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Cannes 2010: Sincere Love: "The Strange Case of Angelica" (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

Manoel de Oliveira’s haunted love story.
Cannes 2010
Often I get the sense that serious movies are the rarest kind of them all.  I don’t mean the easily self-serious and pretentious films, films closed to mockery through riskless gravity.  The most serious leave room—dangerous room—for failure.  They need that room to necessitate a leap of faith—if the film isn’t willing to risk something, how can we truly take it seriously?  As such, love stories can be the most serious of them all, and the hardest to beautifully pull off.  We sing high praises for Hollywood’s sincere sentimentalist—and sentimental sincerest—Frank Borzage, and with The Strange Case of Angelica it is a delight to see Manoel de Oliveira apply a cerebral, shaded touch to a Borzagian, risk-taking, haunted love story.
As in all recent Oliveira, everything is deceptively simple: Isaac (Oliveira’s perennial youth, Ricardo Trêpa), a young photographer, falls in love with a dead girl he photographs. Through his viewfinder, and later his still images, he sees moving, smiling, radiant life.  Suddenly his still, ascetic existence as an old world outcast—he’s a Sephardic Jew who delights in poetry, old radios, and appreciates the outdated, dying beauty of the countryside working class—is transformed by irrational love into a hopeless existence. Like Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn—which similarly took some inspiration from Cocteau—Oliveira conjures ghostly love through the sheer risky pleasure of hokey special effects so earnest with belief they are impossible to laugh at. Méliès is seen in the naïve splendor of Isaac’s dreams of flying with his love, and the intellectual heroes common to 19th century literature, angst ridden by wrestling with themselves and their place in the world, are suggested by the muffled humor of the old societies—the dead girl’s religious-aristocratic household and the compassionate inquisitiveness of his landlady and her opinionated friends—that fail to understand Isaac’s passion.
Angelica’s anxious old world / new world dream—where photography and moving images inspire the dreamer—is shot in concrete grays where the world’s small pleasures are in dawn’s light falling on Isaac’s face as he gazes at his mysterious moving picture, or the afternoon slanting in from the door to the rumpled bed linen telling the story of another night of wrestling with visions of a solemn world and an impossible love.  Trucks rumble by under his window, and across the river from his humble home is the splotchy hillside where the vineyard workers are being replaced by machines.  As in Borzage, escape from the world’s ails to the bliss of an otherworldly love is at once the most cowardly and most heroic of actions, and since our haunting ghost is played by the beaming Pilar López de Ayala, Isaac’s ultimate act is a leap of faith that’s not hard to understand at all.
As always, Dan, a great, perceptive post. You’ve hit on something really crucial about Oliveira’s cinema, too. As I’ve looked at some of these early reviews it makes me think that many of the writers (even those who express familiarity with MO’s work) need to be better acquainted with or more comprehending of his aesthetic bearing. Because so many times I come across indications that the reviewer is confused as to how to take much of what is there; whether it’s meant to be serious or a parody of pretension or what have you. Of course, MO allows for the variation in the reading or perception and that is the point; that is the sign of his serene, confident genius. I have rarely ever read interviews with filmmakers whose insight and vision communicate as more profound and yet what makes MO that much more estimable is the fact that he forces none of this upon us in the films themselves. He provides you everything you need to engage with and plumb a rich, inexhaustible resource but relies on us to recognize it for being what it is or, simply, accepts it if we should choose to write it off as “pretentious” or pure parody. This particular confidence inspires me in my own work as I can’t remotely get there myself. I falter perpetually at the grave fear of my own intentions being misunderstood. When someone like MO puts forward the most profound sets of observations (wrapped within a comprehensive aesthetic of sound, language and image) but conveys them with a tonality that allows them to be taken seriously or entirely discounted I am floored. He understands, though, that this freedom or space is the thing which makes it possible for such observations as his own to be taken as legitimate and worthwhile at all. This is the evidence of a true poetic cinema, a register elusive and exceptionally difficult to fully actualize and yet one which he enacts with fluid grace and breathtaking ease. A couple other notes. I have read the script for this one that was published some years back and I certainly recommend doing that for an additional complement to the experience. I have not yet seen the film but I have been very curious as to what he may have altered or updated and why. It sounds to me as though he has maintained an outer appearance of the original 50’s setting, at least insofar as it relates to social formailities and the specifics of attitude or comportment, and then put that in flux with recognizable indications of a contemporary setting as well. This of course is nothing new for him and allows for the observations you point to in your piece. Still, it is of interest and worth noting because of the unique nature of this project. Conceived originally in the 50’s it would not have been able to be seen as a period piece then. In just such a way MO compounds his initial scenario and also reaches beyond its original limits. I suspect that even though he has a few other undeveloped scripts from even further back this one may have been the only one that really fit well with his current set of interests and allowed itself to be enriched by that development. Amongst the many themes Angelica treats there is also the relationship between film audience member and the image that enraptures him/her, that hypnotizes us and compels us forward into the “irrational” terrain of giving ourselves over to experience and comprehension otherwise unavailable. That this is only accessible through a kind of fiction is the point, of course, one that may invalidate the findings to those thus inclined to do so (but if so, why are they watching films??). It’s ultimately about an acceptance of the generally unacknowledged manner in which all understanding, knowledge and comprehension is forged and what, if we really reflect on that fully integrative process, that allows for in terms of a larger conceptual grasp. There is here a trasition to a different register of comprehension and approach; the validation of a knowledge located outside of the purely immanent and temporally based. One of the real, ultimate subjects of this film is that Oliveira’s Platonic notions of beauty and love can only ever be attained in full by a capitulation to their abstraction, a sacrifice of individual reality and existence (is Issac’s love at the service of desire or vice versa—is the one simply the more concrete articulation of the other?). And yet this is not some slight cost to bear. It is recognized for being a volatile force that disrupts as much as it pacifies or acts as palliative; in a very real sense, such comprehension is ultimately life-killing and it is “reasonable” that it is so. This is not some specious faith vs. reason dichotomy then but a much richer landscape of integration and acknowldgement—what do these different modes of comprehension share, how are they discerned, in what ways do they complement and expand upon one another? Once again, in other words, a language of undulating, forever uncertain, pure poetry; a poetry that forever questions and undermines the validity of the image itself as an absolute property while remaining fully conscious of its natural capacity to enrapture us and compel our tacit fidelity. I agree with you fully about Trepa, who has emerged as the perfect leading man and on screen representative for this late period in MO’s career. It undoubtedly helps, I’m sure, that there is a family relation there. At times it is positively mystifying how well Trepa surrenders himself to channel what we can imagine are MO’s intents (in this, of course he is not alone; MO has been blessed with one of the most rock solid, steady recurring ensemble body of performers ever, perfectly in tune with his sensibility and perfect at expressing it—think of the awesome Luis Miguel Cintra for one and perennial muse Leonor Silveira for another). It would be nice if Oliveira were able to make the version of Dorian Gray he has been said to be considering as this too would be a perfect opportunity for collaboration between he and Trepa, and it would likely give Trepa a rather unique opportunity to embody a more explicitly charismatic character, which I’m sure he could do with aplomb. Yet of all the potential projects he has mentioned for the future, I would most like to see MO’s adaptation of his erstwhile collaborator Agustina Bessa-Luis’s A Ronda da Noite, her final novel. Either that or the final piece in the “trilogy” which has been left otherwise provocatively dangling. But of course I’ll be grateful for whatever else we may get. At this point each moment feels like even more of a privilege than the last.

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