The twelfth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing João Pedro Rodrigues's To Die Like a Man (2009) March 4 - April 2 and Two Drifters (2005) March 5 - April 3, 2016 in the United States.
The concept that unifies the work of Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues (signed alone or in collaboration with João Rui Guerra da Mata) is that of shifting: a shifting of gender (in any direction from male to female, via all hybrid possibilities in-between), and of genre (romantic melodrama crossed with the fantastique, or documentary sliding over into fiction as in The Last Time I Saw Macao, 2012), even of species (confusion of human and animal realms in O Fantasma, 2000). Most gripping and beguiling of all is the director’s fondness for unexpectedly supernatural themes—all the better to blur the distinction between mortality and immortality, a key theme of several of his works including the best known, To Die Like a Man (2009).
Desire is always the motor of this shift. Obsessive, all-consuming desire for another person, desire to inhabit a fantasy, desire to penetrate a mystery. Yet desire never simply goes one-way, or resolves itself in a reciprocal exchange between two parties. Desire initiates a chain, always displacing and complicating itself, and it is along this chain that things (identities, masks, recurring situations) go sliding, thus creating the movement of the fiction. The romantic drive (for a love that exceeds even the limit of death) is intensified, while also becoming deliciously perverse, like in some of André Téchiné’s films—but without that perversity ever cancelling out the romance.
In Odete a.k.a. Two Drifters (2005), the chain involves three people. Pedro (João Carreira) and Rui (Nuno Gil) are lovers, and their vow to one another is clinched in the matching rings they wear—with the inscription of a line from the song “Moon River”: "two drifters…" But a car accident intervenes just as Rui (in Rodrigues’s fine sense of melodramatics) is trying to ring Pedro’s mobile to convey one further message of love. This sets the stage for a traditional, sentimental haunting: lost love, unfinished business, solitude and grieving.
But there is a second plot about to strangely collide with the first, resulting in a metamorphosis of the elements in both narrative lines. Odete (Ana Cristina de Oliveira) passionately loves Alberto (Carloto Cotta), but is frustrated by his lack of interest in having a child together. She throws him out of her apartment and effectively terminates their relationship. But, soon after, an ominous wind blows, and Odete becomes aware of the sadness emanating like an aura from Pedro’s now uninhabited apartment on a floor above hers, where the boy’s mother Teresa (Teresa Madruga) sits, weeping over his things.
Odete subsequently, inexplicably becomes wildly attached to the memory, and the ‘soul,’ of the departed Pedro (whom, of course, she never knew)—to the point of believing she is pregnant by him. Is this, in psychological terms, a classic, Freudian transference of her desire, a crazy wish-fulfilment scenario? In Rodrigues’s cinematic vision—nurtured equally by the phantasmic mysteries of Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, 1943), and the queer comedy of Blake Edwards (Switch, 1991, another film of gender-play and childbirth which uses Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as a key soundtrack element)—something more real, both disquieting and miraculous, is at stake. The film becomes nothing less than a tale of genuine possession—and an exploration of the ever-shifting logic whereby any One comes to be possessed by an Other, alive or dead.
As the story goes through its vivid convolutions, Rui and Odete join together to form, anew, the ‘two drifters’ of the film’s English title. Our audiovisual essay enters this drift (which constitutes the entire film) not at its inaugural, inciting plot event (the car crash), but through the consciousness of Odete. We trace the uncannily circular logic of the film’s intricate fantasy by re-ordering some of the motifs that ensure its circulation: the sound and force of the wind, the two rings, flowers, gazes, songs, memory-flashes, an interrupted kiss, and the eternal return of an encounter in a club that includes one of the players fainting…
Like the Bresson film says—and this can provide the slogan for João Pedro Rodrigues’s cinema on so many levels: “To reach you at last…what a strange path I had to take.”