Set in the breathtaking beach environment of Veracruz (Mexico) at a near-dilapidated resort-of-sorts, "Artificial Paradises" is a terrific minimalist experience centering on the unlikely relationship between middle-aged grounds worker Salomón (Salomón Hernández) and young heroin abuser Luisa (Luisa Pardo). Similar to the oeuvre of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and even Andrei Tarkovsky in its sensibilities, Yulene Olaizola's first narrative film shuns plot and conventions in favor of the small moments that make up life.
Salomón spends his days caring for the locale, cleaning the property while smoking massive amounts of marijuana. This continuous pattern of labor eventually breaches the aimless wanderings of Luisa, a lonely resident with an unfortunate dependence on smack. A delicately-played bond quickly forms between the two, with Olaizola substituting laborious conversation for short, honest dialogues that display the amenity they find in one another. After Luisa's supply is nearly tapped out, she recruits her new buddy on a trip to the city but returns empty handed -- an event that helps ignite the desire to go clean. Salomón agrees to offer assistance, but the habit isn't so easy to kick.
And that's the majority of the story in 'Artificial,' but if you've come solely for a dense script then you've hit the wrong island. The filmmaker takes a watchful approach, giving as much attention to her protagonists as she does to the territory they're in. A crawling dolly devours the natural setting, exploring the area and all of its grandeur while also providing a stark contrast to Salomón and Luisa, who seem relatively unimpressed by their beautiful surroundings. Rightfully awarded Best Cinematography at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, the director of photography's best friend is a temporal tool, carefully detailing the passage of time to cement the characters in their particular context. Rather than forcing background or emotional information into dialogue, much is gathered from simply watching Salomón and Luisa -- what makes them tick, how deep they're in addiction-wise, and how they feel about their place in the world. Of course this technique won't be successful with everyone (the impatient, passive, or simply unimpressed will be indifferent), but to this writer it's organic and full of spirit.
Occasionally there are small diversions from the narrative, most of them centering around the three children that run around the complex. Thankfully they never feel like harsh breaks in the structure, and the innocence that these moments provide compliment the overall tone well. When these kids do find themselves interacting with Luisa, though, things get a bit more uneasy -- one scene has a little girl gnawing a lollipop while the elder addict freely partakes in her habit. This kind of idea is enormously fragile, as its core seems over-the-top, extreme, and too pathetic; yet somehow it works. Olaizola seems to be a pro in balancing these elements and, for a movie focusing on characters using drugs, the perspective is extremely neutral. Heroin is absolutely a destructive substance and the filmmaker isn't denying it, but she represents it with an invisible hand. In an age where drugs must be used as a device to tell a condescending moral tale, this approach is much more realistic.
The director is continuously playful with the rules of filmmaking and there's more than one instance where the fourth wall is broken, either for an assessment of a particular person or for a simple anecdote. By not tying herself down to any of the medium's constricting rules, the movie feels like an open discussion as opposed to a closed-off, finished product -- these techniques can often distance/alienate the audience, but the way she uses them actually pulls us closer to the ideas and to their world.
Things close with some ambiguity, much to its benefit: we'd like to think Luisa will get clean but it's not that easy; who knows if she'll stay that way. Still, the filmmaker is optimistic without being naive or sentimental, closing with a folk song sung by Salomón himself. It's a proper finale for this kind of movie, not to mention uniquely moving. By following its own path, "Artificial Paradises" is a constantly pleasing experience, finding beauty in all of life's instances -- even the destructive. [A-]