With director Eugène Green, it’s always key to be attentive to one’s surroundings. Accordingly, French cinema’s foremost native New Yorker agreed to meet me on a picturesque piazza where he was spending the morning with an espresso and getting some writing done. Green had arrived in muggy Locarno, Switzerland for the premiere of his newest work, the “mini-film,” How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal.
One of the twentieth century’s leading modernist writers, Pessoa might seem an unlikely subject for Green—particularly for audiences only partially familiar with the filmmaker’s work (including a great deal of writing not yet translated into English), for whom Green may be associated first and foremost with the baroque, one of his films' predominant themes. But Green remains concerned above all with the present, even as he advocates for a vision of the good life rather at odds with the proverbial "way we live now."
A lively, highly personable film, How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal emerged from a real anecdote in which the man who would be modern Portugal’s greatest writer tried—and failed—to generate an advertising campaign for a new American beverage: Coca-Cola. (Viewers of the director’s previous film Waiting for the Barbarians will recognize the return of Green’s playful pejorative for his native tribe, the “United-Statesians.”) Among its not inconsiderable charms are a tête-á-tête between Pessoa and his illustrious heteronym, Álvaro de Campos, a small triumph of subtle visual characterization, and what must be one of cinema’s funniest exorcism scenes.
NOTEBOOK: The film begins with Pessoa’s poem “The Bell in My Town,” which is a celebrated expression of the famously untranslatable Portuguese concept of saudade. I’d like to start by asking what this idea means to you.
EUGÈNE GREEN: Saudade is a lot more complex than the usual translations convey. I think that in English it’s often translated as “nostalgia,” but saudade is the presence of the past in the present, and it’s also the desire for the future in the present. It’s the reality of the present, which contains both the past and the future, which is something that we’ve forgotten in the modern world. The present doesn’t exist actually, there’s neither past nor future. People live in a false present, always looking into devices, which is not real, detached from where they are…
It’s one of the most well-known poems by Pessoa, which he published under his own name, and not under a heteronym. He was a great poet, but as you see in the film, no one around him knows it. At the same time, he wanted to really succeed in business. And he made several attempts to succeed in business; but they never worked, they were always disasters.
NOTEBOOK: Saudade is also often explained as something melancholic.
GREEN: Saudade is a sort of joyous melancholia. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the fado musical tradition—there’s a great singer who sings at the beginning and the end of the film—but often the fados sing very sad things about love, which doesn’t exist anymore, or memory, but there are also very joyous ones. But even when they’re joyous there’s something sad about them. So it’s something that is completely Portuguese, which is difficult for foreigners to comprehend. It’s not depressive sadness; it’s a sort of sadness that is a part of the fullness of living in present.
NOTEBOOK: How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal is also a very funny film. How did you go about balancing the humor with the saudade?
GREEN: I don’t think of various ingredients, and then mix them together. It comes to me naturally. I always treat very serious themes, but in a very light way, with humor. It’s related also to Pessoa’s life, because he always had a sort of irony about himself and about everything around him. At the foundation of that irony is a sort of sadness. In this case it comes from the character, but I always work in this same way.
NOTEBOOK: Was there something specific about Pessoa that you thought would make him a good subject for a film?
GREEN: I wrote a short book about Pessoa a few years ago, and I rediscovered this anecdote about his attempt to write a slogan for Coca-Cola. When I told it to Raphaël O’Byrne, who is the cinematographer of the film, he said that would be a very good subject for a short film. I think it appeals to me that this little story expresses the condition of the artist in the modern world—perhaps since always, but especially in the modern world. The writer who was perhaps the greatest European poet in the 20th century was almost unknown as a poet, and he wanted to succeed in business. He was never recognized in his lifetime—except a little bit by certain intellectuals—he was very little known in Portugal and not at all known outside of Portugal. He wasn’t recognized as a poet and he wasn’t able to succeed as a businessman, but he left something that continues to influence Western thought and Western culture.
