Tomi Haffety explores the portrayal of the Mexican elite during the 1982 Peso Crisis through Las Niñas Bien
Las Niñas Bien acts as a cinematic tribute to the legacy of Julio Iglesias, the Mexican Pesos Crisis of 1982 and all those who subsequently fell from the elite with one capitalist swoop. The 2018 film is the second feature by Alejandra Márquez Abella and follows the life of the exclusive Las Lomas neighbourhood’s ‘queen bee’ Sofia (Ilse Salas), as she navigates her privileges amidst the worst financial crisis Mexico had experienced.
Opening with a scene at Sofia’s lavish birthday party, filled with rare octopus and expensive wine, Márquez Abella familiarises the viewer to the lifestyle that the guests share. This is subtly introduced by their removed attitude toward the failing economy, even using it as a punchline to their after-dinner jokes. Living in a palatial house with live-in staff who have been around for generations, Sofia, the protagonist of both the film and the social scene, sends her children to international summer camps to expose them to the world outside Mexico, even warning them not to mingle with other Mexicans. Along with the other housewives, she enjoys uninterrupted tennis matches and lengthy pampering sessions. She is untouchable, or at least, that is what she believes until reality starts to slowly creep in, and creep it does.
Márquez Abella exhibits a great talent for using subtle symbolism to carry the story forward and as the plot develops and cracks begin to show in Sofia’s perfect life, these symbols are given free reign. Beginning subtly with the lack of water the morning after the birthday party and the neighbours packing large bags in the car to go on a ‘long vacation’, it becomes apparent that the world Sofia was so comfortable in is beginning to slowly change.
The minimalist score composed by Tómas Barreiro has the mesmerizing power of complimenting the story and the repeated clapping symphony, aptly named ‘the war of the applause’, plays when the plot hits a climax to emphasise the agitation and discomfort felt by Sofia. Costume designer Annai Ramos played a vital part in telling the story through fashion as the clothes that the women wear represent their pristine lives, and they act as a base for much of the plot, for example Sofia wears a sombre black dress on the night that everything seems to collapse. Cleaners are left unpaid; a skin rash develops very visibly over her neck and Sofia removes the foreboding black butterfly from the parlour wall- an action she was warned against by the gardener as removing it would bring only bad luck.
Sofia’s ignorance and selfishness are represented through her continued avarice at the expense of her husband whose sobriety begins to decline with his wealth. The desperation to continue life as before is palpable and as the plot develops, it becomes obvious to everyone apart from Sofia that she no longer holds the title of ‘queen bee’ and is beginning to be usurped by a younger, new money housewife, Ana Paula. In this case, Mexican colourism and elitism is apparent in the way that Ana Paula is of Mexican descent whereas Sofia’s family are recent immigrants from the ‘fashionable’ Spain. This holds true in the repeated references to Julio Iglesias who, in Sofia’s eyes, stands as the pinnacle of cosmopolitanism and class- both things she is striving to obtain, and then maintain. A powerful scene towards the end of the feature presents two sides of Sofia’s life: she is pampered by others as she gets ready for an evening meal but she is forced to shower with stagnant pool water following the restriction on hot water. The juxtaposition between Sofia’s ties to her old way of living and new, forced way of living is a powerful metaphor of her fall from grace.
Las Niñas Bien begins with Sofia reciting a fantasy that is not too dissimilar to her reality, but by the closing of the film exactly a year after the exuberant party, Sofia sits with her husband at a dinner with her young nemesis. Márquez Abella has perfectly critiqued the instability of capitalism in a ninety-minute feature. Highlighting the insecurity of the wealth elite through regular wide shots, whether it be at the private tennis court or the palatial décor of the exclusive mansions, Abella presents as much wealth as possible into the frame. Sofia’s dramatic fall from grace and replacement as a key figure in her social circle is brilliantly narrated through Sofia’s fantasies and a reality which becomes increasingly nightmarish.
Las Niñas Bien is artistically shot and both the leading and supporting actors, who are dominantly shoulder-pad clad women, transform the story from a Desperate Housewives satire to a masterful capitalism-critiquing feature.
Las Niñas Bien is now available to stream on Mubi. Watch the trailer here: