4. Desire Without Language
Weekend 4 - Jan.24-26th
The fourth chapter of the Harvard-Gulbenkian program stages a unique extended dialogue between Manuela Viegas and Lucrecia Martel, two artists who share a similar ambition to dramatically renew the potential of the cinema as an audio-visual and uniquely sensorial medium. Unseating the long-standing hierarchy of the visual in the cinema, the films of Viegas and Martel are intensely tactile and audio-visual, enriched by complex soundscapes that awaken the invisible, immeasurable space beyond the frame, animating and decentering the dynamically abstract mise-en-scene favored by both filmmakers. Despite their relatively small respective oeuvres—to date Martel has completed three features, Viegas just one—their every film is career defining and milestone. Indeed, with each work Viegas and Martel define a new paradigm of narrative cinema, a different means of reaching far beyond mere representation and story to open the all too often untapped phenomenological dimensions of cinema as a mode of experience. Although clearly aligned with the project of the “extreme” sensorial cinema embraced today especially, and often controversially, by French filmmakers such as Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont and Philippe Grandrieux, the work of Viegas and Martel remains always in a lower, more subtle register in which image and narrative float in a state of carefully suspended indeterminacy.
Although desire is the major, albeit elusive, theme and preoccupation shared by the films of Viegas and Martel it is radically different from the kind of intensified, over-determined desire so common in international mainstream and art cinema today. Driven by obscure frustrations, obsessions, fears, Viegas and Martel’s characters embody their creators’ absolute rejection of any reductionist equation of desire and sexuality, refusing as well the rigid gender determinism of traditional cinematic narrative. The abrupt violence which seizes the father in Glória, the crypto-religious aspirations of The Holy Girl, the muted delusional self-preservation of The Headless Woman: these are each figures of the willfully obscure engines driving these elliptical films focused on characters whose private motivations ultimately cannot be fully understood. Within the films of Viegas and Martel language is clipped, denatured, sheared of obvious meaning and instead more potent and meaningful are forceful and wordless gestures, most often mute semafores of disembodied hands that float, often unidentified, as much signifiers of actions, corporeal signatures of the irreversible.
A defining feature shared by Glória and the films of Martel is the simultaneously granular specificity and darkly lyrical abstraction of the named locations imagined by both filmmakers. Backwards, inbred provincial towns surrounded by an overabundance of nature that is simultaneously fecund and ripe with decay, the pulsing stillness of Martel’s Salta and Viegas’ Santiago echo the ways the directors’ characters float indeterminately between sleep and waking, between health and illness, between youth and sexual adulthood. Like the titular swamp in Martel’s debut film La Ciénaga, nature in her and Viegas’ films is a paradoxical life force, pulsing and uncontestably alive, but also stagnant and toxic, a kind of sordid “backwater”, the North American name for small backwards towns where neither the blood lines nor drinking water flows cleanly. Yet, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the small town settings of these directors’ films are both geographically specific and mythopoetically abstract places that seem to resonate with dark and at times almost supernatural forces. Indeed, in both Martel and Viegas’ films tropes of the ghost stories and horror films echo detached—dark attics, monstrous shadows, creaking doors—creating and suspending expectations for something terrible, a threat and menace that underlies every action and spoken word.
This confluence of geographic, imaginary and popular genre expressions shared by the two filmmakers work echoes the alternate charting and mapping enacted by this weekend program which explores a radical film language beyond language, and beyond the over-determined boundaries of national cinema inevitably imposed on Portuguese and Argentine filmmakers alike, invented across the films of Lucrecia Martel and Manuela Viegas. Yet, as revelatory as the directors’ films are the surprise films they have each chosen to share with each other, and with us, with Martel selecting Luis Buñuel’s The Young One, the Surrealist’s potent study of raw desire and the confluence of the natural and human (dis)order, and Viegas selecting the penultimate film of Philippe Grandrieux, Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcer notres resolution, a lyrical, soaring portrait of the unrepentant Japanese militant radical filmmaker Masao Adachi which uses handheld digital video to evoke a deeply subjective, tactile and immersive world in which interior thoughts and the pulsing, glittering Tokyo cityscape are inextricably melded.