Don’t be put off by the showy, joke-academic title of Sex Life of Plants: this gentle, meditative character portrayal of a young Chilean woman negotiating the tricky terrain between relationships and motherhood is indeed cerebral, but it’s emotionally engaging too. A deceptively simple, human story about a woman’s right to decide the use of her body, Sebastian Brahm’s second feature poses a wonderful question: why does your partner also have to be the parent of your child? It thus plays smartly and straightforwardly into wider issues about what we’re actually here on earth to do — but does so in such a downbeat way that dramatically, it sometimes sells itself short.
After picking up a special mention from San Sebastian’s New Directors jury, Plants has the qualities to take root and flower on the Spanish-language festival circuit, perhaps beyond.
The action takes place over a couple of years. Barbara (Francesca Lewin) wants a child, but her boyfriend Guillermo (Mario Horton) is less keen, which is (unnecessarily graphically) signaled by the fact that he ejaculates outside her. This sticky issue apart, things are fine between them — but it’s a major issue.
On a plant-gathering hobby trip together, Guillermo falls and bangs his head. After one painfully authentic-feeling scene, he’s shown to have brain damage. Shorn of much of his memory, his affections and his sense of humor, he’s now, despite his efforts to return to normality, a stranger to Barbara — indeed, he has become a child, but not the kind she wants.
It’s a dramatically potent situation which could go in any direction, with Brahm opting for emotional realism rather than offering the easy dramatic highs and lows implicit in the material. A perhaps guilt-driven Barbara does her best to take care of Guillermo, replacing the passion with his Play Station whilst continuing her work as a landscape gardener for bickering couple Olaya (Ingrid Isensee) and Nils (Cristian Jimenez, director of 2014’s Voiceover), who’ll later come to take center stage in Barbara’s life. (This scene is one of the few concessions to humor in a film which grows progressively darker, though Barbara’s gynecologist (Gabriela Aguilera) also delivers a little light relief.)
It may not be the politically correct term, but as per the film’s logic, Guillermo is now a vegetable. His interest in sex remains undimmed, but Barbara’s not having any of it, and after an embarrassing attempt at a dinner party during which Guillermo becomes paranoid and goes to bed, Barbara leaves him.
As the misleading title suggests, this is ultimately a film about how biology governs women’s choices more than it does men’s, and whether that should afford women a certain margin of choice when structuring their lives, choosing their partners. (Brahm’s answer: yes, it should.) In distinguishing between a partner and a father for her child, Barbara must negotiate this fascinating what-if situation as, driven by the biological imperative, she tries to retain some sense of her own identity. It’s a situation with which many women will identify, and many men will empathize.
Luckily, not a single moment of the script is dedicated to exploring all these abstractions. Plants has been delicately and sensitively scripted with an eye at all times on the subtle shifts taking place inside Barbara — a protagonist who, incidentally, is present in every scene and whose film this really is. Lewin, as famous in Chile for her TV work as for her movies, tackles the role with a careful eye on the emotional truth rather than on effect, and the result — though it would have been simpler and more audience-friendly to cast her in a heroic light — is subtle, nuanced and buttoned-back, simply because there’s far more happening inside Barbara than she’s free to show. Horton’s fine too, in what is essentially two different but overlapping roles.
The sometimes lengthy ellipses are handled with great elegance, but otherwise the treatment is unshowy, involving much intimate, close-in camera work to underline the emotional claustrophobia which underpins the action. But space could have been made for a little more emotional radicalism without compromising on the film’s considerable authenticity.