Hala Matar’s feature debut, “Electra,” has a loose-bodied, languid tone that rings with a sort of arch-pulpiness. There are hushed whispers of plotting and characters keeping secrets from one another as Matar constructs a tale of vengeance, manipulation, and disguise. Identities are rolled under a sheath in pursuit of punishment, spiked with a constant touch of the mischievously performative.

The art of performing and concealing is on ample display in the film that Matar has co-written with Daryl Wein and Paul Sado. Wein plays a journalist, Dylan, who arrives in Rome to profile Milo, a musician whose recent career streak has been spotty. Milo is a rampant womanizer, and Dylan has brought his girlfriend along, Lucy (Abigail Cowen), to ease the conversation. Milo’s girlfriend, Francesa (Maria Bakalova), a performance artist looking to make a big splash, pops into the picture. On Milo’s insistence, Francesca invites them to a country house.

However, not everything is what it seems. Agendas bubble to the surface as revelations erupt. A portrait plays a key role in the machinations devised by Dylan. The film hinges on the discovery, so divulging any more of what transpires might skate into spoiler territory. Matar invokes a rich sense of history through the architecture and all the portraits lining the walls of the house.

Tradition and ancestry are cheekily winked at right from the start as the space becomes a cauldron of muted suspicions and covert planning that threaten to rip through the foundations. The truth contains in itself a repressed vindictive drive. An intimate relationship is overlaid with a mythic register as a character tries to take over through a faux projection. Milo has growing doubts about Dylan but chooses to brush them aside momentarily, for he desperately needs another stab at attention, which he is hopeful the profile might achieve.

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Electra (2024) ‘SBIFF’ Movie Review
A still from “Electra” (2024)

Admittedly, the film does strain credibility with the pivotal uncovering aspect. But those reservations can be put at bay somewhat considering how reckless Milo is, utterly unmindful in his relationships. As freely he ropes strangers into his intimate trust, he discards them with equal abandon and carelessness. Milo has largely faded from the public eye, hurtling through his days like a spent wreck. Francesca hovers around him on his promise that he will enable her shot at fame. But Francesca is too blazing a force to be bent into due submission. Although he has deceived her aplenty, she makes sure her presence and impact aren’t dimmed by him.

The film belongs to Bakalova, whose rambunctious energy drives it through with relentless charisma and incredible self-possession. Francesca can easily be dismissed as someone who’s being played by Milo, but Bakalova invests her with fiery, unpredictable swagger. She seems to be the one who’s having a ball, while Wein has to be more sober. Cowen and Bakalova are terrific together, both light and easy around each other. The two play women, who go along with the men’s whims but slowly reveal flashes of glorious assertion and defiance.

“Electra” frequently lurches to the wacky and surreal, halting narrative to make way for intermezzo-like breaks amidst the chapter divisions that present themselves as consciously heightened. It’s in particularly these moments where characters tease each other or just let their hair down that the film finds its spark. When Matar digs into the deceit bits, the film develops a strongly palpable flab. Yet, the minute the film teeters dangerously close to heavy-handed gestures, distractingly underlined beats in etching the unraveling, and over-pronounced jabs into authentic intention, Matar manages to rein it in with a distinctive, trippy, and light-footed rhythm.

Electra screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2024.

Electra (2024) Movie Links: IMDb
The Cast of Electra (2024) Movie: Maria Bakalova, Abigail Cowen, Jack Farthing
Electra (2024) Movie Genre: Thriller

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