While the implications of the Edward Snowden/NSA revelations of 2013 are still being fully understood, cinema is just getting started with its own exploration. Documentaries like “Citizenfour” have given us crucial context, but the resonance of Snowden’s work and the continued efforts of Wikileaks (whose Julian Assange got the movie treatment in “The Fifth Estate“) will continue for some time. You might think there’s not much room for laughter, but the occasionally amusing and odd “Jacqueline (Argentine)” probably earns the distinction of being the first post-Snowden existential indie comedy thriller.
Not quite fully baked, but full of intriguing ideas, even if they don’t always work, the film is part comedy, part thriller, and plays out in first-person faux documentary form. It follows a struggling unnamed filmmaker (Wyatt Cenac, called the “Director,” but only named as such in the final credits), unable to get studio films made, who receives a sudden anonymous tip from a beautiful French intelligence whistleblower named Jacqueline Dumont (a beguiling Camille Rutherford). She claims to have come across sensitive French secrets — and an Middle Eastern assassination plot— that will have global implications. She also fears that her life is in danger and has secreted herself away in Argentina in unofficial political exile.
Neither director, nor his crew, are sure why this French sorta-spy is contacting him of all people, a little-known indie filmmaker, to come cover her story in South America. But the shiny allure of a huge conspiracy that would be an international scandal if revealed coupled with idling opportunities at home fuel the filmmaker’s curiosity and compel him to make the excursion from Miami to Argentina.
Taking paranoiac reprieve in a remote holistic center, the eccentric Jacqueline is an elusive, perhaps unreliable person. As bad luck thwarts the doc crew (they lose their equipment on the flight), they persevere fueled by the nuggets of information Jacqueline doles out, and the strange coincidences that begin to bear out her story. Nevertheless, as more and more time goes on, Jacqueline’s claims start to feel more like delusional fictions. Or are they? What transpires is a peculiar, suspicious, but mostly fruitless wild goose chase where Director and his documentary crew (Jason Benson, Martin Anderson) try to dig up kernels of truth, but are ultimately left with far more mysterious questions than anything else.
Directed by Bernardo Britto (2014 Sundance Jury Prize winner for the short “Yearbook“), who also co-directed an interesting 2015 animated Sundance short called “Glove,” “Jacqueline (Argentine)” is an amusing concept that lacks sharp execution. Unshaped and baggy, the themes of inevitability and futility sometimes work against the film.
Some of “Jacqueline (Argentine)” feels like it was written on the spot. A detour with an Argentinian DVD aficionado is hilarious, if a bit oft-piste, but there’s also a tedious rambling quality. Scripted without a doubt, is the idea of the doc crew spinning their wheels and getting nowhere. But Britto overplays that absurdist tragic-comedic hand and what should feel like amusing frustration ends up as listless.
The choice of Wyatt Cynac as the “lead” in the movie is a little suspect, maybe even transparent. While his monotone and bordering-on-overwrought voice-over is a constant throughout, his actual screen time is negligible — to the point one wonders if he actually shot on location and if his casting was a device to fuel funding.
Still, among the narrative clutter and debris there are strengths, chief among them a deadpan sense of humor, a strong third act that leaves you on a high note, and the performance by the charming Rutherford, without whom the movie wouldn’t be half as engaging as it is. Written specifically for the actress, it’s not hard to tell — it’s clear the camera and movie are enamored with her presence and beauty. Thankfully, this voyeuristic obsession is part of the point — Director and his crew might not have obliged her as long as they do if it weren’t for her compelling persona which may be unstable or right on the money given what she knows. The movie never says.
As undercooked as ‘Jacqueline’ can be, the movie oddly comes to life at the end with its themes of pointlessness and God laughing at your plans finally coming full circle. Somewhere between poetic and pretentious (but still compelling), the third act of the film begins to meaningfully explore the existential notions of the growing-increasingly ambivalent artist and whether there is consequence, meaning, and value to the work. Is anyone listening? Does anyone care? Was this trip all for naught? As Director hits a dead end and the ephemeral femme fatale disappears, Britto’s movie grows melancholy and spiritually weary, trying to express the struggle of chasing your dreams.
By this point, however, the movie’s own self-doubts about life and art may have arrived for too late for the average viewer, though it’s this questioning and dreamy conclusion that actually binds “Jacqueline (Argentina)” and give it some small satisfactions. Because the invasive and searching qualities of documentary filmmaking and the surveillance state should have lots of thematic parallels. But it would be generous to say Britto’s movie blends spying and examination with meaningful focus or artistic superintendence. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.