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Berlinale 2009: "Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl" living in an Old World

A film honoring the sublime ardor and mystery of love by making its characters live in and play by the rules of a social age long past.

"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.

I think it’s a marvellous film. You hit the nail on the head. Yes, the framing of her at the window does remind of a Vermeeresque artwork- resembling not just a painting but one in a frame. The ending is very touching and haunting, and alters the audience’s focus- adding depth and reality to a character previously seen in a more one-dimensional way by Trepa and so us-, transferring our sympathies. This event, like the uncle’s initial apparently cruel refusal, is unexplained. We are led to question motives and judgments as well as social mores. For an apparently simple film it has a lot of layers, of narration and our overview (reminding that we are privileged observers)- de Queiros brought into the film itself, the harp and reading recital seen by us while Trepa is in the other room, Silveira listening while looking more at us than him, as well as the shot of the girl now lost. I like the typical archaic strangeness in which the modern setting seems incongruous with old-fashioned morals and actions- as with other Oliveira films. This helps us be aware of changing values, as well as of the ties between past and present. You’re also right to highlight the moments of wit and eccentricity; Oliveira has his own vision, that some mistake for staid tradition out of synch with modern reality, and uncinematic. How can such a master remain relatively unknown to international filmgoers? He should be a household name. Good stuff, Daniel.
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Daniel, Here’s a thread in the discussion forum. I hope you can join in!
Gary
A terrible film. Poorly acted by rank amateurs. The only good part was the reading of the poem.
That is incorrect, I’m afraid.
Gary
The story is a cartoon of a love story, the kind of thing that might have been written for teenage girls a century ago, when this filmmaker was born. The screenplay, if there even was one, reminds me of industrial training films, full of plot lines and completely unnatural dialogue. If these actors are any good at all, it is impossible to tell by the lines they are given to speak. Look at the face of the woman who play’s the girl’s mother in the scene where the hero asks to marry her daughter. You can practically hear her thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” Near as I can tell, the film is trying to tell us romance is foolish, which would be correct if the romance depicted in the film had anything to do with reality. Perhaps in the nineteenth century people fell in love staring through windows, never bothered to get to know each other, and then ran off to ask their uncle if it was okay to get married. I suspect it was more complicated than that, but in any case, what’s the point of setting this story in the modern era? If you want to comment on the 19th century, you can’t do it by simply dumping it in the 21st. Maybe this old guy used to make good films; this is not one. It is fascinating to me that anyone could actually like this film. There are moments of visual splendor. And there’s Pessoa’s brilliant poem sitting in the middle of it, but these things do not add up to a film. They are wasted here.

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