30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 18: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL (2009)

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Day 18: ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL
(Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2009)

An exquisite little urban idyll of a film, made when its esteemed director was over 100 years old (and he’d make several more before passing away last year at the age of 106). What’s so captivating about watching a late-period Oliveira film is how they feel like they have somehow managed to elude time, or, more precisely, convey the unique perspective of someone who has personally witnessed a span of ten successive decades and is thus attuned to whole different levels of embodied history and life’s underlying rhythms. To the uninitiated Oliveira’s style can come off as stilted and inert, easily dismissed as hopelessly old fashioned. But after viewing several films—which only scratches the surface of his sprawling oeuvre—I’ve come to recognize that he simply approaches his material in a manner contrary to the current trend of making characters in period films seem like “one of us” living today; rather, when using period material as his source—this particular one is adapted from a 1902 short story by the great realist Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós—he suspends his stories within a vaguely recognizable present while the characters function according to antiquated modes of behavior that feel utterly alien to contemporary life. I’m not sure what the opposite of a “bodice ripper” would be, but that’s exactly what Eccentricities is: though it’s central concerns are about love, desire, and grand, instantaneous passion of the type that ruins and redirects the course of whole lives, it is conveyed through the slightest nuances of gesture, facial expressions, and the presence of charmingly anachronistic fetish objects (such as a ubiquitous antique fan). In short, Oliveira films are the type where a character can utter something like “you cannot imagine how happy I am” with an utterly blank face, forcing the viewer to decipher the statement and probe it for obscured meanings.

Catarina Wallenstein is perfectly cast as the titular character (and won a Portuguese Golden Globe for her performance), as her bedroom eyes make instantaneous, irrevocable adoration seem not only plausible, but probable. Sabine Lancelin’s gorgeous cinematography, masterfully capturing various gradations of light, renders Lisbon a luminous physical presence, while Oliveira’s characteristically elegant utilization of windows, doors, and passageways of all kinds to visually signal depths and dimensions beyond and behind the film’s frame is virtually unparalleled. I won’t claim this is easy or readily accessible, but as is the case with most of Oliveira’s films, it’s unlike almost anything else you’ll ever watch.

[Watch Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl on Fandor here.]

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O ESTRANHO CASO DE ANGÉLICA (2011)

What a sly, slippery film O Estranho Caso de Angélica (The Strange Case of Angelica)  is—it really should be a minor, forgettable trifle, dangling as it is on the most delicately trivial of plots.  Which in itself is rather odd, because as the oldest working filmmaker—”nearly as old as cinema itself,” as Manohla Dargis so memorably puts it—Oliveira has certainly reached a point where he has every reason to make films of sweeping statements and impressive ruminations, with a gravity and sense of significance befitting his most distinguished age of 102.

But he seems adamant in his resistance to playing “grand old man of the cinema,” and rather than weighing down his films with plot and narrative instead opts for a silly little scrap of a story–a young man who becomes bewitched by a beautiful dead woman he was asked to photograph–and then patiently observes as this situation plays itself out within the hermetic little Portuguese farm community in which it takes place.

And it is from this deliberate, confident patience which suddenly imbues the film with an unexpected gravity… I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there was a moment during the film when it suddenly hit me that this was very clearly the work of an individual who has literally experienced an entire century, and who is aware of dimensions of time and history others are not privy to.  Subtly and effortlessly de Oliveria conveys both the ebb and flow of entire eras (traditions quickly passing into oblivion) and the smaller cycles within them that compose the every day (noisy trucks passing under a window each morning at dawn), of the way different generations interact with each other and the ways that they talk past each other, and finally, of the way that history is inscribed onto the surface of spaces and objects and how they remain while human lives cycle around them endlessly.

And, on a more personal note, there’s also a layer of poignance and resonance for me when watching de Oliveira’s films of sensing my own family history surfacing on the screen: my family roots also lie in rural Porto of the north, and at unexpected moments—in the walk of an old woman, the swing of a grape hoe, or, most particularly, the traditional songs—I can almost sense, for just a split-second, my family mythologies come to life before my eyes.  And for me, that is much more magical than the appearances of the ghostly specter of the title.

A masterful film by a true master of cinema, though blink for a moment, and you might not recognize it.