dir. Miguel Gomes, 2012, Portugal
The bottom line: “You can run as long as you can and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”
Premiering in the greater Chicago area for a one-off screening at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema this Friday, and currently playing elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Tabu, a hypnotic art film from the young Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes. This exciting, thematically-dense, cinematically-entrancing movie, shot on real, eye-filling black-and-white film stock (oh yeah!), tells the story of a doomed love affair set against the backdrop of Portuguese colonialism in Africa. It also boasts a fascinating and complex two-part structure, the filmmakers’ assured formal control of which is never less than dazzling. This is only Gomes’ third feature-length movie as a writer/director, following his acclaimed earlier efforts The Face You Deserve (2004) and Our Beloved Month of August (2008), neither of which I’ve yet seen but both of which I’m now eager to check out as soon as possible. Tabu received its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival at the beginning of 2012 where it won two prizes before traveling to other festivals around the globe and considerably upping Gomes’ international profile. For Chicago cinephiles who may be curious as to what the fuss is about, I couldn’t recommend Friday’s screening more highly; a trek up to Evanston would be richly rewarded (among many other glories, you’ll get to hear a bitchin’ Portuguese cover of The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby” – twice).
In recent decades, Portugal’s most high-profile cinematic exports have been the films of Manoel de Oliveira and Pedro Costa. Tabu is similar to the work of those filmmakers in some respects – the affectless performances of Gomes’ entire cast often recall the flat, neutral line readings of the former, while his unlikely thematic mash-up of cinephilia and colonialism might put one in the mind of the latter. But Tabu is also part of what might be considered a wider contemporary pan-European trend: the attempt of young filmmakers to provide a moral reckoning with their governments’ past colonial exploits in Africa, a difficult and, until recently, somewhat taboo subject to broach cinematically (not unlike the topic of, say, slavery in American movies). The French director Claire Denis might be said to be the spiritual godmother of this trend, having explored the subject in her first film (1988’s Chocolat) and returning to it regularly ever since with increasingly disturbing results (e.g., 1999’s Beau Travail and 2009’s White Material). More recently, 2011 saw the release of Ulrich Kohler’s Sleeping Sickness, a powerful, unsettling culture-clash drama about a German doctor from the World Health Organization stationed in Cameroon who “goes native” and loses his mind like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Interestingly, Sleeping Sickness, like Tabu, also has a bifurcated structure – with each half taking place on a separate continent and separated by a span of years. Perhaps uncoincidentally, both movies were co-produced by the gifted German director Maren Ade (Everyone Else).
The content: Tabu begins with a short, mysterious prologue where a European explorer in safari clothes is traveling through a jungle somewhere in southern Africa. A male narrator (director Gomes) describes the unnamed explorer’s adventures using florid, romantic language, which is presented in ironic counterpoint to the the more muted and melancholy images. This “intrepid explorer,” we learn, is haunted by the literal ghost of his deceased wife (who speaks aloud the quote at the beginning of this review). While none of the characters from the prologue figure into the main story proper, the scene nonetheless allows Gomes to establish the movie’s unique poetic tone and also one of its most prominent themes – the inability of escaping one’s own heart. There is also the intriguing suggestion that the prologue may be a film that is being watched by one of the characters within the first part of the story, which is titled “Paradise Lost” and set in contemporary Lisbon. In this section, Gomes introduces us to a kindly, middle-aged woman named Pilar and her elderly neighbor, a compulsive gambler named Aurora. Pilar is concerned for Aurora’s health because the old woman has been exhibiting signs of dementia and complaining that her black servant, Santa, is a witch. On her deathbed shortly afterwards, Aurora puts Pilar in touch with an old lover, Ventura, an Italian expatriate living in Portugal with whom she has had no contact in decades. The elderly Ventura tells Pilar a story that serves as a catalyst for the flashback that constitutes the film’s second half. This second part, titled “Paradise,” is set in the 1960s and depicts the illicit affair between Ventura, who, as a handsome young cad, played drums in a rock and roll band, and a young Aurora, who was then married to and pregnant by another man while living on a farm in “Mount Tabu,” Africa. The passionate affair between Aurora and Ventura, featuring one of the most gorgeously photographed and erotic sex scenes in memory, is eventually found out by a third character (the lead singer of the band Ventura plays in), and this discovery leads to murder and tragedy for all.
