Chela is left behind, condemned to live alone but for the company of a new housekeeper.
One day, a wealthy neighbor learns that Chela has hesitantly resumed driving an old family car and asks for a ride to her weekly bridge game. This unremarkable favor serves as a catalyst that transforms the cautious, sheltered woman’s life, as word spreads and Chela slips into the role of chauffeur for many of the upper-class older ladies who participate in the bridge club. The work gives her a renewed sense of purpose and self-sufficiency, allowing her to quickly overcome her initial self-consciousness around working for pay, and although her diminished class status relative to the women she drives around is made manifest, she is warmly welcomed by the wealthy ladies, and it’s clear that the newfound social stimulation activates deep-seated, but previously untapped, reserves of warmth and humor within Chela herself. When she meets and gradually begins to nurture a new friendship with Angy (Ana Ivanova)—a lively, worldly-wise younger woman seeking a weekly ride for her mother, who requires medical treatments in a different city—the transformation is accelerated, and we bear witness to a sequence of progressively expansive gestures and adaptations through which Chela begins to seek greater contact with the world outside her home.
Elements of the film’s visual and auditory syntax—the house, with its trappings of obsolescent nobility; the sensuously amplified sonic textures of ice against crystal and wood against stone—recall Lucrecia Martel’s seminal La Ciénaga (2001) with arresting resonance. Likewise, the narrative trajectory of Chela’s self-actualization draws on perennially familiar tropes that span literary and cinematic traditions, and that have notably been well-trod in recent cycles of American independent filmmaking: a middle-aged woman tentatively ventures out in search of her groove; a queer couple navigates sobering mid-life challenges from the margins of a social world; etc. The story is minimalist, its thematic substance seeming to emerge alchemically, materializing out of the interstitial gaps that separate speech and action, through an accrual of hushed small talk and unhurried silences.
Chela herself is the beating heart of the story, and we learn to know her slowly, across small vignettes of solitary ritual, casually intimate dialogue, and unspoken yet nevertheless perceptible layers of feeling. With light hair and blue eyes that tacitly gesture to the colonial roots of her country, her class, and her family, Chela is of a piece with her surroundings. Her physical presence and carriage shares something with the homewares and furnishings among which she moves, all of which she has inherited along with the house, and which she and Chiquita are selling off to stanch their financial losses. Scenes in which casually self-assured wealthy ladies peruse these items are glimpsed from Chela’s point of view, in shots claustrophobically framed by curtain-like doorways through which the camera and Chela peek. Like the house and the paintings and the silver, Chela is a relic, a remnant of her family’s wealth, and with Chiquita imprisoned, Chela’s sense of her place in the world is rendered as precarious as her livelihood.
Brun gives a lived-in, deftly embodied turn as Chela: her journey toward self-knowledge is gentle to a fault, tentative and palpably burdened by an abundance of caution, yet inexorable and unrelenting. Brun’s wide, watchful eyes give her performance its hair-trigger intensity and gravitational pull. Chela has moved timidly through the world until now, and only when her more outwardly self-possessed partner is removed from her everyday existence does she take steps to exercise her own agency as more than a passive watcher.
Tangible evidence of class, race, and gender differentials, while pervasive, is subtle, rarely verbalized, and largely embodied by Martinessi’s visual style through the convergence of production design and blocking as a subtly textured evocation. The cast of characters who move through the spaces and milieux with which the film concerns itself is almost entirely comprised of women, though this discrepancy is never remarked upon and indeed is evidently taken for granted by the women themselves: men come up in conversation and, glancingly, in the background of wide shots, but are not active agents in the mechanics of the narrative. Theirs is a present absence: there is a sense that the structural realities of the contemporary Asunción within which these women move are determined by men who go largely unseen and unmentioned, so that the fabric of the women’s everyday lives has the potential to exceed the limitations of that framework.
Likewise, The Heiresses is unequivocally yet understatedly a work of queer cinema, and one has the impression that Chela’s gender as one half of a quasi-married lesbian couple is less foundational to her self-identification than the uniform woman-ness of her milieu. The title is a hint to the film’s preoccupation: “the heiresses” refers less to the central couple (whose romantic relationship and functional partnership are not given much attention) than to the whole array of women whose social ecosystem we’re observing, all of them heiresses to a country’s traumatic political and economic legacy, the frayed pieces of which they have been left to reassemble. The film’s vision is ultimately a hopeful one insofar as it looks toward the possibility of liberation, of spiritually transcending the constraints of one’s inheritance by performing quiet acts of rebellion against personal circumstance and temperament.