By Jay Kuehner
Mark Twain’s quote that virtue has never been as respectable as money could easily delineate the sumptuously sordid habitat limned in Azor, except that it’s precisely the kind of wisdom that the film’s wealthy habitués and their attendant financiers might invoke with complacent irony from within their insulated milieu of smoky parlours, agapanthus-lined lobbies, manicured hippodromes, and dutifully swept piscinas. Twain’s bon mot clearly undervalued the insatiability of capital accumulation, and in Andreas Fontana’s feature debut the Swiss private banker and his wife who arrive in Buenos Aires circa 1980 are certainly no innocents abroad.
Still, the refined manner of the cosmopolitan M. Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), who is forced to liaise with foreign clients in the wake of his embedded colleague René Keys’ inexplicable disappearance, identifies him as a sympathetic enough character. Neither naïve nor sinister, he’s mostly tasked with the refined art of reassurance to shore up his firm’s overseas client base and protect its name back home. Niceties are duly exchanged, but de Wiel (please, call him Yvan) is welcomed with a creeping sense that, despite the cultural continuities that situate Buenos Aires as a perennial extension of Europe, things here are different. Disconcertion is subtly manifested in the social nuances of language and gesture, from a concierge’s double speak to a lawyer’s brusque order of a whiskey.
Never mind the junta—the hotel swimming pool can be found on the first floor. Depictions of the ongoing Dirty War are allusive and mostly offscreen, save for the opening-scene glimpse of armed soldiers frisking down citizens as the arriving financier and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau) are assured by their driver that there is nothing to worry about. Azor employs absence as a structuring principle, uncoiling its narrative by way of insinuation and anecdote. The disappearance of Keys, whose reputation is the stuff of wildly conflicting accounts, is at once the tale’s abiding enigma and its central nullity. A crack about him being tied up in a basement somewhere in Buenos Aires takes a rather forgiving view of the fates of those disappeared by the military. “So, you are Keys’ substitute,” intones the oily lawyer Dekerman (Juan Pablo Geretto) upon meeting Yvan, who’s outfitted in a double-breasted blazer at the shrewd advice of his wife. Suffice to say that where Keys was, there Yvan shall be.
An increasingly circumspect Yvan finds accounts of Keys’ reputation for depravity to be exaggerated, but he hasn’t been on the ground for long, armed only with a list of contacts scrawled on index cards. More confounded than concerned by Keys’ absence, Yvan is nonetheless haunted by the shadow of his brazen predecessor. The role of proxy sows in Yvan a seed of self-doubt, of personal and professional shortcomings only hinted at (“Your father was right. Fear makes you mediocre,” says Inés, cigarette perpetually dangling from her fingertips). This sense of eclipse is visually scored by a noirish visit to Keys’ recently abandoned flat (abetted by a chauffeur named Dante, a terrible driver but a provider of “valuable favours”), where Yvan rummages in the dark only to turn up a similarly homely codex.
Apparently, the path to hell is paved with such anthroponyms. Perhaps inspired by Bolaño, Fontana makes taxonomical intrigue and comic absurdity out of surnames alone: there is a Tatoski, a Farrell, a Lacrosteguy, and, taking Yvan’s stock-market bids over the phone in Geneva, an unseen Bijou. Then there is Padel-Camon, Decôme, Pataroni, Nazarian, Luts (from Zug), and the unfortunately named racehorse “Usurper.” Names, it seems, are everything, except that now, under the rule of a military that is “a bit restless lately,” not even the most privileged are spared from what one magnate deems “a private hunting ground for people at the top.”
Yvan seems not to have cottoned to this notion, feeding perfunctory lines to his clients that apportion blame to leftists even as the adult children of his clients have begun to go missing. Azor consists mostly of Yvan’s uneventful “tour” of the moneyed class, who are themselves becoming ambivalent about the future of their wealth and, increasingly, their well-being. It is to Fontana’s credit that not all such representatives of the aristocracy are depicted as inherently bad, which, by subtle implication, turns the table on the relative merits (i.e., causal ills) of Yvan’s chosen practice. Smuggling a duffel bag stuffed with cash out of the country is an unbecoming look for a Swiss, isn’t it? Middleman Decôme, to all appearances a stand-up guy, seems to have no qualms with such a “solution,” having long since recognized that Buenos Aires is quite different from Paris and Geneva. Or, as the affable patriarch Padel-Camon (Juan Trench) laments, little remains today of Haussmann’s greatness from that era when landed men planted trees in hopes that such arbours might unify their abundance of property.
Yet it is not a crisis of conscience, but rather jet lag that enervates Yvan. Or the fact that, as the film proceeds, he abandons his customary agua mineral in favor of the gintonics on ubiquitous offer. He telegraphs his dismay by invoking Hernán Cortés’ disorientation upon arriving in the Americas, hinting at Fontana’s premise that, now as then, the imperial imagination is still much at work. A corollary of this theme is that the pernicious operations of white-collar venality are often imperceptible if not utterly mundane—an observation that the director (himself the grandson of a banker, whose working notes inspired the film) steeps in that sense of subtle yet keenly felt unease that seems endemic to any film made in Argentina these days.
Accordingly, Azor looks the part: outwardly harmless as opposed to harrowing, anodyne rather than acidic. Disquiet steadily encroaches on the film’s palatable images but never disrupts their composure, the threat of violence having yet to fully infiltrate the torpid sheen of affluence; it’s as if the film itself was cautiously minding the toxic exuberance alleged to be Keys’ undoing. Like Yvan, Fontana treads lightly so as not to tip his hand, although some opportunities prove too enticing to resist. After a failed attempt to retain his prickliest client, Yvan begins to feel the limitations of conducting business as his forebears did, i.e., with a semblance of diplomatic propriety. Unafraid of darkly transparent humour, the script (by Fontana and Mariano Llinás) lets fly one of its more pungent lines when Yvan is consoled by Dekerman after the failed deal: “Don’t torture yourself, the decision had already been made.”
“It gets scared when there are rats on the ground,” explains Padel-Camon as the horse whose reins Yvan desperately clutches to violently spooks. Riding boots aside, Yvan’s business junket is no vacation: things naturally go south as he tries to insinuate himself into the upper echelons of a progressively more impolite society, its darker contours revealed in a rendezvous at the gauzy Circle of Arms (this being Argentina, the location requires no fabrication). Presided over by the ominous, collared cleric Monsignor Tatoski (Pablo Torre Nilson), the occasion is afforded a docent’s welcome (note that the hall’s former fencing pistes have been converted into spas) while “his Holiness” confides to Yvan the necessities of national “purification” before extending an invitation to dinner.
Tatoski could be the heart of darkness itself, but he politely defers to the complexity that is Lázaro (a name whose precise denotation—person, place, or state of mind—remains tantalizingly withheld), prompting Yvan’s final stab at bravery, a boat trip up the muddied Tigre river that ushers him closer to his own El Dorado moment. Azor ultimately performs a critical inversion of the film’s motif of nomenclature: an indexical reckoning of the belongings, purloined and now bankable, of those disappeared by the junta. The culmination of naming, with its appropriation and valuation of quotidian objects, serves as a revelation that’s either devastating or, for those fluent in the business vernacular of pretending not to see something, possibly redeeming. In the end, Yvan is revealed to be a man of two yokes (i.e., of duplicitous means). At least Keys was one not to mince words, having acknowledged that “we’re all murderers.” As with any new territory, it can be hard at first to acclimate oneself.