In many respects, The Queen of Fear, an Argentinian dramedy that marks the directorial debuts of actress Valeria Bertuccelli and second-unit director Fabiana Tiscornia, works as a complimentary piece to They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, following as it does a famous artist trying to cobble together their masterpiece on the fly whilst their mind is elsewhere and probably has no fixed roadmap to begin with. Fortunately for Argentina, their story and star are fictional. Robertina (Bertuccelli, who also wrote the film) is mere days away from the premiere of the titular one-woman play, famous enough to demand and get complete unquestioning creative control but not quite famous enough to have ordinary people be able to place her from specific works. She also very clearly has no plan in mind for her sold-out, highly-anticipated and heavily-publicised show, despite her manager’s best attempts to cover for her, flaking her commitments at every opportunity – whether it be one of her childish live-in maids bursting into tears over the slightest thing, her home’s frequent power cuts constantly leaving her under the (convoluted) impression that she’s being burgled at all hours, or that her former best friend (Dario Grandietti), whom she hasn’t spoken to in years and now resides in Demark, has gotten fatally sick.
Rober, as she is referred to by her friends, is plainly suffering from crippling anxiety, exemplified by the film’s opening scene which documents the first time her power unexpectedly goes out and she puts in a panicked call to her alarm company that ends with her uncontrollably sobbing over her mental state once they’ve gone. Hers is not the kind of anxiety that you typically see in fiction stories, where the character spends all of their time in a constant state of fear and panic, although that does manifest from time to time. Instead, hers is the anxiety that leads to one passively drifting through life, forever putting off their commitments until the last possible second, letting conflicts just wash over them without a resolution, and refusing to take responsibility for their own actions and choices by never making a concrete decision unless absolutely forced. Rober’s admitted constant fear of everything has her stuck in a rut, unable or perhaps straight-up incapable of change, pursued at every turn by her litany of regrets and fear of death. She’s directionless, unfocussed, a mess, and so is the film around her.
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The Queen of Fear is never a bad or unpleasant movie to watch – although those with low tolerances for the kinds of characters that aren’t great people and who, regardless of the effect that their neuroses may have upon them, won’t get better unless forcefully pushed will have their patience tested – but it’s too much like its lead character. And that’s an issue given that the film runs for almost two hours yet never builds to a seismic event or much in the way of an overall thematic point. What keeps the movie from feeling like a waste of time despite that fact is a tremendous central performance by Bertuccelli, whose turn as Rober worryingly reminded me of myself and my own experiences with this kind of anxiety throughout. She’s able to make Rober frustrating and difficult but still compelling and strangely rootable, a character you want to see grow and take responsibility in spite of all evidence telling you otherwise.
It’s strange that Bertuccelli is both the reason I really enjoyed watching The Queen of Fear whilst also being the reason that it’s hard to fully recommend. She’s a great actress whose performance does wonders with the part, and as a writer she clearly understands her subject because Rober is very well defined and understandable as a character. But her film also hopscotches in focus and tones across its near-two-hours, never managing to cohere on both a screenplay and directorial level – every blackout sequence feels like a trial run for a potential horror movie directed by her and Tiscornia in the future, each seeming to build to a jump that never arrives. Films being too much like their protagonists rarely leads to great things, especially when they’re centred on ones going through an arrested-development midlife crisis like Rober, and it’s just a shame that such a strong central performance is left to prop up a film rather than acting as a foundation for the film to build upon.