There may be no better metaphor for an identity crisis than the art of the voiceover. In “The Intruder,” the haunting and sophisticated psychological thriller from Argentine director Natalia Meta, the symbolic potential is clear early on. Inés (Érica Rives) watches a schlocky, violent movie as she dubs the screams into a microphone, her hands in front of her face and her eyes wide with embellished fear. As Inés hovers between her daily routine and the fictional worlds where she lends her voice, her reality grows more tenuous, as this smart and stylish supernatural descent explores what it means to make peace with inner demons by learning to confront them head-on.
Channeling the psychological thrills of performance in “Black Swan” with a spooky audiovisual tapestry similar to Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” Meta develops Inés’ conundrum through the accumulation of disturbing dreams that invade her everyday existence. Inés’ saga begins on a tropical vacation with her new lover Leopardo (Daniel Hendler), a romantic cheeseball who grows jealous when he overhears her muttering in her sleep. That argument ends in a sudden, violent tragedy; it’s also the first indication that Inés’ tenuous grasp on her surroundings may have something to do with an intangible evil following her, as eerie specters from her dreams creep into her awareness bit by bit.
However, “The Intruder” focuses less on resolving the nature of that conundrum than the process through which Inés keeps tumbling further down the rabbit hole. While the rules of her conundrum never quite coalesce and some of the twists feel shoehorned, “The Intruder” generates so much intrigue to maintain a breathless pace and unsettling atmosphere at every turn, with Rives’ layered performance fusing the strange trip together.
From one scene to the next, Rives exudes the desperation of a woman either losing her mind or battling to regain it. The actress, who some viewers may recall as the vengeful wife in the Oscar-nominated “Wild Tales,” sizzles with frantic energy throughout; the role calls for a range of expressive abilities that oscillate from domineering to weakened and back again. In addition to her voiceover work, Inés sings in a Buenos Aires choir, where her vocal chords have started to fail her due to an unknown ailment; meanwhile, strange background noises creep into her voiceover work, as her engineer struggles to diagnose the source. Eventually, it takes the obligatory kooky old lady — in this case, a veteran voiceover actress who knows the score — to explain the nature of the threat. Inés has intruders, an unspecified army of inner monstrosities attempting to work their way out of her through her main vocation. “First you hear them,” Inés is told. “Then you see them.” And so she does.
As with “It Follows,” the rudimentary nature of this threat provides a cogent means of exploring the main character’s broader frustrations with the world — her loneliness and depression give way to haunting visions, and advances from supportive men who may or may have her best interests at heart. (Hell, they may not even be there at all.) With the arrival of Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who played the activist hero of “BPM”), a dashing organ tuner who lurks above Inés’ choir like Quasimodo, “The Intruder” drifts into strange romantic territory that suggests the woman might have found a savior from the grief that haunts her after the twist of the first act. But the misdirection keeps coming, in a series of surreal transitions that make it increasingly unclear if Natalia’s ever awake in the first place.
Adapted from C.E. Feiling’s novel “El Mal Menor,” Meta and co-writer Leonel D’Agostino’s maze-like plot keeps spinning around, as Inés attempts to confront her dreams and winds up more attracted to them than she could have anticipated. The movie exists within the confines of that spell, coming around to the implication that the fear Inés experiences is actually some kind of superpower. The men in her life always want to save her, but “The Intruder” makes it clear that Inés has to overcome their gestures to secure her source of confidence from within. In the exuberant musical finale, the darkness gives way to a zany act of defiance, as the story of mysterious inner voices becomes the defiant tale of one woman finding her own.
“The Intruder” premiered at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.