One of my favorite living filmmakers, Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, will celebrate his 106th(!) birthday on December 11th. To commemorate, today’s post is adapted from a lecture I gave about his film The Cannibals as part of Facets Multimedia’s Night School series “The Masters’ Session” last year. The premise of this particular session was that the most regular Night School presenters, including yours truly, were given carte blanche to present whatever films we wanted.
Thank you all for being here, I know you could be at C2E2 right now. When I was given free reign to pick any movie I wanted to show for this session of Facets Night School, The Cannibals was my first choice because, when I first saw it last year upon illegally downloading it, I said to myself, “This is so strange I don’t even know what to think about it.” So I’d like to start off by talking a little about Manoel de Oliveira’s career in general and about Surrealism, a tradition to which I think The Cannibals belongs. Oliveira is probably best known in the U.S. for having a freakishly long career: he directed his first film in 1931, which was then still the silent era in his native Portugal, and he’s currently making a new movie right now at the age of 104. What I think is especially interesting about Oliveira’s long career, however, is that, while he’s managed to be a very prolific director on the whole, that’s mostly because of the films he’s made in the past 25 years alone. (His career had stalled for decades when he was a young man due to lack of financing and political turmoil in Portugal.) I think that The Cannibals is, in many ways, an ideal introduction to his work because it actually kickstarts the prolific “late phase” of his career: since making it in 1988, he has managed to make an average of one feature film a year for a quarter of a century. The Cannibals can also be seen as inaugurating the most recent phase of Oliveira’s career in that it marks the first of many collaborations between him and his favorite actress, Leonor Silveira, who was only 17-years-old when this was made. When you see her, you may notice she looks a lot like a young Brooke Adams, the lead actress in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
So how does The Cannibals relate to Surrealism? Whenever we hear the word “surreal,” I think we tend to think of art that is somehow aggressively bizarre and dreamlike in nature. But I think it’s important to remember that the original Surrealists, in the 1920s, represented something of a return to more conventional aesthetics following other, more radical artistic movements. Cubism, for instance, was more radical in the sense that it had destroyed the concept of traditional perspective; think of Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in which you can see different sides of the subjects all at once, and there’s no sense of separation between the foreground, middleground or background. When Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte came along, their idea was to present landscapes that did return to the concept of traditional perspective but they would then put things in the middle of those landscapes that absolutely did not seem to belong. And I think this is what gives Surrealism its power — the feeling that one is experiencing something that is very familiar and yet, at the same time, very strange because there’s usually one element that feels completely out of place. So I think the subversive way in which the Surrealists “defamiliarized the familiar” is what makes their work so funny and unsettling. And this is true not only of Surrealist painters but also of Surrealist films, such as those made by the great Luis Bunuel: a film like Un Chien Andalou (1929), for example, is surprisingly similar to Hollywood filmmaking in terms of how it’s shot and edited. It’s the irrational happenings within Un Chien Andalou‘s conventional film language that make the movie seem so bizarre.
I mention Bunuel not only because he’s widely considered the greatest Surrealist filmmaker but also because he’s Oliveira’s acknowledged master. Oliveira even made a sequel to Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) entitled Belle toujours, starring Michel Piccoli, in 2006. But I think Bunuel-style Surrealism is also very much the approach Oliveira has taken in a lot of his own work and I think this is more true of The Cannibals than any of his other films that I’ve seen. So how exactly does Oliveira subvert the conventions of traditional narrative cinema here? The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s a musical — well, more of a filmed opera really, because there’s no dancing but every single line of dialogue is sung. The first time I saw it I thought, “Wow, this is so conventional as an opera that I can easily imagine seeing this performed onstage,” although it never has been performed onstage because it was created by Oliveira specifically for the screen. Oliveira wrote the screenplay based on a novel by the Portuguese writer Álvaro Carvalhal and then had a contemporary classical composer, João Paes, write the music and the libretto. The plot concerns Marguerite (Silveira), a high-society woman who marries a wealthy Viscount (Luis Miguel Cintra, Oliveira’s favorite leading man) over the objections of her jealous ex-lover, Don Juan (Diogo Doria). On their wedding night, the Viscount reveals to Marguerite his darkest secret, which leads to a devilish, uproariously funny climax that you have to see to believe.
Adding a layer of self-reflexive fun to all of these goings-on is an omniscient, singing narrator (Oliveira Lopes); at one point, the narrator hilariously complains about the protagonists’ use of the “sententious language of poor melodrama” in the previous scene. So, if you can imagine an unholy, self-reflexive mash-up of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), you might have some idea of what is in store for you tonight. I don’t want to say anything more about what happens in this movie on a plot level but I do want to point out that about three-quarters of the way into the film, something happens onscreen involving movie “special effects” that, in the best Surrealist tradition, could never happen onstage; and I think this highlights one of Oliveira’s clever formal strategies — to kind of lull viewers into thinking that we’re seeing something that could be performed onstage before pulling the rug out from under us. In doing so, I think he wants to get us to actively think about the differences between cinema and live theater. The other sneaky thing that I think Oliveira’s up to here is the way that he uses the form of opera specifically, which is the art form most closely identified with wealthy patrons, in order to attack the upper class (in other words, the very people who are most likely to end up seeing this movie).
The last thing I’d like to say about The Cannibals is that when it had its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1989, the festival’s director, in his opening remarks, begged the audience to stay for the last 15 minutes, assuring them that those 15 minutes would make the entire experience worthwhile. I would like to echo that sentiment tonight: please stick with this movie until the very end. The last 15 minutes are absolutely worth it. Enjoy the show.
The Cannibals has regrettably never been released on home video in North America. You can, however, see excerpts of it in the very lovely video tribute to Manoel de Oliveira below: