MOVIE REVIEW: Perfect Strangers (Perfectos Desconocidos)
The poster for the Mexican remake Perfectos Desconocidos glows with affluence. We see a richly appointed dinner party scene flush with refinement from edge to edge across fashions, place settings, and the flowing wine. What intentionally glows the brightest on the poster is the statement “We all have a secret life.” It is framed and emblazoned across the center above the coiffed heads of the cast in a bright blue chat box. It symbolically shows materialistic beauty undone by the blunt intrusion of technology. Thematically, that tagline statement is the lightning bolt of tension that charges this entire film.
Perfect Strangers features a planned feast of seven friends, which include six couples and a stag wild card, on a breezy night during a scheduled and suspicious lunar eclipse. Purposefully at odds with the title, no one is a stranger. The hosts are Eva and Alfonso (the top-billed Bruno Bichir of Che and Cecilia Suárez of The Air I Breathe), a well-off middle-aged couple in a loveless patch. They are also struggling with competing parenting preferences in managing their petulant teenage daughter. Their closest friends are fellow unfulfilled parents, the superstitious blond Flora (Mariana Trevino, recently seen in Overboard) and the bristly Ernesto (Time Share and Macho star Miguel Rodarte), very much in the same predicament of absent intimacy.
Both of those couples enjoy judging two of their long-time single cohorts. One of them is the amorous Mario (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo of The Magnificent Seven) who is in the middle of likely his longest successful monogamous relationship. Ana (Ana Claudia Talancon of One Missed Call) is a younger woman very successful at taming the suave man while joining in his public displays of affection. The second ribbing target arrives last and solo to the dinner. He is the stylish yet reserved Pepe (TV star Franky Martin) who isn’t quite comfortable bringing his newest date into this circle of picky perceptions.
LESSON #1: DEVICE DEPENDENCY AND ETIQUETTE ARE REAL FLAWS-- The social septet catch up over nibbles and libations whens a few of the guests keep checking their phones and excusing themselves. The open observation of those behaviors ignites a barbed debate about etiquette, honesty, and dependency. One character calls their cell phone “the black box of their lives” and they’re right. What follows is how dependency enables and guards secrecy.
Spinning from that conversation, the jolting idea arrives of a tantalizing game. Everyone is challenged to get off their phones but leave them on the table for all to see. If someone gets a message or call, it must be shown or shared for all to see or hear. Thus begins the aforementioned lightning bolts that will accompany device dings and alert tones.
LESSON #2: SECRECY AND GUILT ARE COMMON BEDFELLOWS-- Once this game is suggested, guilt does two things. First, it forces everyone to agree to participate in order to not look guilty in some way right away. Second, it begins to weigh heavily on those sitting back trying to craft their excuses because they indeed do have something to hide. Unrevealed shame wishes and hopes for the next few hours that secrecy is not undone by a silly game, which begs the obvious lesson of avoiding adulterous secrets in your life.
What tawdry tailspins transpire are crafted by Manolo Caro adapting Pablo Genovese’s award-winning hit 2016 Italian film for his fifth directorial feature. Through sharp and selective editing of long takes shot by the darting camera of versatile cinematographer Pedro Gómez Millán, Perfect Strangers is simmers with its surprises. The tingles that come from the mounting uncertainty of the characters project very well to the viewer. The very same can be said for the demand of answers. The lavish and passionate exteriors crumble to reveal the ugly moral cores.
That’s where the talented ensemble takes over in this battle of the sexes. Fluid and flush for 97 minutes, the character development from each actor at this volume and pace is excellent. Each performer is given the space to craft their character’s personal (and sometimes shared) breaking point with weight and suspense. Talancon, Bichir, and Rodarte are particularly good, but all have their standout moments. No one is left unscathed and the targets of sorrow, vilification, and retributions are shared. Even the most shocking twists do not feel random because this encircling dinner environment built investment and intrigue that would normally be squelched or rushed in similar films.
LESSON #3: ADDRESS YOUR INTIMACY-- These characters are supposed to be lifelong friends but carelessly commit cataclysmic mistakes they think they can hide. More often than not, the missing actions were honesty and intimacy. Somewhere along the way, trust weakened, commitment wandered, and no one talked about it enough to the spouse or significant other who became the mutual victim. It shouldn’t take the pressure of friends to address elephants in any room, including bedrooms. That’s where these friends become strangers.