REVIEW: Why Exactly Does The Contenders Exist?

Movieline Score:

Movies that draw us to the theater and then send us drifting back out with our minds full or even pleasantly scrubbed are underwritten by an urgent message: This film needed to happen. The phenomenon is impossible to quantify, but we know it when we feel it: This is working; this is right.

Just as palpable is the opposite feeling, a "why is this happening, where are my available exits" panic triggered by aimless filmmaking. First-time directors -- particularly those working in the indie mode -- are especially at risk; the need to get that calling card out often precludes the business of having something to say. The Contenders, the writing and directing debut of Italian actress Marta Mondelli, is a classic example of a director who wanted to make a film but lacked a story that demanded telling.

The only directors who actually have to make films are those in school, and The Contenders resembles a thesis film in everything from its hired-help acting to its leaden dialogue. Mondelli has also chosen a classic theatrical (and low-budget) set up: four people in a house confronting their issssssues. We meet Ken (Nick Stevenson) as he is arranging apples and oranges in his dream kitchen. He and his brittle wife, Nora (Anna Gutto), are having weekend guests, apparently a suburban form of self-punishment.

The visitors -- a tacky, self-styled femme fatale named Veronica (Mondelli) and an acerbic family man named Marc (Adam Henry Garcia) -- aren't happy about the get-together either. A third guest, an unseen ex-girlfriend of Ken's, is sleeping off her journey in a hidden bedroom. And so we settle in for an awkward gathering of old friends who haven't seen each other since they all quit smoking and got serious about their lifestyles. Veronica, petite and wan in a red satin dress and slick black bob, seems to delight in the group's dysfunction; she patronizes and provokes her hosts, lording her freewheeling lifestyle over her more settled friends. Veronica's still smoking, in other words, and how.

These people have dour, stagey exchanges in order to deliver vague hints about their past entanglements, and Veronica's tease about having discovered the secret of happiness is drawn out until the final scene. Lighting that's alternately cold and moody flattens the mostly indoor proceedings even further, and the walls of this itchy little chamber piece begin closing in even before one of its characters turns up dead.

Shooting for dark, mordant, and maybe dramatic (I really couldn't tell), the film winds up limply gesturing to several different tones. Characters are paired and re-paired in a series of short scenes, and yet each new configuration follows the same script: One character drops a turgid revelation about his or her life; the other barely notices; a mini-seduction ensues. The foursome speak in Final Draft truisms while trying to articulate their regrets: "Sooner or later people disappoint you"; "You're just another thing I can't have"; "Sometimes the medicine is more painful than the ailment"; "There is nothing like new pussy."

Every beat of these scenes feels canned; even the sudden death fails to disrupt the film's oppressive rhythm. The survivors carry on, after a brief interlude with the authorities, mostly as they had before: boring the socks off of each other and anyone who chooses to sit in on this more bleak than black attempt at social satire.

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