The Aura, the second feature from Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky, is so strange and lovely that his recent death at the young age of 47 seems even more tragic for all it has denied the world of cinema. Bielinsky's final work is a film that relishes distance and isolation, glorying in the experiences of a man who lives apart from the world around him. Like its main character, The Aura exists in a sort of suspended animation: It offers no backstory, and there is no future suggested by its ending. It simply exists, a work of such power and grace that its needs no external support.
The film centers on an unnamed taxidermist (the note-perfect Ricardo Darín) who, like the film, exists in a vacuum. We know he is epileptic because the movie opens with him on the ground, after a seizure. He rarely acknowledges his condition, but it dominates his life and is a source of both frustration and perverse joy. We know he has a wife because she leaves him, but we see her only once, fleetingly, though a pebbled glass window. And we have no idea why she left, or what their relationship was like. (At one point, the taxidermist makes a general attack on abusive husbands and, though at the time his words seem aimed at another, there's a such an odd, personal depth to his loathing that one wonders -- fleetingly, but the question is there -- if, perhaps, we've just been told exactly why his wife left.) Apart from his wife, the taxidermist seems to know a single other person: A big, loud colleague of whom he's clearly not very fond. They are forced into a certain camaraderie because of their shared profession, but it's an obvious effort for the taxidermist to even engage in basic social niceties. When his colleague asks how he's been, and what he brought to the museum at which they meet, the taxidermist answers him, and then falls silent. It's not until several seconds later that he remembers something is expected of him, and offers an awkward "And you?"
The taxidermist is happiest in his workshop, alone. There, buoyed by Vivaldi's Presto -- turned up so loud it renders everything else inaudible -- he immerses himself in the glorious precision required to turn skin and bone back into something that's almost alive. He looks completely at peace, breathing in a quiet rhythm as he gracefully turns lumps of clay into muscle, hides small tacks under flaps of skin, and chooses the right glass eyes to bring each creature back to life. Away from the pressures of the world, he is safe in the knowledge that his choices here neither hurt nor disappoint anyone. Here, he is free.
Though many isolated characters in film seem to ache for human contact, the taxidermist suffers no such desires. (He is so content alone that one wonders what led him to get married -- just one of the many questions Bielinsky chose not to answer.) When he's not working, the taxidermist is soaking up the world around him. He notices and remembers everything he sees, filing it away in case it's needed later. His spatial memory is such that he's never lost, but he also retains details like registration numbers, and scribbled notes in the margins of strange notebooks. In his mind, he uses these details to concoct perfect crimes. Everywhere he goes, he instinctively puts imagines the details of a successful robbery: He knows how to enter and leave the space, how many men would be needed, and how long they would have before the police arrived. Far too shy and passive to ever dream of putting his plans into action, the taxidermist is nevertheless absolutely confident they would succeed.
No matter how detached he is, however, when his wife leaves, the taxidermist falls into the cliché of shaking things up: Almost out of spite, he agrees to join his colleague on a hunting trip that is a disaster from the word go. The two men have nothing apart from their profession in common and the taxidermist hates killing living things. Their discomfort is greatly increased by their inability to find lodging -- they end up in an isolated cabin run by a young woman and her brother -- and a strange, pervasive air of danger than pervades every setting and interaction. And then there is an accident, and things explode -- gradually, beautifully, unpredictably -- out of control.
The Aura is packed with excitement -- love and death; murder and suspense -- but the excitement is executed with such loving grace that it's like nothing you've ever seen before. There are few suspense films that unfold this slowly, and with so little regard for audience comfort. Like the taxidermist, we spend most of the movie completely lost (indeed, The Aura's weakest moments come after the big reveal -- once we understand, the movie's hold on us slackens a bit), unable to catch up with what's happening around us. But still, the movie works. It's assembled with such confidence and poise that it's hard not to feel a little awe as you watch it unfold. The editing is often unconventional, counterintuitive and backwards, and yet, again and again, it's exactly right. The taxidermist's passivity should be infuriating and off-putting, but it's not. We understand him completely somehow, and stand by his side, watching with childlike curiosity as life passes by. Dogs should never, ever be effective, profound plot elements. And yet one is. And it's perfect. Bielinsky's final film is so full of grace that, in the end, we feel lucky just to have seen it, and glad, glib though it sounds, that he was around long enough to leave it behind.