The Proposal : The Proposal is a 2009 American romantic comedy film directed by Anne Fletcher and written by Peter Chiarelli. It stars Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds with Betty White, Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson.Faced with deportation to her native Canada, high-powered book editor Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) says she’s engaged to marry Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds), her hapless assistant. Andrew agrees to the charade, but imposes a few conditions of his own, including flying to Alaska to meet his eccentric family. With a suspicious immigration official always lurking nearby, Margaret and Andrew must stick to their wedding plan despite numerous mishaps.
“The Proposal,” Jill Magid’s captivatingly wily documentary about her attempt to liberate the archives of the renowned Mexican architect Luis Barragán, wears many faces. Detailing at once an art project and a rescue mission, a love triangle and an elaborate, outlandish bargain, the movie has a surface serenity that belies its fuming emotions.
In this, it mirrors the three-year correspondence between Magid (a writer and artist who once trained as a spy), and the controller of the archives, Federica Zanco. Rumored to have acquired them in the mid-1990s as an engagement gift from her fiancé, the owner of a Swiss design conglomerate, Zanco rigidly guards them from all but limited public access in her foundation near Basel. Faced with major obstacles to mounting her own exhibition on Barragán (who died in 1988), Magid embarks on an epistolary seduction of increasing flattery and desperation.
As Magid putters around Barragán’s Mexico City studio, researching and plotting and painting her toenails, her voice-over pleas to Zanco — and the creamily polite rebuffs — turn the movie into a delicate duel between two women armed with obsessions for the same man. They will finally meet in a Swiss cafe, filmed hazily through a window (Jarred Alterman’s cinematography is consistently dreamy); yet Zanco’s romantically fuzzy aspect is fitting in a film that feels only tangentially concerned with corporate control of art.
Culminating in a brilliantly appropriate stunt (labeled a “ghoulish plot” by one news outlet), “The Proposal” meditates on the meaning of artistic legacy and hums with the fear of being wiped from public memory. Most of all, it shines an ingeniously media-savvy spotlight on Barragán’s work — and, not incidentally, on that of the filmmaker herself.
As Romeo and Juliet knew, quite a lot. Called “the artist among architects,” Luis Barragán brought his eye-catching colorful Modernism to Mexico, becoming one of the country’s most renowned artists and cultural touchstones. His personal home in Mexico City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, requiring reservations weeks in advance to visit. Casa Luis Barragán houses his personal art collection, but his entire professional archive lives in Switzerland, where it is owned and strictly monitored by a single corporation. The Swiss design company Vitra controls the access and rights to all of Barragán’s work, including any photographs of his buildings. It also owns his name.
Jill Magid’s provocative new film “The Proposal” both uncovers this travesty and actively seeks to challenge it, with the ultimate goal being to return the Barragán archives to Mexico. The film is itself a provocation; a fascinating document of a years-long conceptual project as well as the final (or next) piece of the complicated puzzle. Magid appears in the film, though we mostly hear her in placid expository voiceover. The film is structured around her correspondence with Federica Zanco, an architectural historian whose husband, Vitra owner Rolf Fehlbaum, gifted her the archive upon proposing marriage. Magid crafts her crowning provocation (and the film’s title) from this rather tragic romantic tale — much like Shakespeare’s two teenagers separated by a name.
Whether by a cruel twist of fate or poetic justice, Vitra trademarked the name “Luis Barragan” without the accent, a stark reminder of who is being taken from and who is doing the taking. Mexican Barragán experts explain in the film that when Vitra bought the archive 22 years ago, they assumed it would be shared, as is common for artistic institutions to do. But Zanco has maintained a tight grip on the archive, severely limiting outside access and making Barragán her life’s work. As one man says, it amounts to “active censorship perpetuated by capitalism.”
An internationally recognized conceptual artist who has exhibited at the Whitney and the Tate Modern, Magid was able to negotiate a stay at Casa Luis Barragán for the film — a once in a lifetime opportunity. Though she isn’t allowed to sleep in the bed where he died, she is assured that her room is where all of Barragán’s lovers slept. As she eats at his table and gently pours water over a collection of clay pots in the courtyard, she reminds the viewer that even these images are subject to Vitra’s copyright, and could easily result in a lawsuit. (Even images taken of his work before the sale of the archive are not safe.)
Because of this, admirers of Barragán will have to look elsewhere for a more thorough portrait of his work or even the man himself. Magid’s focus is singularly on the archive and her own project. “The Proposal” could have benefitted from even a short detour into Barragán’s personal history, architectural influences, and contributions, which surely could have been done without stoking Vitra’s ire. The film is not a conventional documentary in that way, which is no doubt one of its many strengths. But by centering herself a little too much, Magid obscures Barragán. This may be the point, that no one can learn anything substantial about this giant of the form as long as his work is locked up, but it does the film a disservice.
Magid makes the most of the visuals available to her, however limited they may be by the patent. As part of her grand plan, the details of which are a mystery until the final moment of reckoning with Federica, Magid convenes the Barragán family to excavate Barragán’s ashes. As men chip away at the plaque bearing his name, stripes of grey slate and chalky red clay are framed in close-up, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a Mark Rothko painting, much like one Barragán had in his house. The film’s climactic meeting with Federica is shot from outside a café, surreptitiously and sans audio out of necessity. Reflected greenery on the café’s glass windows obscure the figures in a shroud of mystery, just visible enough to read their dynamic facial expressions.
Throughout the film, Magid guides the viewer from a cool remove. (Part of this is due to her overly measured delivery of the script, an unfortunate side effect of directing yourself). It is only in the culminating scene that she reveals some emotion, describing the complex rush of feelings upon finally meeting Federica. Through their interactions, “The Proposal” becomes a film about two women’s quest to understand an artist who inspires them, though their methods are wildly different and diametrically opposed. The conflict makes for an extremely absorbing story — one we can all share.