July 29, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Ruth Caudeli
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the dramatic film “Petit Mal” features a cast of Colombian female characters representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Three queer women—who are in a three-way, live-in relationship—navigate the shifting dynamics of their relationship when one of the women goes away on a work trip.
Culture Audience: “Petit Mal” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about LGBTQ relationships or polyamory where the stories are more about being mood pieces than having a lot of dramatics.
The occasionally tedious drama “Petit Mal” is an intimate and proficiently acted character study of what happens when three women in a polyamorous relationship together navigate the changing dynamics of the relationship when the “alpha female” goes away for a business trip. “Petit Mal” (which means “little evil” in French) is an interesting mix of not only being ambitiously artsy with its intent in showing a complicated relationship, but also being unpretentiously minimalist in how the movie was cast and filmed. Viewers expecting a movie with more drama and action might be disappointed, but the emotions in “Petit Mal” always look authentic. “Petit Mal” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Written and directed by Ruth Caudeli, “Petit Mal” features just three people on screen as the main characters. All three protagonists are queer women in their late 20s or early 30s who are in a three-way romance with each other. They live together (with five dogs as pets) in a middle-class house in Bogotá, Colombia. The house seems to be in a somewhat isolated wooded area, because neighboring houses are not seen in any of the scenes that take place outside.
Caudeli has the role of Laia, the “alpha female” of this trio. It’s obvious from the first 10 minutes of the movie that when the three women are together, Laia is the most dominant one, but not in an overtly bossy way. Her dominance is shown because Laia is the one in this ménage à trois who is at the center of all the affections, as if her two girlfriends care the most about making Laia happy, more than anyone else in this relationship. (“Petit Mal” is reportedly inspired by Caudeli’s own real-life polyamorous experiences.)
Laia is also the most confident and assertive of the three women when they’re together. It should come as no surprise when it’s revealed later in the movie that Laia is a movie director—a job that requires strong leadership skills. There are many signs that Laia thinks she has total control in this three-way romance. However, that self-assurance is tested when she temporarily goes away from home to direct a movie. Her work trip is to an unnamed city, where she has to take a plane flight to get there and back to Bogotá.
Anto (played by Ana María Otálora) is the woman in the relationship who is the most sensitive. Later in the movie, when a thunderstorm hits the area, Anto has a panic attack because of the sights and sounds caused by the storm. Anto is also most likely to be the “peacemaker” and “nurturer” to smooth over any arguments that happen. Anto’s job (if she has a job or a career) is not mentioned in the movie.
Also in this relationship is screenwriter/editor Martina (played by Silvia Varón), nicknamed Marti, who’s editing a documentary tentatively titled “Throuples, Dogs and Boxes.” And yes, the documentary is about this three-way relationship. Martina is the person in this threesome who seems to be the most diligent about planning and having things going according to a schedule. For example, she expresses some worries about not being able to meet the deadlines for this documentary.
During the movie’s opening scene, Laia, Anto and Martina prepare a barbecue meal together in their backyard. Observant viewers will immediately notice these women’s personality traits and how they affect this ménage à trois. Laia does some of the cooking, but she lets Anto and Martina do most of the work. Laia also shows them how she wants certain things done in this food preparation. All three women kiss each other, but Martina and Anto kiss Laia as if she’s the center of their attention.
Later, when they’re all inside eating the meal they’ve prepared, Martina asks (maybe because she wants this information for her documentary): “What’s the most difficult thing about having a throuple?” Anto replies, “Spending time together equitably.” Laia answers, “Jealousy.” Martina offers her own thoughts: “Three is not balanced. There are always two or one.”
Martina’s comments foreshadow what’s to come later when Laia goes away for the directing job. Anto and Martina, who act more like rivals when Laia is with them, find out they actually get along better with each other when Laia isn’t there. It leads to Anto and Martina become closer and more affectionate with each other, which Laia can sense, even though Laia not there in the house to see it firsthand.
There are other jealousy issues too. When Laia is away, Martina notices on social media that Laia and a man in Laia’s film crew have been flirting with each other. When Martina angrily asks Laia about this flirtation, Laia insists that she and the man are just friends. Martina is so upset that Laia has to calm her down. Viewers can only speculate why Martina has this mistrust.
Viewers are also left to speculate how and when Laia, Anto and Martina decided they would be in a three-way relationship together. However, conversations imply that it was probably Laia’s idea. The dynamics of the relationship suggest that Anto and Martina fell in love with Laia separately. And then, rather than Laia choosing one over the other, they decided to have a three-way relationship instead. That’s why it catches Laia off-guard when she notices that Anto and Martina have become closer when Laia is away.
Even though Laia, Anto and Martina are adults, the movie shows that they all have childlike, playful sides to their personalities. For example, they occasionally like to wear matching onesie pajamas (resembling wooly animal costumes for children) when they cuddle in bed together. And in an early scene in the movie, they play a game where they try to guess a word that one of them is thinking, based on one hint.
The direction, writing and editing of “Petit Mal” present the story as a cinéma vérité documentary or a video journal, rather than as a movie that has big melodramatic moments or important life lessons. For example, viewers won’t get any information on the backstories of Laia, Anto and Martina. Any previous romances they might have had with other people are not mentioned. In other words, “Petit Mal” is very much about the present lives of the protagonists.
Some of the movie’s scenes show everyday activities and mundane conversations inside the house. But underneath the surface is a question that’s not necessarily said out loud: “How will this relationship change when Laia is away and when Laia comes back?” “Petit Mal” doesn’t offer easy answers. The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide if this throuple is “three’s company” or more like “three’s a crowd.”
Dark Star Pictures will release “Petit Mal” in select U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 31, 2023.