The films of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira are often mistaken for something they are not. Their elusive, dissembling nature, and the director’s sometimes obscure intentions, may account for this confusion of tone and purpose. For instance, his A Talking Picture (2003) was largely greeted as genial and anodyne, its history lessons treated less as serious colloquy than as a droll lark, no doubt thanks to the trio of grandes dames (Catherine Deneuve, Stefania Sandrelli, Irene Pappas) who form a kind of Platonic symposium at the table of a ship’s captain, played by John Malkovich with such self-parodic unction that his line readings suggest someone struggling to extrude marrow from hummingbird bones. When the comedy turns apocalyptic at film’s end, one realizes that beneath Picture’s seemingly benign irony lurks a dire warning; de Oliveira is no serene sage, but a severe defender of his faith(s): humanism, Catholicism,scepticism, and, above all, art.
So it is with Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl. At first glance, eccentricities is all delicacy and evanescence, with its slight running time (barely an hour) and weightless digital imagery; the fetishized feathers on the eponymous girl’s fan and her discrete light-fingeredness; the fluttering, diaphanous curtain and tasseled scrim in her window that airily obscure what lies behind. In its ethereal effects, the film seems to aim to be barely there, but finally reveals itself as grave and lapidary as any of the century-old maestro’s epics of thwarted or doomed love. Its ending is among the most desolate in de Oliveira’s cinema, invading a space to disclose something that the film’s narrator did not witness, the utter collapse of his betrothed, thus impelling us to revise the foregoing tale as a work hovering, in its exquisitely tuned ironies, near inconsequence.
In more ways than one, eccentricities is a framed tale. As narrated by Macàrio, an accountant from Lisbon (de Oliveira’s grandson Ricardo Trêpa), to a stranger on a train (the director’s long time muse, Leonor Silveira), the film returns time and again to its teller and its interlocutor as they speed through the countryside, stressing the tale’s nature as both
created and recounted. De Oliveira’s idiosyncratic modernism,which often skewers the illusion of illusionism, and his love of indigenous literature lead him to repeatedly emphasize the ilm’s source, a short story by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, considered the Flaubert of Portugal. In one of the film’s many peculiar digressions—indulgent in a film of such brevity and compression—a waiter stiffly delivers a little lecture on the author, who was founder of the Literary Circle. The latter, whose club Macàrio visits to further his plans to win Luisa, is one of the film’s many markers of art and culture, which are counterposed to the world of commerce.
The first such aesthetic marker is the painting of Luisa’s mother as a young woman, which acts as a frame within a frame within a frame, thus establishing the central motif of Eccentricities, of looking, angles of vision, and forms of blindness. (Appropriately for a work so beautifully composed, the film is about the snares set by sight, never so vertiginously apparent than in that eyeconfounding image involving a mirror and doubled staircase at the entrance of the notary’s home.) Emphasized by the intensity of her cornflower eyes, Silveira’s sideways gaze never seems to settle on Macàrio as he recounts his tale; her oblique stare unnervingly establishes the film’s pattern of looks and glances, furtive or fixed, seductive or averted. “What do I see?” is the first line Macàrio utters in the initial flashback; tragically, his intent but oblivious regard will lead to disaster. The stone frame of the window across the way in which he first beholds Luisa not only sets off the beauty it borders, but also circumscribes vision, so that Macàrio sees only a single aspect of her; he is literally blinded by love. Voyeurism often features in de Oliveira, especially in such Buñuelian works as The Past and the Present, and Macàrio’s spying on Luisa from his office becomes a hapless game of concealment and coquetry. He intently peruses a letter which, like Luisa behind her fan, he employs to cover his gaze. No such discretion when they encounter each other as she shops for cashmere with her mother: Luisa’s brazen inspection of Macàrio, captured in ravishing close-up, seals his fate. That the camera scrutinizes Luisa from many angles, including an overhead shot of her in the street, only emphasizes herimmunity to meaning. Gazed upon from every prospect, she remains a mystery, unknowable to Macàrio, indecipherable to us.
