14 Movie Review The Proposal

Opening the safe: Jill Magid

Documentary, not rated, 86 minutes, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

Jill Magid’s extraordinary art project, the genesis and execution of which unfold in this strange, almost dreamlike documentary, is like a story devised by Edgar Allen Poe, or perhaps Edward Gorey.

It all revolves around the late, great Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Magid became absorbed with Barragán’s work and embarked upon research to create an art project that would incorporate elements of it.

But the road to everything Barragán leads through a Swiss corporation, watched over by a staunchly unaccommodating gatekeeper named Federica Zanco. How did this come to pass? After the architect’s death in 1988, his professional archives were sold to a New York gallery. Not long after, Ms. Zanco received a proposal of marriage. Instead of an engagement ring, Zanco told her lover to give her the archives of Luis Barragán. And so, through his Swiss furniture corporation, the bridegroom bought them for her, and she locked them away in a vault and slapped heavy irons of copyright protection on everything that pertained to them, including the Barragán name.

As Magid tells it, Zanco proved unwilling to share the treasure with outsider researchers. Magid wrote her a number of gentle, supplicating letters requesting access and was politely but consistently rebuffed. Meanwhile, Magid was able to get remarkable access to the great man’s personal archives in Mexico, even spending days living at his former house, and sleeping in the guest bedroom “where all of his girlfriends slept.”

She talks to former friends, associates, and concerned Mexican art professionals who are unhappy that the archives have been whisked away to foreign soil. She befriends the Barragán family. And she enlists the family to join with her in an unusual, some would say macabre, proposal she will make to Zanco.

Intrigued? See the movie and watch it unfold. The scheme and how it played out is not an unknown story in the art world, but if you’re unfamiliar with it, you’ll watch with a shiver of fascinated disbelief as it takes shape. The exchange of letters between Magid and Zanco takes on the aspect of a love triangle, with two women decorously engaged in a high-stakes duel for the affections, or the legacy, of a dead man neither ever met in life.

The principals themselves do finally meet in a Swiss café where Magid waits at an outside table with her cameraman hiding nearby to record the encounter, only to have Zanco arrive and whisk her inside. The ensuing images captured through the reflective plate glass of the café window add an eerie layer of absurdity and intrigue to the whole affair as Magid faces her Swiss rival and makes her bizarre proposal.

Images are no small part of the enjoyment of this rich and deliciously disturbing documentary. The cinematography, in the hands of co-producer Jarred Alterman, is superb. 

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