If you’re anything like me, you spend a sizeable portion of your free time browsing through Netflix’s selection, trawling listlessly through title after title of movies and TV shows that look barely OK, trying to settle on something to watch for the evening. And if you’re anything like me, the Trending Now section — a row of titles featuring stuff that’s currently generating buzz on the platform — is where you eventually find yourself doing most of said listless trawling. And finally, if you’re really anything like me, your recent Trending Now swipe-through session found you face-to-face with a film titled El Hilo Rojo.
El Hilo Rojo (henceforth referred to by its English title, The Red Thread) is an Argentine romantic drama that was kind of impossible to avoid when it first hit theaters in 2016, the sheer ubiquitousness of its marketing campaign further magnified by the tabloid-y nature of its behind-the-scenes turmoil. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, we’ll do our best to sum it all up without feeling like filthy gossip mongers (even though we like it): Benjamín Vicuña and Eugenia Suárez, the film’s leading actors, found themselves embroiled in a real-life affair during the shoot, much to the chagrin of Vicuña’s then-wife Carolina “Pampita” Ardohain (whose perplexing work in Desire we examined last week).
This all culminated in a physical confrontation in somebody’s trailer, followed by a lot of scandalous declarations to the Argentine press (#MantaDeNepal, never forget) and a Bennifer-like eclipsing of the film that caused it all. Unlike Bennifer’s disastrous Gigli, however, The Red Thread was a massive box-office hit, and is again making waves after popping up on Netflix. But is the film worth watching?
Named after the ancient belief that there is an invisible red thread connecting people who are meant to be together, the film tells the story of Manuel (Acuña), a winemaker, and Abril (Suárez), a flight attendant. After destiny brings them together on one of Suárez’s flights, they share a moment of genuine connection, only to be torn apart by circumstance without knowing each other’s names or contact information.
Fast forward a few years later and they once again find each other at the reception of a Colombian hotel. They’re both parents now, in committed relationships, but they still hold the memory of that fateful flight several years ago. They pursue an affair during their time together, but the pressures and responsibilities of their lives outside that idyllic bubble complicate things considerably.
The first thing I really noticed when watching The Red Thread was the strange plasticky sheen to the photography. Characters and settings are brightly lit from just about every angle, creating a disconcerting look of artifice. Even Cartagena (a place I grew up visiting often, and where our characters reconnect after years away from each other) is almost unrecognizable, scrubbed completely clean of any grit or humanity. One could argue that this is a conscious artistic choice by director Daniela Goggi and cinematographer Sol Lopatin, meant to mirror the characters’ inner lives; their joy when together causing them to see everything in bright, vivid colors. This is a reasonable explanation, especially when considering that Goggi and Lopatin’s last collaboration (2015’s Abzurdah) didn’t have the same problem; however, even when taking this aesthetic choice into consideration, the film’s look is still off-putting and bland. Add in the amount of egregious product placement (seriously; keep an eye out for prominently-featured brand names) and the stiff camera movements, the prevailing feeling is that of watching an inordinately long TV commercial.
Often, with this kind of boilerplate, straightforward love story, there’s an unspoken understanding from the audience that there’s only so much substance you’re going to get from a film like this. Within a few minutes of watching, you understand that the plot itself is going to be paper-thin, the thematic exploration will be unremarkable and surface-level, and there’s going to be very little in the way of surprises. All of this holds true for The Red Thread. The strengths of a film like this are to be found elsewhere: in its examination of its characters, in the cleverness of the dialogue, and in the charisma and watchability of its leads. In other words: we pretty much understand from the get-go that this film isn’t going to be earth-shattering on a story or thematic level, so we kind of automatically adjust our expectations to seek out different things to like about the movie.
And there are things to like here: the chemistry between Suárez and Acuña is undeniable, and watching them play off each other is one of The Red Thread’s scant pleasures. Unfortunately, neither of them are done any favors by a script that is emotionally barren, lazy, and riddled with clichés. Characters speak in groan-worthy Casablanca-lite quips (“You have commitment issues?”, he asks her at one point, to which she tersely responds “Commitments have issues with me”. COME ON), motivations are often fuzzy and inconsistent, and — perhaps most critically of all — it is mind-numbingly boring. The film’s generic nature would be tolerable if it had some wit, charm or humor to it. As it stands, at just over 90 minutes, it feels like it lasts about as long as the most recent two-and-a-half-hour superhero epic.
This is largely due to the fact that The Red Thread doesn’t really have anything to say. Love stories through the ages have often served up an outlook, a statement, some insight into this absurdly complex dance we call “love.” In the absence of that, they’ll at least offer an understanding of some well-sketched, interesting characters. The Red Thread doesn’t really offer any of that. It throws its hands up in the air and says “it’s complicated, LOL.” Its level of insight is that of a motivational Facebook meme shared by your third-favorite aunt. It’s a treacly, unbearably cloying bore of a film, and it could have been so much more. As someone who believes that art should be judged by its own merits and tabloid gossip is a fundamentally harmful distraction, it pains me to say: The Red Thread’s behind-the-scenes drama may be the only interesting thing about it.
The Red Thread is currently streaming on Netflix. English subtitles are available.