I think you’ll know within minutes whether Rey, a new film by Chilean-American director Niles Atallah, is your thing or not. It’s the (at least partially true) story of Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, a nineteenth century French lawyer who travelled the border between Chile and Argentina, and proclaimed himself as Rey (King) of the Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia. He is facing trial by the Chilean authorities, who think he’s a French spy with seditious intentions. Oh, and all of the trial’s participants are wearing papier-mâché masks.
These scenes constitute an impressive narrative stroke. The story of Tounens is one of history’s fascinating footnotes, and by performing the scene with the notable distancing effect of the masks, you’re asked to ponder the veracity of events – and, even more fundamentally, the total unknowability of the past.
That’s not even the strangest part of it. Filming began in 2011, when Atallah shot some of the footage on Super 8 and 16mm film, then buried the print in his back garden. Later, he shot on digital and 35mm formats, and again buried the print.
The result is a film which ricochets between the really striking and the really hideous. The tricks with colour and composition are occasionally startling and impressive, but there is an extended period in which the screen is almost unwatchable.
I view it as a shame that Atallah focussed excessively on the corruption of his film stock rather than viewing visual and narrative experimentation as complementary. His decisions often appear motiveless, especially towards the film’s climax, when the narrative is abandoned in favour of more kaleidoscopic trickery. I began to think that this would be better housed in a gallery than a cinema.
The film’s failings reminded me of why I liked Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, a semi-biopic in which the literary cleverness of its narrative met effectively with the muted and artificial sheen of its surfaces. Larraín figured out a way to tell the story in the most visually interesting way possible: I wish Atallah had done the same.