Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life is a tale of resistance. It hones in on two inseparable sisters stranded in–and ultimately pulled apart by–an ossified patriarchal world. It is an engrossing melodrama where melancholia teems with rage, with a tear-jerking finale that feels so devastating because of the staggering mix of love and fury that precedes it. It is, far and above, an achingly beautiful story of sisterly love.

Based on a 2015 novel by Martha Batalha (and written by Murilo Hauser, Inés Bortagaray, and Aïnouz himself), the director’s Un Certain Regard winner homes in on two young sisters in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, the eponymous 18-year-old Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and 20-year-old Guida (Júlia Stockler). Singularly titled as it may be, Invisible Life is the story of their relationship, and the mutual struggle to escape from the confines–literal and symbolic–of the conservative household they’ve been raised in by strict father Manuel (António Fonseca) and submissive mother Ana (Flavia Gusmao). They’re girls who’ve officially entered marriage age, and while mentions of potential suitors lurk between family dinners and guests visits, each seeks happiness over and against the future that’s been fashioned for them at birth–and each helps the other in the pursuit.

Preternaturally talented pianist Eurídice hopes to land a spot at Vienna’s music conservatory. She spends her days rehearsing classical pieces, and her nights covering for her older sister as she sneaks out of the family home to hop from one disco to the next in the company of her boyfriend, Greek sailor Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes). Eurídice helps Guida break free, and Guida does the same–the more confident, volcanic eldest encouraging her sibling to pursue a career in the arts, never mind whether this is anathema to a child-bearing future Manuel is planning for both. For a while–a first segment of idyllic sisterly camaraderie–Aïnouz relishes in capturing the girls’ chemistry, and there is something ineffably engrossing in watching younger Eurídice listen in awe as her sister details the moments of intimacy and sexual experiences she’s experimented with Yorgos, her searching, shy glances conjuring fear and stupor. But it’s a short-lived peace.

A lush, rainforest-set preamble following the two girls losing each other on the way home foreshadows the world-shattering separation upon whichInvisible Life pivots, as Guida decides to abandon sister and parents overnight, eloping with her sailor across the Atlantic only to return to Rio a few months later, pregnant and alone. But things back home have changed: predictably, Eurídice has been forced to abandon all hopes to become a pianist and forced to marry the son of a family friend instead, Antenore (Gregório Duvivier). And never mind how hard Guida may beg her father to take her back, her transatlantic escapade and unwanted pregnancy have irreparably compromised the family’s reputation; she no longer deserves to be part of it. As both parents unceremoniously throw “ungrateful daughter and bastard grandson” back on the street, they decide neither daughter should know of the other’s existence, telling Guida that Eurídice left to train as pianist in Vienna, and never once delivering the letters she will write Eurídice, and ask them to forward to her sister.

What unfolds is a wrenching tale of sliding doors, of broken lives running along parallel tracks and never crossing, a portrait of two young women pushed to the margins of a virulently patriarchal world that reduces both to appendices, mute ornaments. However languid the leisurely 139-minute run may sometimes feel, thatInvisible Life never truly stalls is a testament to Aïnouz’s ability to craft a melodrama that feels at once deeply tragic and outrageous–and that it feels inescapably infuriating is courtesy of his understanding of patriarchy at a humiliating straight-jacket, where sex is reduced to a mere instrument of power. It’s a lesson that punctuates the scarce casual fun Guida allows herself to indulge in once she starts anew as a single mother in one of the city’s lower-income quarters. But it’s in Eurídice’s loveless marital liaison that it takes on an overtly predatory dimension.

In what is possibly Invisible Life’s most incensing segment, newlywed Eurídice loses her virginity to Antenore. It’s a moment of intimacy that starts off as incredibly clumsy but rapidly grows into something akin to institutionalized rape; a preamble to the sex Antenore will effectively extoll from his wife all throughout the marriage, and a far cry from those idyllic, long-gone teenage years when the two sisters would confide in each other late at night–sex still some evanescent and spine-tingling mystery hovering above them. And it is possibly the best summation of all that makes Invisible Life so painfully vivid, in its constant juxtaposition and seesawing between a past of childhood reveries and a present of devastating squalor–an uninterrupted correspondence that billows to life through Benedikt Schiefer’s score (interspersed with piano pieces by Liszt, Chopin, and Grieg) and in the warm palette of Hélène Louvart’s cinematography.

But neither Eurídice nor Guida submit to that male-dominated world without a fight–much like they never secretly lose hope of crossing paths again. And herein lies the engrossing beauty of Aïnouz’s Invisible Life. By the time an ellipsis skyrockets us several decades later, and a now-octogenarian Eurídice resumes her search for her sister, Invisible Life has engulfed you in that ineffable feeling you experience as you realize you haven’t just watched two characters grow onscreen, but have fought and grown with them along the way.

Invisible Life premiered at Cannes Film Festival and opens December 20.

See more Cannes 2019 coverage.

Grade: B+

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