Friday 23 October 2015


By Dimitri Keramitas

Sand Dollars, directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, is an assured, lushly filmed story set in the Dominican Republic, and one can see why it won the Best Fiction Feature prize at the recent 2015 trinidad+tobago film festival, an annual event in the Caribbean.

Noeli and Anne - actors Mojica and Chaplin
But despite the cinematography, this is a story of inequality and sexual exploitation, even if the setting seems unspoiled.

The movie, loosely based on a book by French author Jean-Noël Pancrazi, portrays the taut relationship between a Western, cosmopolitan grandmother (one of those upper-class seniors who remain svelte and well-coiffed) and a young local woman who’s sensual, though still rather coltish.

The exploitation may seem mutual and consenting - the girl, Noeli (Yanet Mojica) can be manipulative, while the older woman Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) appears vulnerable and well meaning. But the power relationship framing the couple is one-sided: Anne is a wealthy French citizen who can afford a plush Caribbean vacation house and domestic, while Noeli’s one prized possession is a motor scooter. Her dream is to move to France, with the aid of her lover. 

Noeli and boyfriend Yeremi.
The movie spells things out even further: it opens with a scene in which Noeli parts from another Westerner, once more a gentle senior, but this time a man. He leaves her money, but also a necklace as a sentimental gift. The necklace promptly finds its way into a pawnshop. The directors also provide glimpses of her life with Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), her young boyfriend. At first he seems to be little more than a pimp, but it turns out that Yeremi is an aspiring percussionist.

Despite what might seem like a stark situation, the movie is something of a pastoral. The Dominican setting doesn’t seem poverty-mired, but a tropical paradise by the sea. Even the poverty we do glimpse seems mellow, like exotic fruit (just as the Spanish spoken by the locals sounds oddly Brazilian with its languid phonemes).

Inequality summed up in a greathouse.
The classic pastoral typically featured innocent youths and animals such as sheep and goats. Here, adults including Anne are portrayed as childlike. (Geraldine Chaplin still does that funny eye thing - a half-yearning, half-empathetic gaze - that she’s been doing since Dr. Zhivago a half-century ago). There’s even a lovely shot of a pair of horses on the idyllic grounds of a beach house.

This dreamy, soft-focus approach is effective for showing the seductive nature of the local environment. Cárdenas and Guzmán film nature beautifully and imaginatively. But the theme is defanged in the process. We get the idea of sexual exploitation but there’s no actual sex to drive home what is at stake.

Geraldine Chaplin is an excellent actress who gives a knock-out performance, but we don’t really believe her as a lesbian. She seems to have more of a mentor relationship with Noeli. The directors shoot Chaplin’s body in a way that brings out her age, wrinkles and all, but is it plausible that such a worldly woman would never have recourse to make-up? It’s ultimately an affectation. It may be that Anne is a cunning manipulator, but this remains vague, like so much in the movie

Noeli and her prized possession - a scooter.
We never see Noeli making love with Yeremi, either. While Mojica and Toribio give marvellous natural performances in their first acting roles, both seem pre-sexual (except in the scenes where Noeli is dancing - but she’s most erotic when dancing alone). There’s no real electricity between them. When Noeli finds out that she’s pregnant we almost take it as a virgin birth. Even her boyfriend is surprised.

At least the pregnancy serves as a catalyst to upset the casual triangular romance that’s been playing out. Noeli decides that she will have the baby, and she gets serious about going to Europe, while her boyfriend wants to keep her at home. Anne, after temporarily rejecting Noeli when she sees her cavorting in a dance club, does all she can to help her. But though there’s talk about continuing their relationship in France, Anne seems more motherly and mentor-like than ever.

The movie poster, in French.
What’s particularly strange in the story of Noeli and Anne is that they’re supposed to have been together for three years. In the case of Noeli this would mean that at the beginning she was very young, with Anne’s attentions bordering on paedophilia. But again, we don’t have a sense of Anne as a genuinely sexual being. And we aren’t given any information about how the relationship has evolved, an inkling, perhaps, that all passion has been spent.

The story of this triangular relationship is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend of Anne’s, a man who brings along a young woman. They are both vaguely Eurotrash. The man seems to be American but speaks with finishing school intonations. The young woman speaks (and sings in one sequence) with just enough of an accent to be off (like Geraldine Chaplin trying to speak American), but not enough to identify her with a real place. From some of the talk, we get the idea of a seedy set that systematically exploits locals for sex (the word-play of the title has already given us the idea), but this is muffled with the usual vagueness.

A work that uses the pastoral form, but within the real world, should at least bring input from that real world, through exposition, description, flashback. Anne has had issues with her 42-year-old son, which has made them estranged. But we get no more than a teasing hint. It may be true that both exploiters and exploited use indirection as an emotional survival tool, or even a weapon. But we expect more from the filmmakers. The directors may think they’re being ambiguous and oblique, but in the end all that vagueness makes the film itself a kind of a tease.

Pancrazi and Chaplin in Paris. Photo: Espagnolas en Paris.
In explaining their aim, the directors have in fact said that they wanted to “depict a world full of contradictions: pay to have company, pay too for the happiness of those who accompany one … and feel the powerlessness that comes with always being a foreigner”. They refer to the story as one of “impossible love”.

Sand Dollars (Dólares de Arena / Les Dollars des Sables) doesn’t really begin or end, however. Like a pastoral, it just starts and stops. The directors frame the film with footage of an elderly singer named Ramon Cordero crooning about his mournful but passionate love. We feel the passion in his voice, and see the results on his face and in his eyes. It’s not pastoral fantasy but life, and this alone is worth the price of admission.

Photos are by courtesy of the filmmakers, unless otherwise indicated. Production: Canana Films/Rei Cine/Foprocine/Conaculta. Distribution: Tucuman Films. Pancrazi’s book (published by Gallimard) has been re-issued in French with a picture from the film on the front cover.