TIFF Review: 'Eva Doesn't Sleep'

Eva Doesn’t Sleep (Eva no duerme)
(France/Argentina/Spain, 85 min.)
Written and directed by Pablo Agüero
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Denis Lavant, Daniel Fanego, Imanol Arias
Programme: Wavelengths (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Weekend at Bernie’s gets its whacked-out arthouse cousin with the absurdly original film Eva Doesn’t Sleep. This bizarre strange-but-true film by Pablo Agüero dramatizes the account of late Argentine politician/icon Eva Peron and her posthumous trip to immortality. The film spotlights Evita’s corpse in all its haunting powerful glory as it traces a surreal journey to put this powerful women in her grave once and for all. It’s a bizarre, brainy, and wholly original film.

Eva Doesn’t Sleep provides the necessary context to give viewers the 411 on Eva Peron’s legacy before they become enthralled with the odyssey undertaken by her corpse. Long before Evita became synonymous with a Broadway show, she was Argentina’s beloved crusader against foreign capitalism during the absence of her husband, President Juan Peron. When she died early at age 33, a fact that sociopathic Admiral Emilio Massera (Gael García Bernal) disdainfully notes in comparison to the age of Jesus Christ, she endured as a kind of omnipresent and omnipotent icon for some Argentines. It helps, too, that her husband had her preserved as a kind of sleeping beauty to whom the masses could forever pay tribute. Eva thus endures as a stuffed buck’s head and Che Guevara T-shirt in one.

This immortal political power inspires the junta, led by Admiral Massera, to lift Eva’s corpse from her beauty sleep and shield her from the masses. (She eventually ended up under six feet of cement.) Massera outlines his mission and near-megalomaniacal hate for Evita in a creepy and surreal opening monologue that marches the film into its strange odyssey. Bracingly theatrical cinematography and moody lighting set the stage for an interpretation of history that asks the audience to suspend their disbelief, but see the horrors and comedy of errors that lie within the truth. Bernal’s chilling performance is brief but memorable: it’s the perfect intro to a haunting and darkly funny journey to come, and an omen that Eva Doesn’t Sleep is avant-garde filmmaking at its best.

Agüero chronicles the death of Eva Peron and the mass hysteria that ensued with some effective archival footage that appears between the two macabre stories of Eva’s handlers. After Massera’s avowal to strip Evita from her deified grave, Eva Doesn’t Sleep shows the timeless corpse of Eva Peron get its frequent spa treatment at the mortuary from the embalmer (Imanol Arias) entrusted to her preservation. This sequence of Eva Doesn’t Sleep is mind-bogglingly unnerving as the embalmer delicately preserves Peron’s corpse, flexes her joints, and treats her skin with facial washes and formaldehyde. If one adds to the equation that Eva Peron’s corpse reportedly plays itself in the film, although one may presume that stand-ins play in the more boisterous scenes, then this embalming ballet offers an ick factor too novel to miss. Eva Doesn’t Sleep is a fascinating portrait of the human body after death, terrain that few filmmakers dare to tread, and the film finds unique and grotesque beauty of the saggy remains of this cultural icon. Even in death, this inanimate being has more life than Madonna’s Eva Peron does.

The sequence that follows, however, is truly carnivalesque. By now, Eva’s descended into a mix of Bernie Lomax and Addie Bundren as the junta militia ship her corpse (after retrieving it in from the mud) in a sideshow envoy that would have Faulkner smiling. This sequence entrusts two soldiers, played by Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) and Daniel Fanego, who are at odds with the myth of Eva Peron: one thinks they’re delivering a placebo stiff while the other thinks their cargo is bigger than Jesus. As the elder guard watches the carbo with indifference and the younger one wants to rip the coffin open and gaze open Evita’s withering skin, the film unfurls a freak show showdown of masculinity as the soldiers scrap, bar, and tussle atop the coffin. Defiling a corpse charges a-aplenty, these guys face.

Agüero’s macabre experiment mixes comedy and horror to interrogate the myth that surrounds celebrities and transforms them into eternal deities. What possesses men to parade a corpse around Europe and smuggle it like stolen art, the film asks. What convictions render men powerless to an inanimate mass of flesh and bone? The film also knocks Peron (and others like her) off her pedestal by suggesting that a corpse is just a corpse at the end of the day. Once a powerful woman, Evita is now an object of power, ridicule, comedy, and horror.  Strangely, Eva Peron has never appeared more human.

Rating: ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)

Eva Doesn’t Sleep screens:
-Saturday, Sept. 12 at TIFF Lightbox 1 at 10:00 PM
-Monday, Sept.  14 at Scotiabank 4 at 4:15 PM
-Friday, Sept. 18 at TIFF Lightbox 2 at 9:15 PM

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