Petit Mal - Ruth Caudeli - Dark Star Pictures
Credit: Dark Star Pictures
Before We Vanish by Sarah Williams Featured Film

Petit Mal — Ruth Caudeli

January 27, 2023

Spanish-language filmmaker Ruth Caudeli has developed a surprisingly consistent and quantifiable body of work in the past few years. Her films are relatively plotless, centering queer women in transitional periods of their relationships or outlooks on life, and they tend to draw from her life experiences as an independent filmmaker. Petit Mal hits all three. Laia (Ruth Caudeli), Anto (Ana María Otálora), and Marti (Silvia Varón) are a queer, polyamorous throuple in Bogotá. They are artists, still learning to define how they all relate to one another when two are alone. Laia is the center of the relationship, as their company stems from her not choosing between two partners. When she leaves for a work trip, Anto and Marti have to solidify how they relate to each other outside the construct built by having a third partner around. The three women each represent a need in a healthy relationship, especially in polyamory; Marti (an editor) embodies organizational and planning skills, Anto typifies the emotional peacemaker and is often the most anxious, and Laia — a film director and possible self-insert — is a leader with the perception that she’s in control of the relationship.

Acting as a refrain throughout the film, the women give musical asides, alluding to their individual loneliness, or perception of coupledom, depending on their immediate behavior within the triad dynamic. These half-sung words constitute the film’s theme, “one of three is not enough,” from a song which plays over the end credits as well. There’s no prescriptive direction given to the health of the throuple dynamic: is Laia’s “alpha partner” status in what was initially a vee shaped relationship causing an imbalance of priorities and sense of competitiveness, or is it that once Anto and Marti spend enough time alone together, the relationship then becomes a balance of different romantic styles? Caudeli cleverly avoids a clear judgment, preferring to draw from personal experiences and the gray areas that come with them. The three-way domestic bliss isn’t idealized, and there’s no strong conflict or resolution. It simply exists as an environment.

Petit Mal certainly displays its small-budget DIY roots, but although some clever visuals can elevate it, the switch between black and white and hazy, muted color feels gimmicky at best, and thematically incoherent as to when or why these changes occur. Sure, most of the color segments pop up when Laia physically returns to the relationship, but the other interludes of colored artistic creation aren’t as definitive. Even if these are meant to symbolize her emotional presence as the artist of the relationship, this ignores the fact that Marti is a screenwriter/editor herself, and is making her own documentary about a throuple. Petit Mal is filled with shallower personal gestures that increase the pseudo-documentary feel without giving too much away, and it comes with mixed results. There is a clever shot of two of the women wearing sheet masks, that when in black and white is lit to resemble the well-known Eyes Without a Face countenance. The imagery recalls the uncanny nature of obscured identity — a common feeling in the early stages of a relationship. Conversely, the “dinosaur kisses” recall a much lower-brow memory of a middle school relationship aphorism (“rawr” means “I love you” in dinosaur). All in all, the meandering artificial autofiction (and half-baked meta-film elements) frequently end up more tedious than enlightening, especially with how little Marti and Anto’s relationship progresses beyond what’s expected. These characters exist in a plotless mood piece, which is no sin of its own, but aside from their personality archetypes, there’s not much reality to them. We see their worries but less of their flaws; and no matter how truthful cinéma vérité can be here, it’s always shadowed by wordless peacekeeping.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.