Monday, December 27, 2010

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl

Though Manoel de Oliveira has a canon that stretches some seven decades, I have only now seen one of his films. If Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (the spelling varies in some translations but, as can be seen from the poster opposite, all are incorrect in some way) is any indication, the centenarian filmmaker is still as vibrant a director as someone a fifth of his age, but it also displays the wisdom of a man who has seen the planet change these last 102 years.

Though it is set in modern-day Lisbon, Eccentricities is as anachronistic as a film could be. At a spare 64 minutes, it cannot afford the gentle, unbroken static shot that opens the proceedings. But there it is: a ticket-puncher calmly walking down the aisle poking holes in people's passe, himself out of place in a world with electronic ticketing. After three minutes, he leaves (and the camera stays put to watch the doors of the cabin close behind him as he moves to the next car), and the camera finally cuts to one passenger, a young but haggard man looking as if he's about to explode. As the narration tells us, "What you would not tell your wife, what you would not tell your friend, tell it to a stranger," and the man, Macário (Ricardo Trêpa), turns to unload on the woman sitting next to him.

The woman (Leonor Silveira) exists purely as framing device, not even looking at the man but off past the camera when she urges Macário to tell his story. Oliveira uses this literary conceit to get into the true story, which itself defines itself partially through classical Western art forms. We see Macário, then an accountant at his uncle's fabric store, sitting at his desk when he looks out the window and sees a beautiful blonde across the way, waving an ornate fan. Macário notes the curtains that fell around her body could have come "from the time of Goethe," connecting the romantic moment to art and history in such a way that his romanticism is validated. The ornateness of the fan also plays a role in the seduction, its craftsmanship almost as transfixing to the man as the blond-haired girl.

For all the obsession Macário feels toward Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein), his courtship is oddly sweet. When Luísa and her mother come to the fabric store to purchase cloth, he runs downstairs to get a closer look at her, but his attempt to get closer and introduce himself is thwarted by his uncle, who demands the boy get back to work and keeps Macário at a frustrating
and creepy remove. His spying is limited to stares at her waving that fan, but for all the lack of skin, the voyeurism is erotic and charged, and if that fan recalls the more modest times of classical courtship, it also brings up the hypercharged libidos that were contained in such small gestures.

Oliveira stages the pair's first true meeting in the woman's lavish family villa, a place that doubles as an art museum complete with guide showing off all the odds and ends. The man chuckles to Macário about some upstart who fancied calling himself "Venus' Young Squire" though he lives in the present, but who could blame an artist who hung around this place for living in the past? It is the biggest anachronism in the film, a place where all the classical forms of entertainment meld: there is art, chamber harp for a small, respectful audience and then a poetry reading for good measure. So delightful and old-fashioned is the place that, when Macário approaches Luísa and puts a name to the face that has stared at her so intently across the street, she is charmed by his cheesy, borderline disturbing wooing, and by the end of the poetry recital they are walking around hand in hand.

Oliveira's combination of throwback romance and Western classicism reflects his age, and in a fleet 64 minutes he displays the same knack for blending various artistic media I saw in Jacques Rivette's thrice-longer Céline and Julie Go Boating. His literary preoccupation can seen, or rather heard, in his predilection for telling rather than showing, at least when it comes to the characters' feelings. The look in Trêpa's eyes says all you need to know about his lovesick desire, but otherwise he is stiff, and his performance might look melodramatic and overwritten were it not true that those struggling with unrequited love are always looking for someone, anyone, to talk to in order to expel all the things that cannot be said to the object of desire. Hilariously, most cannot match Mácario's poetic waxing, such as a friend who responds to all of the lovesick accountant's questions about Luísa by essentially repeating back the last few words of Mácario's question. ("She's pretty." *slight nod* "She's pretty." "You know them very well?" "Not very well.") Speech is direct and action even more so: Mácario wins over Luísa and asks his uncle for permission to marry, only to be fired and thrown out. Macário performs odd jobs to continue wooing his love, makes it big, loses again, gets re-accepted by his uncle and all is well. And then it isn't.

The remove adds a veneer of deadpan humor to the swift unfolding of events, but Oliveira has some surprising and not at all lovely statements to make about humanity with his ode to art and classical romance. The social codes that Macário follow may be outdated, but they hold back an even older, enduring primitivism. Were Macário not bound by etiquette, that hungry look in his eyes might have been sated far more brutally than with awkward entreaties. There is also the realization that the man does not particularly know anything about Luísa other than her physical attractiveness. So many find the concept of "love at first sight" to be the height of romance, but all it is to me is the pinnacle of lust and projection. Luísa becomes a blank slate for Macário to paint all of his idealized fantasies onto, and when the audience finally learns about the blond-haired girl's eccentricity -- the revelation of which is built into tiny but noticeable clues along the way -- Macário does not accept her as a flesh-and-blood mortal and reacts with outrage that his image is shattered.

The mixture of unironic melodrama and incisive social/romantic commentary adds degrees of depth and imagination to a story that does not have the time to pursue these tendrils of thought to their fullest capacity. Yet Oliveira's ability to be a relic and a forward-thinking and relevant filmmaker turn what could have been a bit of fluff into a joy. As with the Victorian courtship at the heart of the film, Oliveira's aesthetic is removed but erotic, like static electricity storing up in cold, dry air. His camera is graceful and coy, letting others prattle on and reveal themselves in untoward fashions while it maintains its poise. "Commerce doesn't favor a sentimental accountant," laments Macário, and while Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl will never light up the multiplex, its economic length and perfect pacing mirror Macário's summary of bean-counting that extends beyond his uncle's fabric store. Commerce may compromise some of Oliveira's frustratingly undeveloped ideas, but it's not every day you get treated to top-shelf wares like this.

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