There is a thrilling weirdness to being in someone else's home by yourself. The urge to look around — or worse, snoop and go through another person's things — is always there. I wonder how deeply people consider this when giving over their home to a house sitter or Airbnb stranger.
The Chilean film "Family Life" (at the Siskel this week after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year) dives headlong into this dynamic when a couple employs the services of a cousin they haven't seen for years to come and watch over their house and care for their cat.
Enter Martin (Jorge Becker), the leather-jacketed house sitter with a perpetual scruff on his face. At first he seems like a pseudo-renegade, but he is quickly revealed to be socially awkward, untethered to anything and almost surely very, very depressed.
Bruno (Cristian Carvajal) and Consuelo (Blanca Lewin, wonderfully pensive) sense that something's a little off. But no matter, Paris awaits. And once Martin has the house to himself, the rummaging begins. You cringe for the homeowners, leaving their house and their cat in the hands of this mope who has ditched his own clothing in favor of Bruno's more professorial wardrobe.
Martin can't quite pull off the turtleneck/sport coat look, but it's convincing enough to entice a younger woman, a single mother named Pachi (Gabriela Arancibia), to take an interest. When they meet, Martin spontaneously invents a fake back story — that he is not in fact unattached and aimless, but a recently divorced father. And this gorgeous house he lives in? That's his, too.
The light-filled flat in Santiago is the real-life home of co-director Alicia Scherson, who was a new mother when they shot the film. "It was impossible that I would get up at 7 a.m. and leave my baby and go, I was breastfeeding," she told an interviewer in February, during a film fest in Rotterdam, Netherlands. "So it's like, I can't go to shooting — I'll bring shooting to me."
That they filmed in her own home adds an extra frisson of discomfort for the viewer, of realizing that cast and crew were clomping through her house, touching her things, filming sex scenes on her bed in the process. Scherson (who earned her master's degree in fine arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago) collaborated with fellow director Cristian Jimenez on the film, and what they have both talked about is a specific generational divide in Chile — that people like themselves in their 40s, staring down early middle age, are the first generation to feel as though they can reject the path of marriage and children if they choose.
Certainly, Martin's life up to this point reflects that — but creating this new persona also reveals just how curious (or envious, it's never clear) he might be to pretend otherwise.
Pachi is really the one you connect with here. She doesn't play games. She's forthright and asks for the same from him. She is destined to be disappointed. The stability he seems to promise, of a man with a job and a home and an income (all of it a lie!), seems to be part of the unspoken appeal for Pachi, who earns money by selling bootleg DVDs. (Scherson has said this is still a thing in Chile, where people have personal "dealers" they call to obtain black market movies.)
Hilariously, Martin's pre-Pachi existence drives away the cat and the simulacrum of family life he invents thereafter seems to lure the cat back home. Even with its low-key comedic undercurrents and complicated emotional beats, the film can feel airless. It's not clear who Martin really is or what he's getting out of this fictional existence beyond a good deal of sex. Well, perhaps that's motivation enough. But he's too much of a cipher for you to become invested in the outcome, and when he eventually cracks under the pressure and pulls a disappearing act, it doesn't feel especially meaningful or poignant.
"Family Life" screens through Thursday at the Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Go to www.siskelfilmcenter.org/familylife.
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