"Romance," says the man played by Ricardo Trêpa in Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, "begins in art and reality." Begins...and ends, you might say; as his reality is an economic reality. Like a character in a 18th century novel, Trêpa is bound by social rules dictating what kind of young man may be, how shall we say, romantic. That is, who can propose marriage. And when Trêpa falls in love with the blond girl (Catarina Wallenstein) he spies in the window across the street, he is certain that while the image of the girl may be art itself, his unemployment makes the reality of romance impossible.
Adapted from a short story by Eça de Queirós—whose caricature is humorously honored when Trêpa visits to an exclusive literary club—Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl is a simple and precise 64 minutes, as pure as rain water and just as lacking in pretension.
As in The Letter, Oliveira's 1999 adaptation of Madame de La Fayette's 17th century novel of social dictum, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl honors the sublime ardor and mystery of love by making its modern characters live in and play by the rules of a social age long past. Trêpa's voyeuristic courtship of the maiden across the way has none of the guile of modern cinema's stories of such obsession; deep sincerity of character and action define Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl as they do all Oliveira's films. Actorly stiffness and precise diction in opulently lit and exquisitely framed shots are a powerful measure of the forcefulness of the belief of these characters, as well as the underlying depth and richness of such simple drama within such strict social mores.
Yet Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl is far from dry and humorless, or held back by its subject; on the contrary, even in such a short film, Oliveira is a master of it all. A man loses his hat, a poker chip slips through the cracks in the floor of a palatial mansion, and Trêpa, upon realizing his friend knows the beautiful girl's family, dances a merry jig—the film is as deliciously droll about its romantic quest as the light rustle and the subtle transparency of the layers of curtains covering the young girl's window are simmering and sensual. The simplicity on display is a relief, and the mastery effortless. Even considering this, the rug is pulled out from under us: finally learning to empathize with these characters so old fashioned, Oliveira, as tragic and droll as ever, shows us the possible consequences of such morals. The forlorn—strange, terrible, deadpan, and surreal—rips through the end of de Queirós tale like a terrible, human punchline, in what is without a doubt the single most breathtaking shot of an film in the Berlinale—showing that even these people from bygone eras can shock.