Letters from an Unknown Woman:
Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López
Stefan Zweig’s tale “The Invisible Collection” begins with its narrator seated in a train compartment. Another man enters and introduces himself as a famous art dealer who has just endured “one of the strangest of his experiences”. Henceforth, the storytelling torch is passed, as in a relay, to this second character: “I will let him tell the story in his own words, without using quote-marks – to avoid the complication of wheels within wheels”.
The films of Portugal’s Rita Azevedo Gomes (born 1952), however, cultivate and enjoy such wheels. Although her own, 48 minute adaptation of The Invisible Collection (2009) eschews the man on the train, it employs other devices that frame, interrupt or expand the central story of the dealer’s encounter with an elderly, blind man who does not realise that his precious art collection has been quietly sold off by his family, right under his nose. These devices include the image of a woman associated with the incantatory phrase “eyes of a blue dog”, who seemingly haunts the narrator – a detail adapted from an entirely different tale, one by Gabriel García Márquez. And, as in every Azevedo Gomes film, there is the added presence of poetry – passages that, she says, “open the story” and re-tell it in a different way, from another angle: “It is as if there were two movies, two layers or one thing on top of the other”.
Since 1990, Azevedo Gomes has made 14 works in various formats and lengths. She is only now starting to become better known outside her homeland on the international festival circuit – especially since the remarkable costume-melodrama, A Woman’s Revenge (2012).
The idea of multiple layers, visible to the spectator, is central to Azevedo Gomes’ oeuvre. In 2005, she had the opportunity to film The Fifteenth Stone, a two-hour conversation between Portugal’s undisputed master filmmaker, Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015), and a legendary and charismatic cinephile, João Bénard da Costa (1935-2009), then director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa. Oliveira expresses there his theory of representation, which he sees as a basic human drive that passes through successive stages; as Azevedo Gomes summarises it, “from representation, first comes the oratory, to tell the story. Then comes the representation of the story with actors representing roles, instead of being just one orator. After, we find the theatre and, later, cinema. I think that for him, one thing is always after the other”.
Her own style as a filmmaker is quite distinct from Oliveira’s, but this sense of “one thing after the other” is also part of her approach. Azevedo Gomes has a rich, classical culture, indexed in her films: painting, architecture, music, literature. (Not that pop culture is entirely missing, as the presence of Janis Joplin or Françoise Hardy on her soundtracks attests.) She doesn’t so much blend these diverse arts as contemplate their interaction, in layers. It comes as little surprise, then, that she explores a particular range of visual effects – superimposition, blurred focus, smoke and fog (especially in Fragile Like the World, 2000), slow alteration of lighting to change our perception of an object or surface – orchestrated in relation to a constant fading and overlapping of sounds. Everything in her films seems to be involved in a slow melting, a metamorphosis.
Altar (2003) is her most radical and inventive exploration of this layered approach. At its core stands the small, physical gesture of a woman, Madeleine (Patrícia Saramago), a gesture that obsesses a widower playwright (René Gouzene) living on an island. The entire film is constructed as a slow-paced unfolding of the events and implications surrounding this single gesture. The oral retelling of memories, filled with rich literary description, is both accompanied and counterpointed by a careful soundtrack mixing natural sounds, various musical pieces, and passages of poetry by E.E. Cummings and Sophia de Mello (read by the director herself). The image-track mixes domestic scenes where the protagonist tells the story to a young visitor, with a selection of details from paintings.
Altar is a stunningly beautiful piece, very much in line with an idea that Oliveira and Bénard da Costa discuss in The Fifteenth Stone: that the power of an image comes not from what it shows but what it signifies, a meaning which is not strictly visible, and can be found only by going right “inside” the work.