This is also connected to the idea of the encoberto [“the hidden”], which is a very important thing in Portuguese culture. It has to do with the historical disappearance of the Portuguese king Don Sebastiao at the end of the 16th century. He waged a crazy battle in Morocco, which led to the massacre of the other soldiers and the decimation of the Portuguese nobility. At the end of the battle, he wasn’t there, which caused a dynastic crisis. And according to the marriage treaties, if there was a vacancy on the Portuguese throne it would be filled by the king of Castille. So Portugal lost its independence in 1580, and people were very unhappy but they remembered old prophesies about a hidden savior who would return. Since no one saw Sebastiao die, they were convinced that he was alive but hidden, and that he would come back. Even when they got their independence back in 1640, the great Portuguese writer of the time, a Jesuit priest named António Vieira, invented a sort of myth around this desire. He said that the encoberto would come back in several incarnations but wouldn’t be recognized, and he would disappear again, and then come back. So this became a source of hope in Portuguese culture. And Pessoa at certain moments was convinced that he was one of the incarnations of the encoberto.
NOTEBOOK: How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal is your first film to take place in the 20th century. You’re known among other things for your interest in the 16th and 17th centuries on one hand, and, on the other, in the contemporary moment.
GREEN: All of my other films take place in the present. Normally I don’t like to make historical films because the actors start performing as if they were doing theatre since they’re not in the their natural dress. You could say that this is my first costume film—it’s not very far back, but it’s 1927—now it’s almost a century.
NOTEBOOK: How did you go about constructing this 20th century world?
GREEN: It’s not that different. I was born in 1947, so for me it doesn’t feel very distant. The clothes are different, there are no computers, he types on a typewriter. But throughout my youth and up until 25 years ago, I used a typewriter. So it’s not as if I was doing a film that took place in the Middle Ages.
NOTEBOOK: In the credits, How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal is described as a mini-film. What distinguishes the mini-film from a feature or a short?
GREEN: I don’t like the French term for a short film, court métrage, because it literally refers to a smaller number of meters of film. It’s like you were in a grocery store and you asked for a kilo of apples or whatever. For me, it’s a film. Some of my films last for over two hours. The shortest feature, Le monde vivant, is only an hour and a quarter. But they’re all films. I call it a mini-film to distinguish it from a feature.
NOTEBOOK: You’re credits not as the film’s writer, but as creating “dialogues and arguments.” Do you see your work as a form of argument of rhetoric?
GREEN: There’s a tradition in France, though now it’s not very widely seen, but in the films up until the fifties they would do separate credits for “scenario” and “dialogues.” I do the two, of course. I don’t think of it as rhetoric, really. I work a lot on the style, and in the dialogues I try to concentrate a maximum of emotions within a minimum of words, using simple words and respecting grammatical forms. I don’t want there to be psychology, so there’s never any sort of psychological explanation. It’s always the words that create the necessity of answering and the answers are related to the words in the question. For example, the same word will often appear in both the question and the answer. If you want to see it as a form of rhetoric, it is; but I don’t conceive of it in terms of rhetoric.
There’s a great attention to the writing as writing. I’m also a novelist and people often remark that the dialogues in my novels are in the same style as the dialogues in my films.
NOTEBOOK: We’re you thinking about Pessoa’s writing at all while writing this film?
GREEN: No. It’s the way I write.
NOTEBOOK: Much of the film is about advertising, and it’s role in the creation of the contemporary world, with poetry described as the natural antagonist of advertising. I’m curious as to how you think that one can resist the impact of advertising in a world totally saturated by it.
GREEN: You have to constantly produce barriers to protect yourself. My parents had a television, but since I’ve been independent I’ve never owned one. So I’ve never been indoctrinated by television. When I go to the cinema in Paris, there’s about 10 or 15 minutes of advertising before the film. I just shut my eyes and cover my ears. I don’t look at advertising in newspapers. But you have to consciously do this because it comes from all over. It’s often also secretly introduced without telling you.
NOTEBOOK: So in reference to the film’s title, do you think that an individual can really ‘save’ a larger society?
GREEN: There’s a lot of irony in the title because Pessoa didn’t want to save Portugal, at least in that way: He wanted to succeed as a publicist. But his destiny was to be a great poet, so he didn’t succeed as a publicist. But the fact that he failed as a publicist allowed the Portuguese to go without Coca-Cola for 40 years, because it was only permitted in 1977, three years after the Revolution. For years Portugal was the only country in Europe where there was no Coca-Cola.