The documentary as murder mystery is common enough. Just ask Robert Durst or even O.J. Simpson (not that there’s ever been much mystery about that one). The conceptual artist Jill Magid has made something uncommon, probably even unique, with “The Proposal”: the documentary as restitution mystery. It’s not a whodunit. It’s a whereitshouldgo. Magid, who directed, provides a voice-over and is a near-constant onscreen presence.
A decade after the death of the celebrated Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902-88), his professional archive ended up in Switzerland. It sold for $2.5 million — “probably the biggest sale of architecture [archives] ever,” says the gallery owner, Max Protetch, who handled the deal. The archive went to the owner of Vitra, a Swiss design firm. The owner’s future wife, Federica Zanco (it could be the name of a female Bond villain), was a great admirer of Barragán. The purchase was, in effect, a can-you-top-this wedding present. So the title owes something to “wedding proposal.” It owes far more to a proposal Magid makes to Zanco toward the end of the documentary, about returning the archive to Mexico. The nature of that proposal is the documentary’s big reveal, so nothing further on that subject will be offered here.
Magid has made a film that’s cool, assured, and understated. Someone should sign her up to direct a techno-thriller. In which case, she should collaborate again with T. Griffin, whose stripped-down score never calls attention to itself even as it propels and enhances what we watch.
Barragán was the second winner of the Pritzker Prize , the architecture equivalent of the Nobel. His work is strikingly spare, without toppling over into severity. Barragán used light and untreated surfaces to memorable effect. He took Modernism and made it Mexican as, in a very different way, Frank Lloyd Wright took Modernism and made it Midwestern. We see Magid residing in Barragán’s former home in Mexico City. Several times she drives past the Torres de Satélite, a set of brightly colored tower-like sculptures on the outskirts of the city that are a Barragán design, and they’re extraordinary.
The towers are never identified — nor, for that matter, is it noted that Frank Gehry designed the Vitra headquarters, which double as a design museum. We see the building multiple times. Magid is nothing if not focused. Information is not what “The Proposal” is about. Just as viewers learn little about Barragán’s architecture, they learn even less about Magid’s interest in it. Might obsession be a better word? It’s hard to say, since there’s no elaboration.
In fairness, elaboration could detract from Magid’s mode of storytelling, which relies a lot on indirection and leaving things unsaid. But it would enrich the experience of the film overall to learn more about Barragán and his architecture. It would enrich it even more to learn more about what drew her to him and the work.
What one comes to realize is that the documentary is more about Magid than about Barragán or the archive. Much of the film consists of Magid reading from her letters to Zanco and an actress reading from Zanco’s replies. “You have transformed speculation into art,” Zanco writes, “and turned me into a character of fiction.” She’s not wrong. When we finally get a glimpse of Zanco, it’s startling. That she’s seen via telephoto lens would be frustrating in a different sort of movie. Here it seems preordained.
It’s Magid we see up close: napping, showering, painting her toenails, leafing through Barragán’s LP collection (but not so that we see any titles). Delete the many seen-from-behind shots of Magid walking, and “The Proposal” would be appreciably shorter. Barragán and his archive are the ostensible subject of the documentary. But Magid is definitely the star. “Now it’s time to perform,” she announces, heading off to Switzerland, “I’m in my element.” Yes, she is. That’s both the best thing about “The Proposal” and the most irksome.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Jill Magid. At Kendall Square. 85 minutes. Unrated. In English and Spanish, with subtitles.