Altar also plays with two tropes beloved of Azevedo Gomes: the paradoxical parallelisms between sensory or aesthetic experiences (“images so silent that, when seeing them, it seems like I’ve closed my eyes”, as one of de Mello’s poems says); and the intermingling of spatio-temporal dimensions. These tropes were already evident in Azevedo Gomes’ stunning debut, The Sound of the Trembling Earth (1990), where Alberto (José Mário Branco) quotes Leonardo da Vinci’s famous saying: “Painting is mute poetry and poetry is blind painting”. A powerful device in this film is the hallucinatory collapse of movements occurring simultaneously in different directions – a little like the famous “zolly” shots (zooming in and tracking out) made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
This is an idea that, plot-wise, the film takes further once Alberto moves from his house to a hotel room, cutting all ties with his everyday life and devoting himself exclusively to dreaming about the novel he is writing. In a final mise en abyme, he seems to be swallowed by his own fiction to the point of becoming just another of his characters. In Fragile Like the World, it is again a change of scenery that opens up a whole new dimension: the secret love affair of two teenagers enters a magical, mythical realm previously only hinted at, once the protagonists escape, in the second part of the film, to the woods. There, surrounded by nature, isolated from civilisation, their love reaches an other-worldly status, achieving an aura of the absolute and the eternal.
Experimentation with the dialectic between fixity and movement is another core element of Azevedo Gomes’ cinema. At a basic level we notice how, in several of her films, there is a tendency toward a mise en scène that unfolds the continuous action in static, long takes. But whenever this is altered with a cut or an exuberant camera movement (such as the ostentatious pan shot in The Invisible Collection, or the close-ups puncturing A Woman’s Revenge), the entire film trembles. The power of her work rests upon this economy of sobriety: a change of angle, perspective or motion implies a genuine transformation that always opens up the scene, taking it in new dramatic, atmospheric or formal directions.
The Conquest of Faro (2005) is a commissioned work that, in many respects, prefigures A Woman’s Revenge. Two couples meet in a restaurant, and one of the men starts telling the story of the conquest of this Portuguese city. In a superb, extended take, we see one of the women falling asleep and, as if slipping back in history, waking up inside a tableau where the same four players enact (with added nuances) the story told. However, the palace where sentimental intrigues decide the destiny of the city, and the restaurant where centuries later history is invoked, are exactly the same décor. Even if slightly altered, traces remain (same archway, same amphora), taking possession of the present-day characters.
A Woman’s Revenge exemplifies another side of the fixity-movement dialectic. Like many of Azevedo Gomes’ central characters, the female protagonist, a Duchess (Rita Durão), is driven by an obsession that is bigger than her life. This aspect of consumption (which she shares most notably with the teenage heroine of Fragile Like the World) undoubtedly fascinates the director. But she is equally interested in the transformation that the story operates upon the gentleman (Fernando Rodrigues) who listens to it.
Readers of Stefan Zweig, as well as cinephiles enamoured of Max Ophüls’ classic adaptation of his Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), will recognise this powerful narrative technique: the time it takes for someone to “process” a story narrated especially to them is also the event that transforms them forever, perhaps tragically so. This is an essential aspect of Azevedo Gomes’ films, their secret, shared theme: to dramatise or recreate the inner and intersubjective journeys afforded by those vital, aesthetic experiences that move and change us, whether in storytelling, painting, music or cinema.
Correspondences (2016), is inspired by the letters exchanged between two leading Portuguese poets, Sophia de Mello and Jorge de Sena, during the latter’s 20 year exile. Rather than recreating their friendship in conventional, biopic manner, Azevedo Gomes weaves an amalgam of textures, colours, landscapes and voices accompanying the poets’ words (their letters, but also fragments of poems, essays and public recordings). This is the testimony of an exile that is not only geographical; there is a sense of unbelonging not just to a country but to the world itself, and of an open wound that cannot be healed due to the persistent memories of joyous encounters severed by distance.
Correspondences is a free-form portrait of two strong personalities, and of a friendship sealed by a shared, artistic stance against a repressive political climate. But the film is also an investigation of how their words reach, affect and join other people’s lives. On this plane, the texts are handled in numerous, inventive ways, through multiple voices and dramatisations (ranging from uncertain first readings to fully rendered recitals). Many scenes puncture the illusory space of the fiction in order to incorporate raw, behind-the-scenes elements. Filmmaking itself thus becomes a place where old collaborators and new friends (such as actor-designer Eva Truffaut – daughter of François – or the Russian critic Boris Nelepo) gather to work together.
In this way, Correspondences demonstrates, more than any of her previous works, the fundamentally artisanal quality of Azevedo Gomes’ oeuvre. It reinforces a conception of cinema built on friendship and devotion. Her portrait of de Mello and de Sena is also a tribute to those things that others, before and after, have loved, and will come to love.
