Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 19th, 2020
Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.
Director Pia Hellenthal engages directly with both her subject and the viewer in her exciting documentary-feature debut, Searching Eva, a movie so perfectly composed in every shot as to pain one’s eyeballs with its visual splendor. Nominally a profile of an Italian sex worker – the titular Eva Collé – living in Germany, the film quickly becomes something greater than a cinematic portrait, evolving into a meditation on the nature of identity (personal, sexual and otherwise), the power of agency and the raucous joys of free will. Using all the tools of the trade at her expert disposal, Hellenthal combines reality and evocative artifice into a remarkable work of moving-image art.
Her greatest asset is Eva, herself, who may earn her money with her body yet spends quite a lot of time using her mind, mostly to probe the metaphysical side of things, through avid reading and vibrant discussion. Yes, she is a young, dynamic woman in her 20s, so also likes to have fun, but there is a constant underlying seriousness to her worldview. We may never learn the exact reasons for her choice of profession (prostitution is legal in Germany, though not in Italy) – though she was abused at 16 – one could easily imagine it as a direct result of her independence of spirit. There may be untold masses of trafficked and coerced woman in this world, but Eva exists outside of that tragic kind of exploitation. No one tells her what to do.
Nor do they tell her how to think or how to act. In a series of beautifully staged tableaux (indeed, Hellenthal’s aesthetic eye is remarkable), we see Eva alone, or with her mother, or with friends (some other sex workers, some not), in baths, in pools, in extravagant villas, in simple flats. She occasionally models, but as she tells us, “I get more money from a blowjob than from 3 days of Paris fashion week.” And so it goes. Follow the money.
She has an active social-media presence, and engages with her alternately engaging and aggressive followers in an active manner, putting a lot of effort into replies. These play out in onscreen texts and voiceover, like a wonderfully twisted call and response. Some folks have church, while others seek out Eva. Of course, one offers a lot more nudity (and viewer discretion is advised here, as we see it all).
Who is she, ultimately, and do we find her, as the title leads us to believe we might? Yes and no, for what remains by the end is a construct, as much the actual person as as the avatar she presents (which includes her assumed name), itself further manipulated by Hellenthal and her writer, Giorgia Malatrasi, to keep us guessing as to the exact nature of who and what we see. We all put on a face to greet the world, masking our true selves to varying degrees. Eva’s role in the lives of her clients is just one manifestation of the same pretense in which everyone engages. Such is the marvel of this spectacular film that we barely realize it is as much about us as about Eva until the end, if even then. The search continues …
[Searching Eva is streaming on MUBI USA for the next month. For further information about the film, check out my interview with director Pia Hellenthal and writer Giorgia Malatrasi from AFI DOCS 2019.]