The form: in addition to Tabu‘s overarching two-part structure, which is borrowed from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same title (although there, because the story progresses chronologically, the “lost” part comes last), there are many other formal strategies employed by Gomes allowing him to carefully organize his disparate narrative elements. Most obvious are the pointed contrasts in style between the two parts: while both sections are shot in black-and-white in the almost-square aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (ubiquitous in the silent and early sound eras, dead after the advent of widescreen cinematography, but thankfully resurrected in recent years), “Paradise Lost” was shot in super-sharp, high-contrast 35mm film stock, while “Paradise” was shot on grainier – and blurrier – 16mm. This gives each half a distinctive look illustrating the idea that the present is more “realistic” than the foggy and dreamlike “past” (which, in this case, may be the memories of one or more characters rather than any kind of objective reality). This notion is furthered by the contrasting way that each section is broken down into further chapters: “Paradise Lost” takes place over a few days in late December and early January, and each scene begins with a title stating the date (“December 31,” “January 1,” etc.). “Paradise” takes place over the better part of a year, and each scene begins with a title stating the month. This may indicate that the images of “Paradise Lost” belong to the characters’ fading memories – fragmentary, elliptical and lacking the specificity of their memories of the more recent past. Finally, the most important stylstic contrast lies in the audio: while the sound design of “Paradise Lost” is relatively conventional in the way it mixes dialogue, music and effects, “Paradise” eschews location dialogue entirely in favor of voice-over narration. The second half is essentially a “silent movie,” mostly narrated by Ventura (from, we assume, the vantage point of the present day), but we occasionally hear Aurora reading letters in voice-over as well. In one instance, we hear her read a letter that Ventura claims he destroyed, suggesting that at least some parts of this section originate outside of the limited scope of Ventura’s point-of-view.
Of course, Gomes’ preoccupation with form would count for little if it did not appropriately serve his content; his provocative juxtaposition of the film’s two halves ultimately says something profound about time, memory, old age, love and death. By presenting the stories of old and young Aurora consecutively and in reverse order, Gomes asks viewers to mentally superimpose the image of the young character over that of her elderly self. The effect is the cinematic equivalent of that shocking epiphany many young people have upon realizing their grandparents were once just like them – with similar hopes and fears and even passionate love affairs. One of the great joys in watching Tabu stems from the way we synthesize “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise” in our minds. And this may be just what Pilar, the person to whom Ventura is telling his story, is also doing: the dreamy images of the film’s second half may be Pilar‘s fantasy of who young Aurora was, instead of either objective reality or Ventura’s memories. Or they may be some combination of all three of these possibilities. Whatever the case, splitting the film into two halves of roughly equal length creates a narrative rupture that increases the film’s overall sense of mystery. (Even the most minimal intercutting between the two halves – something a lesser filmmaker might have been tempted to do – would have reduced the ambiguity about what the second half “means.”) But there are also similarly provocative ruptures within each half. The highlight of “Paradise Lost,” for instance, is a rambling monologue given by Aurora in an Estoril casino where she describes to Pilar a dream she had of being raped by a monkey; the scene begins with traditional shot/reverse shot setups between the two characters but the monologue concludes with a lengthy take in which Aurora delivers her lines directly to Gomes’ camera. Audaciously, Aurora appears to be physically attached to the camera rig (a la Emil Jannings in the famous drunk scene in The Last Laugh) as it circumscribes a complete 360-degree pan around the room. This stylized camera movement creates a sense of unreality – for one thing, it seems to remove Pilar, the person being addressed, from the location – but it also perfectly corresponds to Aurora’s disordered mind and personifies Gomes’ highly-developed sense of film aesthetics.
Although more stately and less batshit crazy than Holy Motors, my favorite film of 2012, Tabu is nonetheless similar to Leos Carax’ masterpiece in the way that it mines the history of cinema (reference points range from the Lumiere brothers’ Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs from 1900 to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line from 1998) in order to gloriously affirm the vitality of the motion picture medium in the 21st century, and refute the strangely trendy notion that the movies, and/or “movie culture,” are somehow dying or dead. Gomes reminds us that we should not ultimately be using box-office receipts to gauge the state of the art, but rather the creativity and originality of the films themselves. As long as movies like Tabu are being made, the cinema will never die.