Since the initial writing of this survey in late 2016, Azevedo Gomes has (happily for us all) made two further features, and her work as a whole has been more widely seen and discussed than ever before. A definite sign of health in global film culture!
In The Portuguese Woman (A Portuguesa, 2018), war and love are the absolute values that define the conflict between man and woman. The film is an adaptation of a short story by Robert Musil (translated into English, with a Wellesian touch, as “The Lady from Portugal”) as filtered through the spirit of Agustina Bessa-Luis, frequent collaborator of Manoel de Oliveira. Clara Riedenstein plays the enigmatic, unnamed, obstinate, and intelligent protagonist – a woman who, after marrying von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), travels to his country and spends eleven years waiting for his return from war.
The Portuguese Woman is a film about patience, stoicism and strategy that puts in crisis the very notion of action. With magnificent sound design, and shot in long takes that favour depth of field and the careful organisation of props and figures, the film pays great attention to colour, texture and light. Azevedo Gomes avoids the many clichés of the costume drama: instead of palace intrigues, the film tackles mystery at its fullest; animals are everywhere, triggering the most extreme emotions; there’s a sharp critique of power and religion, while the film relishes in its rituals and ceremonies; and there are many turbulent, subterranean currents, from carnal love to the devil’s hand. And all throughout, the deliberately anachronistic presence of the sublime Ingrid Caven.
In a typically airy, blustery – albeit commendably enthusiastic – piece, Olaf Möller asserts (without reference to any previous writing on the subject) that Correspondences and Danses Macabres, Skeletons, and Other Fantasies (2019) “bring us closer to the aesthetic core of Azevedo Gomes’ cinema”, but is unable to tell us much more about either the works or that core. (Likewise, he roars that Altar is “maybe (just maybe) her greatest work” – and we don’t necessarily disagree on that – but he can’t even begin to say why.) Möller lists some of the many evident or more allusive influences feeding into Azevedo Gomes’ cinema, and (like us) stresses the films’ nature as multi-layered, delicately disunified acts of collage. It’s a start. With a director as complex as this, it seems we are always at the start.
Danses Macabres, Skeletons, and Other Fantasies indeed follows in the line of Correspondences – as a deliberately loosely defined “essay film” (variously a chronicle, diary, travel report, compilation film, arts documentary) made in collaboration with creative companions. Those companions are, in this case, the gifted critic-filmmaker Pierre Léon (Deux Rémi, deux, 2015), already a familiar presence from Correspondences and The Portuguese Woman, and the venerable (now 82 year old) art historian Jean Louis Schefer, who has also made several distinctive excursions into film theory/commentary (including his well-known and proudly inscrutable The Ordinary Man of Cinema). In fact, Azevedo Gomes refers to this three-way authorship as a “dancing together”, a description that captures well the spirit of the project. There is a wonderful sense conveyed of collective wandering, drifting, musing.
The trigger for this filmic essay is Schefer’s long-term research into prehistoric cave drawings and engravings (see his “Sur l’interprétation des figures paléothiques” in Trafic, no. 3, Summer 1992), specifically here those to be found in Foz-Côa in Portugal – what sense we can make of them, what explanatory historic context we can place them in. (A great moment arises when he scowls about “that jerk Herzog” and his over-inflated Cave of Forgotten Dreams .) As always in Schefer’s speculations, he then “traces a map” or network across other items of imagery: various paintings (Fragonard, Bosch) and the widespread pictorial cult of the danse macabre featuring skeletal figures. This last motif is then amplified by the film itself in relation to its own medium, with wonderfully placed clips from early animations and Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), among others.
How did these strange figures arise
in the history of representation? Schefer points to a series of possible
frameworks – in history, in the evolution of representation, in philosophy –
but refuses to tie them together into a total thesis of deterministic cause and
effect. The pieces and levels are allowed to float, to swim together – just as
in Azevedo Gomes’ cinema. She picks her interlocutors well.
Note: The streaming site MUBI is presenting a retrospective, “Out of This World: The Cinema of Rita Azevedo Gomes”, between July and September 2020. See that site for details.
© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin November 2016 / October 2019 / August 2020