An Exploration of Class Claustrophobia

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The story of a lower-class man surreptitiously trying to open a window (an inadvertently start a war) in the wall dividing his plain apartment from the architectural masterpiece inhabited by his elitist neighbor was inspired by real events. “It’s based on […] a simple conflict that took place among neighbors, behind closed doors,” says somewhat cryptically Mariano Cohn, one half of the team behind Argentinean film The Man Next Door, opening today as part of MoMa’s New Directors/New Films program. “But we thought that, actually, the subject shines a light on a far more complex issue that surpasses the story,” he adds.

Along with directing partner Gastón Duprat, Cohn uses the escalating literal tension of the film – loutish Víctor is jeopardizing both the privacy and the aesthetic sensibilities of sophisticated neighbor Leonardo and his Le Corbusier residence with his crude window project – to delve into the subtext territory of social tension. The real-life house, called the Curutchet House, is located in the city of La Plata south of Buenos Aires, and is the only Le Corbusier residence in the Americas. “It speaks of a fear of that which is different, of the unknown, of being observed by someone who doesn’t belong to the same environs,” Cohn says.

In other words, the film is a timeless, metaphorical, geographically unconcerned exploration of class conflict: ostracism from the upper echelon, in the shape of a family who patronizingly rejects the friendly attempts of the bumpkin nearby, and claustrophobia from the lower class, in the shape of said bumpkin who wants little else more than a window to provide his dark apartment with sunlight. All this, veiled as a dark comedy. But more than anything, it’s an exercise in self-awareness: While as a viewer, one may feel initially exculpated from the apparently caricaturesque behaviors of Leonardo and Co., it soon becomes painfully evident that there’s too much of us in them.

Cohn himself explains things during our chat with him:

Remezcla: The omnipresent Curutchet House gets to the point of asphyxiating and engulfing its inhabitants, to the point that it becomes a capricious villain that intoxicates every character. Was this golden-cage-like treatment planned, or was it a happy accident, thanks to budget limitations?
Mariano Cohn: We did that on purpose, aiming to portray and foster the concept of a pure, ascetic and minimalist look.

RE: In the film, nobody wins over the viewer’s sympathy for too long (not even the house). Why did you decide to work that uncomfortable angle, nearly an ode to second-hand embarrassment?
MC: We specifically worked on the empathy that the film garners with the audience in order to promote an exercise of constant self-identification with the characters, which changes from one minute to the next. The viewer is responsible for the pleasant or unpleasant elements in the movie, and there’s no unanimity. Especially with the ending, which posits a question mark and a certain discomfort that remains unsolved by the film, and veers toward debate.

RE: How easy is it to live alienated in Argentina, when it comes to social classes?
MC: To a greater or lesser extent, you’re alienated in every single country in the world, trapped inside a cube of social belonging, whether you’re rich or poor.

RE: Apart from the pleasure of pretension, how much genuine pleasure does the character of Leonardo get from the actual beauty of the house?
MC: When we chose the lead character’s occupation, we thought that an industrial designer would be the most functional choice. A sophisticated person who values design and sees his house as a work of art. This just elevates the damage provoked by his neighbor by opening a window on the dividing wall, which would give him a straight view into Leonardo’s abode. It could nearly be considered a desecration of the house.

RE: What does the fact that the only Le Corbusier residence in the American continent was built in Argentina say about the country?
MC: It’s a snapshot of a moment during which the country was open to innovation, to new ideas, to the avant-garde.

RE: How would you react to a dark-humor, despicable-yet-can’t-keep-my-eyes-off characters, psychological-tension comparison to the Coen Brothers?
MC: We hold the Coen movies in high esteem. Save for the three letters I share with them in our last names, there are several small differences: The Coens are American, they’ve won an Oscar and they’re millionaires. We’re Argentinean, we’ve got no Oscar and we’re quite poor.

The Man Next Door premieres today, March 31 at the MoMA (6:15 p.m.). Catch a second showing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 1 at 9:00 p.m. Advance purchase recommended.

Image via Mario Chierico