Azor, review: a gripping thriller set during Argentina's 'dirty war'

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Azor, review: a gripping thriller set during Argentina's 'dirty war'
© Provided by The Telegraph A scene from Azor

  • Dir: Andreas Fontana. Starring: Fabrizio Rongione, Stéphanie Cléau, Juan Pablo Geretto, Carmen Irionda, Juan Trench, Pablo Torre Nilsson. 12A cert, 100 min

This superb debut feature from Andreas Fontana puts an ingenious spin on the paranoid thriller: its main character is determined to behave as if he isn’t in one. His name is Yvan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione), and he is a private banker who has travelled from Geneva to Buenos Aires with his glamorous wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), to ease his clients’ concerns at a politically fraught moment. It is late 1980: the mid-point of the “dirty war” in which Argentina’s military dictatorship abducted and murdered its domestic enemies in their thousands.

Yvan’s elite and secretive clientele hardly fit that description. But all have significant assets they’d rather weren’t seized by the junta – and their usual adviser, Yvan’s colleague René Keys, has vanished in their hour of need. Yvan’s job is to glide into town and smooth things over, a task at which Inés is obviously well-practiced, even offering advice on the relative rapport-building qualities of different jackets.

Rongione and Cléau are both terrific as two sides of a studied double-act that’s as much of a business alliance as it is a romantic one. (“My husband and I are one and the same person: him,” Inés says.) But the De Wiels’ cool-headed couple routine isn’t clicking in the way we assume it usually does: conversations are guarded and allusive, while there is much concern that Yvan has brought his female partner in the first place.“Do you think this is Roland Garros?” a contact asks him with a barely stifled sneer: in this place, old-world sophistication can only get you so far.

And above it all hangs the riddle of the misplaced Keys – whose presence, like Harry Lime’s in The Third Man, is felt all the more keenly because he’s not around. Everyone tells Yvan how different he is to his predecessor, usually in a loaded tone of voice – though none of them can seem to agree what Keys is actually like. One client grinningly describes him as charming. Another calls him depraved, without going into grisly specifics. 

But the avoidance of grisly specifics is Yvan’s stock-in-trade. “Azor”, Inés confides in a fellow guest at a glossy function, is an arcane piece of Swiss private-banking slang: a whispered warning that means “be careful what you say”. Another gem is “faire condois”: to pretend not to have seen anything. “My husband does it very easily,” Inés remarks. 

It’s true that Yvan begins the film as a sort of anti-Hitchcockian figure: The Man Who Didn’t Know Enough, And Was Quite Frankly Happy to Keep It Like That. Yet he finds himself drawn into the mystery regardless. A suddenly abandoned apartment is combed for clues; cryptic scribbles on a hotel’s headed notepaper are mulled. Tension is maintained by a sparse electronic soundtrack, which often resembles a cat walking over a mellotron. We hear of a second disappeared person: the politically active young daughter of one of Keys’s customers (Juan Trench). But he seems reconciled to the loss, and more concerned with making sure her share of his fortune is discreetly secured.

Fontana, whose own grandfather was a Swiss banker, directs each scene with a sleek, unfussy poise that only makes his script’s constant quicksand-suck of unease feel all the more dangerous. There is a certain Conradian Heart-of-Darkness quality to Yvan’s reluctant odyssey through this private world  – the film even ends with a journey upriver – and a pervasive, David Lynch-like sense that something is grippingly amiss. 

Yvan is told by an investor that, as a Genevan, he shares a home town with no less an Argentine literary icon than Jorge Luis Borges, who apparently fell for the place because “it doesn’t change”. In Buenos Aires, however, stability is a Borgesian fantasy – a mesh of genteel lies underneath which evil lies, licking its lips.

In cinemas from Oct 29 and on MUBI from December 3

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