Hey! If you’re only going to watch one film this month about the disappearance of a woman, and the suspicion that’s placed on a man as a result of that disappearance, then the chances are you’ve seen it already. There has been plenty of fuss made about David Fincher’s Gone Girl, and the critical thumbs-upping has resulted in impressive box office takings, but if I can persuade you to check out another film about disappearing wives and their shady husbands then I recommend Spanish thriller El Cuerpo (The Body).
Director Oriol Paulo’s 2012 debut is part police procedural, part twisty, paranoid Hitchcockian thriller. It stars Hugo Silva as Álex Ulloa, an adulterous husband who poisons his tormenting, high-flying corporate wife Mayka (Belén Rueda, who you may recognize from The Orphanage), and the excellent José Coronado as Jaime Peña, a grizzly mac-wearing detective who is assigned to the case when strange things happen at the morgue just hours after Mayka’s death.
Though it’s a murder-mystery, the question driving the film on to a just ending is not the usual one regarding the identity of the murderer, but whether a killing did in fact occur in the first place. Early in the film during one of many subtly-incorporated flashbacks Álex – a science professor – is revealed to have poisoned Mayka, using a slow-working poison that results in the victim suffering a heart attack several hours after it is imbibed. The cause of Mayka’s death is wrongly identified by the authorities as being from natural causes, but later that night her body disappears from the morgue, with night security guard Ángel Torres (Miquel Gelabert) left as the sole witness to events after CCTV camera feeds are cut. The problem for the police is that the petrified Ángel ran out of the building, was struck by a car on a nearby road, and lies in a critical condition in hospital.
Álex is calmness personified when the police call him in to the morgue for questioning, and Jaime’s suspicion is piqued by the fact that the widower doesn’t appear to be grieving, despite his wife’s death occurring only hours earlier. But did she really die? Was the body taken or did Mayka just get up and walk out of the morgue as if nothing had happened? While he is detained for questioning a series of strange events occur that lead Álex to believe that his wife is very much alive and is hell bent on extracting revenge on her cheating, murderous husband and his mistress.
Though it may sound a little far-fetched, Paulo’s tense story (co-written with Lara Sendim) is played straightly and the reason for the disappearance of the body is difficult for the viewer to figure out, with various possibilities becoming apparent as the plot thickens. The idea that Mayka could fake her own death and simply walk out of the morgue may be hard to accept on paper, but cleverly the flashbacks reveal elements of her character, as well as certain tidbits of information, that make it seem entirely plausible; as a result Paulo is able to toy with the idea that something supernatural has happened, or that Álex is going mad, before offering a more realistic explanation that doesn’t defy medical science.
Part of the film’s success is due to the fact that the scenes showing the status of the marriage between Álex and Mayka are every bit as interesting as the traditional ones of interrogation, in which clever suspect and cleverer detective do battle; Álex and Mayka’s relationship is also informed by a similar cat-and-mouse battles of wits, as wife tries to catch out unfaithful husband with the help of a private investigator. Mayka is right to be suspicious of her husband’s behavior, and in trying to find evidence of his infidelity she is attempting to satisfy her own need for the truth as well as ensuring her own wealth is protected as a result of their pre-nuptial arrangements. Gradually, however, the picture is complicated slightly as Mayka is revealed to be a bully who delights in making people squirm.
We first see the couple in a DVD of their wedding day, for example, which Álex’s relatives are mawkishly watching in the matrimonial house while he fakes his own grief in the bedroom. The wealthy, high-flying Mayka stuns guests during the wedding ceremony by suggesting she is not willing to marry her fiancé, before revealing that it’s a practical joke at his expense. Later we see her exert her power and influence by pretending to have Álex fired from his job because he refuses to spend the morning with her when she returns from a business trip and instead wishes to go to work as planned. After both of these cruel tricks he looks as pale as a ghost.
Mayka’s odd sense of humour and controlling nature appears to be the catalyst for Álex’s cheating, and his new girlfriend Carla (Aura Garrido) is complicit in the poisoning. While Álex is mentally put through the ringer by an unidentified tormentor at the morgue, Carla appears to be in physical danger from either Mayka or the person who took her body, depending on what you believe. As the evidence mounts up against Álex and the police get ready to charge him, the question of whether a murder actually took place becomes ever more important.
With its muted green palette, stark morgue interiors, well-lit night shots and slowly-building tension, El Cuerpo does coincidentally resemble a David Fincher film, recalling perhaps the look of Zodiac and Panic Room first and foremost. There are certainly worse films to be compared to, and first-time director Paulo exudes impressive confidence throughout, rolling from one tension-filled scene to another; his skill is great enough, and his pacing is quick enough, to make you believe that bodies just get up and walk out of morgues all the time.
It’s interesting to find a film with all the usual machinations of a whodunit when the answer is clearly ‘hedunit’, but the extra question as to whether Mayka has faked her own death (as a result of tip offs received from her private detective) ensures for a fascinating mystery. I only have a finite ability to sit through plot twists, and find that credibility is often stretched too far when the rug is pulled a little too viciously from under the viewer’s feet, but the events here are devised, camouflaged and executed so well that I applaud El Cuerpo’s unpredictability. My only problem with the film is that the characters seem to be slightly one-dimensional at times; Mayka’s willingness to play the corporate boss from hell at home, for example, makes you wonder why Álex found her attractive in the first place (though money, of course, can be given as an adequate answer). Jaime, meanwhile, is a detective that will seem very familiar indeed to anyone with even a passing interest in such a genre: he lives alone, is utterly dedicated to his job and has a troubled, distant relation with his daughter. The other cops that assist him are sadly non-descript: there’s a woman, and a man with a mullet and a moustache, but they really don’t have much to do other than follow his orders. Despite these minor quibbles the performances by the cast are good, and they carry off this gripping mystery with aplomb.
Directed by: Oriol Paulo
Written by: Oriol Paulo, Lara Sendim
Starring: José Coronado, Hugo Silva, Belén Rueda, Aura Garrido
Running Time: 110 minutes