Credit: Quinzaine des Cinéastes
by Morris Yang Featured Film

The Hyperboreans — Cristóbal León & Joaquín Cociña [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 24, 2024

Following the critical success of 2018’s The Wolf House, directoral duo Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña have returned with The Hyperboreans, a papier-mâché melange of myth and mystery set almost exclusively in a world of artifice. A soundstage, brimming with props of oversized heads and surrealist viscera, first sets the scene — so to speak — before relentlessly disarming our senses; later, we find ourselves in video-game territory, embarking on some quest to retrieve a lost treasure amid a fantastical polar realm. Unlike the former film’s relatively straightforward use of fairytale allegory in documenting the violence of tyranny (having been modelled after the Colonia Dignidad’s internment and torture of political prisoners under Augusto Pinochet), The Hyperboreans offers fewer keys to its interpretation. Much of it bristles, instead, with the creative fluidity of a dissociated psyche, its fugue state repurposed into reflexive yet undeniably intuitive examinations of yet another chapter in Chile’s postwar history.

This chapter, somewhat trifling considering the infamy of Pinochet and his right-wing dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, nonetheless charts the overlooked and unresolved fracas of thought that spawned in the wake of Nazi Germany. Chile’s historical sympathy for Hitler — with the Nacistas forming a local fascist movement — lingered, most notably, in the figure of one Miguel Serrano, a diplomat and journalist who ventured that Aryan supremacy coexisted with Chilean supremacy and, taken jointly, were remnants of an esoteric origin myth. Positing the existence of a mythical prehistoric people called the Hyperboreans who, in Serrano’s retelling, settled in the ice under Antarctica, the myth enshrines an image of utopian purity as much as it inspires charges of delirium against its wild, perhaps Tolkienian flights of fancy.

Curiously, the directors give short shrift to the details, and instead undertake a sleight of hand in which they themselves become the villains in a film-within-a-film whose existence and making of become the essence of what we’re watching. León and Cociña hire Antonia Giesen, an actress and clinical psychologist in the scenario as in real life, to dramatize Serrano’s life and times; relying on an interplay of puppets and shadows, and wending through curtains and cutouts, their camera records the remaking of historical memory as distilled through fractured, unreliable consciousness. All the same, The Hyperboreans remakes recorded testimony, its Brechtian scaffolding continuously buttressed and usurped with metafictional interjections from both Giesen and her employers. “You have just crossed into the zone where the laws of logic twist,” proclaims the film several minutes in as its protagonist, having recounted her days treating a patient (Francisco Visceral), pursues him in her newfound persona as a police officer under the command of Jaime Guzmán, one of Pinochet’s closest advisers.

León and Cociña’s fourth-wall antics may prove grating at times, more so perhaps for those less acquainted with the vicissitudes of Chilean political thought. But their steadfast subversion of narrative norms, instead of capitulating to merely fashionable parodies of creative bankruptcy, captivates through the questions it raises. Representation as replicative mise en abyme, the camera as weapon against the silence of totalitarianism, myth as founding principles against other myths — within its brief 71 minutes, The Hyperboreans forswears dignified, unproblematic responses to these issues, rarely disclosing a single plane of praxis (whether as historian, artist, diviner, or lawmaker) upon which we shore up our reality. León and Cociña, having worked on the stop-motion alternate reality sequence in Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid, animate the second half of Giesen’s sojourn likewise, accentuating the uncanny dimensions of what might just be the directors’ futile vision of making “the true film about the Chile.” In its earnest quest for the illogical and absurd, the film cautions — with no little clarity — just how easy it is to lose oneself to myth: not just the person, but entire histories and images.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.