“Those curtains,” Macàrio muses about Luisa’s house, “probably dated from the time of Goethe,” and indeed his own longing looks, especially those upwards to his beloved at her window, evoke a troubadour doting on a lady at her casement in a courtly romance, or Goethe’s Werther pining for the unattainable Lotte. De Oliveira’s archaic modernism, “ancient ways in which romance begins in art and reality,” as Macàrio intones, makes it appear that eccentricities takes place in two simultaneous time zones, the nineteenth century and ours. Escudos rather than euros seem more suited to the film’s burnished world in which, as in Flaubert, social relations are defined by familial obligation, financial fealty, and class affiliation. (Macàrio’s slide into penury and pawning, ending in a cell-like shelter, seems a banishment of literary yore.) Temporal cues mix past and present: Uncle Francisco’s ottocentesco manner is belied by the latest electric shaver he wields as he casts Macàrio from his household. Similarly, Macàrio uses a computer, but opens correspondence with an old-fashioned letter knife, and is quaintly dispatched to the colonies to make his fortune. Everyone communicates by delivered missive and signals from windows, as in an opera, rather than by cell phone or email. The stately ways of the literary salon and the coded rituals of courtship suggest a bygone era, a frayed, contemporary version of the belle époque into which the director was born. “Look at that!” exclaims one man to Macàrio over the antique terms they use to describe their host: “‘Venus Young Squire’ in these modern and turbulent times!” (The Strange Case of Angelica, de Oliveira’s latest film at time of writing—a necessary qualification for a director so prolific—pairs up nicely with Eccentricities, especially in the similar use of anachronism, themes of framed vision, and a frustrated protagonist, again played by Trêpa, whose blonde object of desire is difficult to claim: Luisa may be a thief, but Angelica is inconveniently dead.)
Time is always malleable in de Oliveira. In one deft, disorienting edit, he accordions a stretch of days or weeks, using some spoken lines from the Blondel aria in Grétry’s opera about Richard the Lion-Hearted to segue from the notary’s home to the once-patrician house of Luisa’s mother some undefined time later. That the Grétry aria was a rallying song for the royalists during the French Revolution perhaps explains the reference to a guest as “a democrat and a great admirer of Robespierre." Blithely unmindful of his audience’s erudition and patience, the director is prone to that kind of historical arcana, and to protraction, seemingly perverse in so short a film. Why, for instance, does he spend a good five minutes on the uneventful credit sequence? (A newcomer to his work would not even recognize the two actors who at least charge this ticket-taking longueur with anticipation.) What narrative purpose, other than a variation on the theme of theft, does the sequence of the man with the lost hat serve? Abeyance, non sequitur, and excursus rule in this slip of a story. As is his wont, de Oliveira takes time out to luxuriate in music and literature, mostly to share his own pleasure: a harp recital of a Debussy arabesque and a reading of Portuguese verse turn the notary’s salon into an interplay of poker and poetry, the card players looming out of chiaroscuro like figures in a Georges de La Tour painting, which again reflects the film’s contrast of art and money-making. (The sequence also introduces a portent, a lost poker chip, which, like the 150 euros worth of handkerchiefs missing from the uncle’s shop, hints at the blonde one’s compulsion to pilfer.) De Oliveira, who has had a century to contemplate the nature of time, marks temporality throughout the film: in the repeated shots of Lisbon at various times of day and night; in the clock bells that four times are associated with Luisa’s appearance, as if to warn Macàrio; and in that brusque edit that brings the two patterns together: a shot of the clock tower with a street light, first lit at night and then extinguished at morn, shoved into the forefront of the image. Tempus fugit, never more gracefully or movingly than in de Oliveira’s rarefied world.
James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, where he has curated several internationally touring retrospectives, including those dedicated to Naruse, Mizoguchi, Bresson, Imamura, Ichikawa, and, most recently, Oshima. A regular contributor to Artforum magazine, Quandt has also edited monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.