Judge Steve Evans warns us that if we approach this neo-noir expecting a film about debutantes, we are in for quite a surprise.
You never forget the first time.
In his sophomore outing, director Andrés Waissbluth demonstrates cinematic flair on a budget in this neo-noir of seduction, betrayal, and murder in the heart of Chile.
Facts of the Case
Naïve brothers Silvio (Nestor Cantillana) and Victor (Juan Pablo Miranda) move to Santiago from a small town in Chile after the death of their parents. Silvio needs work to support Victor so the younger sibling can finish high school, and he hides his inexperience and fear behind faux macho bluster. Victor, the more thoughtful of the two, is watchful and quiet. When Silvio takes the teenaged Victor to Don Pascual's strip club for a rite of passage, the young men descend into a world of violence and perversion.
Victor falls hard for the stunning Gracia (Antonella Rios), a star attraction at the Don's club, and Pascual offers Silvio a job as driver and errand boy for the owner of a strip club. It seems like the perfect gig for Silvio. The only rule: steer clear of Gracia, a mandate invariably meant to be broken. So los debutantes (the newcomers) settle into their new life in Santiago. But as Silvio learns more about his boss and falls under Gracia's spell, it's merely a matter of time before Victor discovers his older brother is doing more than chauffeuring his dream woman—who also happens to be Don Pascual's mistress. The Don has had her in his bed since she was 15. In a series of overlapping flashbacks, Gracia emerges as a femme fatale at the center of a maëlstrom, the locus of lust in a dangerous love quadrangle.
Now Gracia wants freedom. Willing to pit brother against brother and stage murders that look like accidents, Gracia is certainly ready to seduce anyone who might help her. She runs through every scrimmage in the Machiavelli playbook to escape Don Pascual's grasp.
This erotically charged Chilean crime flick makes maximum use of an obviously tight budget, with strong casting, directing, and cinematography helping to obscure the derivative qualities of the script. The characters' nasty invective and the film's nonlinear narrative structure are clear signs of Quentin Tarantino's lingering influence on crime melodramas. In this sense, Los Debutantes is not innovative or even original, but the earnest acting, the cultural flavor of Santiago, and the incredible Antonella Rios make this an intriguing neo-noir that's well worth a look. Any film that introduces the leading lady wearing nothing but strategically placed dollops of whipped cream is going to command the attention of at least half the audience. Rios's entrance is certainly a compelling hook, but it is the devious mind of her character that elevates the film's appeal beyond a voyeuristic fascination with tawdry sex and violent death. She is the soul of the picture, if not the heart. If Rios does not soon emigrate from Chile to L.A.—if that should be her desire—then Hollywood isn't paying attention.
Picture and sound are fine. Waissbluth opts for tight shots, mainly indoors, which conveys a sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. This is certainly the director's prerogative, although opening the frame to some of the scenic splendor of Santiago would have been welcomed. The 2.0 audio mix limits the soundstage to the front and center channels.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As Los Debutantes moves inexorably to a violent final act, a significant subplot remains unresolved, possibly because a key discovery is so unbelievable that Waissbluth, who cowrote the screenplay, chooses to ignore it instead. The result is a conclusion both abrupt and less than satisfying. Los Debutantes also suffers from obvious, inevitable plotting. Still, getting to the climax is half the fun, and there are several surprising twists en route, so on balance, the film delivers within the confines of story and budget.
More worrisome is the virtually nonexistent package of extras on the DVD—only two trailers, including one for the film itself.
While Lions Gate skimps on added content, the distributor is commended for picking up this little film and making it available domestically on DVD; Los Debutantes was not released theatrically in the United States. Definitely worth a rental, the picture would warrant a purchase by crime-film aficionados as a case study in the continuing evolution—and appeal—of noir across generations and cultures.
Lions Gate is admonished to get with the program in supplying added-value content. The film is free to go as an entertaining noir, albeit with a weak ending. Rios is sentenced to a long career in film, as she is far too talented for Los Debutantes alone.
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