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Essays

Broken Links:
The Cinema of Teresa Villaverde

 


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López

 

1. The Holy Family

Family is at once the most cherished and the most fragile structure in the cinema of Teresa Villaverde (born 1966). Her debut feature, A idade maior (Alex, 1991), begins with the representation of the traumatic effects of a broken family. In a darkened image, young Alex (Ricardo Colares) stands, with his back to the camera, in front of a tree. An off-screen female voice – which begins over the blank screen that is part of the opening credits – asks him: “Alex, do you remember your father?” He answers, his back still turned, “No”. The voice returns: “Your mother?” Now Alex quickly swivels around, pauses thoughtfully, revealing the tears rolling down his cheeks, and replies with a strange softness: “No”. Cut to the film’s title.

 

After this truly inaugural moment – a concentrated fragment of a scene, but entirely self-sufficient, as so many of her scenes are – all of Villaverde’s films have focused, from one angle or another, on the disintegration of the family. In Os Mutantes (1998), the protagonists are kids living in social welfare institutions, abandoned or given up for care by their parents. The heroine, Andreia (Ana Moreira), decides to carry on with her pregnancy; but, after she gives birth alone, without help, in a gas station bathroom, we see that the child is instantly condemned to the same lack-filled destiny as her own.

 

Três Irmãos (Two Brothers, My Sister, 1994) is simultaneously the most melodramatic and the most Bressonian of Villaverde’s features. It looks at a family unit that is both dysfunctional and emotionally intense – especially in the relationship of the ever-suffering, put-upon Maria (Maria de Medeiros) with her two brothers, Mário (Marcello Urgeghe) and João (Evgeniy Sidikhin), which reaches moments of rather incestuous perversity. The father of this family (Fernado Reis, Jr) is a literally blind, violent figure, full of inexplicable rage; the mother (Olimpia Carlisi) is sad and suicidal – character traits she duly passes down to her daughter. It is the least lyrical and most unrelenting of Villaverde’s films, ticking off the stations of abuse, victimisation (at work and in social situations, as well as at home) and interpersonal disconnection, until it arrives at the insistently signalled, bleak ending.

 

Água e sal (2001) tells the story of a woman, Ana (Galatea Ranzi), in the process of marital separation. The anxiety she feels when her unnamed husband (Joaquim de Almeida), takes their daughter (Clara Jost, the director’s own child) on a holiday to Milan is followed by panic and breakdown, once father and daughter do not arrive at the airport on the designated return date. This film also interweaves a subplot involving a girl, Emília (Ana Moreira), locked in a room, whose baby has been stolen and sold. She refuses to eat, while her obsessive, teenage boyfriend, Alexandre (Alexandre Pinto), waits outside on the street, forlorn and powerless, forbidden to visit her. At the end, there is an intervention that gives freedom back to Emília and reveals the mystery around the stolen child. Ana becomes an accomplice in these events, and has to decide whether to speak out or not.

 

Sonia (Ana Moreira), the heroine of Transe (2006), has also been separated from her child. This dispossession is partly what drives her to abandon Russia in search of better fortune. In Cisne (2011), Pablo (Miguel Nunes), the driver of Vera (Beatriz Batarda), was also once abandoned by his mother; now that he has tracked her down, he fantasises about their reunion, and becomes entirely obsessed with this prospect. In this film, as in Água e sal, the heroine will be again faced with a crime that is in some way an act of justice, when a little boy, Alce (Sérgio Fernandes), murders an adult abuser. Instead of going to the police, Vera decides to protect the boy.

 

The final scene of Cisne is strikingly beautiful. The camera shows us Alce in a room, reading Vera’s book; the sound of wood being chopped makes him stand up and approach the window.

 

 

Through the glass, we see a painterly reflection of Sam (Israel Pimenta) chopping outside, while Vera sleeps on the couch with a dog lying on her chest; while she dreams, she smiles.

 

 

It took Villaverde six fiction features built on the theme of the broken family to achieve this image of peace and happiness. (There is a preview or anticipation of it in A idade maior, when Alex is called to the window to witness, from inside the family home, the unexpected reappearance of his father, standing next to the mother.) It is, however, a fragile image, one that has the aura of a fantasy or dream: heightened music plays, the images swim in glass reflections and – if we look very closely – we can see that Vera’s initial position and orientation in the room have been radically shifted to allow the particular cinematographic qualities of the final shot.

 

Nonetheless, this portrait of the reconstitution of a family seems to be the matrixial image that Villaverde has been driving toward, across all her films. What seems impossible is the thing most desired by her characters, and by the films themselves: a close-knit nuclear family. Experience of the difficulties of family life does not breed, here, a radical rejection of this social structure, its critique or rethinking: paradoxically, it heightens the yearning for its ungraspable, idyllic image. The ideal family is “only a motion away” – a cinematic movement or projection – as Paul Simon sang in “Mother and Child Reunion” (a deeply Villaverdean title!).

 

The intensity of this primal broken link in Villaverde’s work is comparable to the motor of Philippe Garrel’s cinema as analysed by Saad Chakali (2014), with particular reference to its condensation in Jealousy (2013): what each child witnesses to be the sudden, primal, inexplicable unlove (désamour) between mother and father, cruel testament to the inconstancy of intimate commitment through time and the unstoppable whirlwind of shifting passions, collides with the absolute, eternal love that passes between parent and child – giving rise to the charged but internally unstable Holy Family iconography that we find in the work of both these auteurs.

 

But there is a crucial difference between Villaverde and Garrel in this regard. Where Garrel’s young heroes and heroines may rebel against the society or the state, but almost never, on an individual level, against their biological parents, Villaverde’s adult characters are, from the outset, more afflicted and conflicted; something mysterious and hard to name, some illness or neurosis or existential malaise, forbids them from forming eternal bonds with others (even, at times, their own children), except in torment.

 

In A idade maior, for instance, the fact that the father (Joaquim de Almeida), once returned from army duty in Africa, feels unable to go home (and instead lives, in secret, for months just nearby) is the central, psychological mystery of the narrative, quickly taking on ominous proportions. In fact, this strain of melancholia in Villaverde’s work tends more toward the complex that Nouri Gana has dubbed (in relation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet) melanxiety: “a composite emotional current that yokes together a melancholic fixation on the past and an anxious prescience of the future” (Gana 2004: 62) – and always tied, in its manifestations and symptoms, to an insistent repetition that freezes or fixes the present in the type of tense, “strange and mournful” stasis (to quote Paul Simon again) we know well from all of Villaverde’s films.

 

2. Forms and Transformations

If we look only at the superficial subject matter of most of Villaverde’s films, we could assume that they are linked with social issue cinema: the desperate lives of street kids in Os Mutantes; domestic abuse in Três Irmãos; sex trafficking in Transe; and so on. In particular, it would be easy enough to link her films to the recent category of a cinema of precarity (see Berlant, 2011; Mazierska, 2013), whether in documentary (Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, 2000) or fiction mode (films by Laurent Cantet, Cristi Puiu and others).

 

One needs to be careful, however, to not reduce films – especially those as formally rich as Villaverde’s – to their purely anecdotal, referential or sociological levels (as happens too often in discussions of the depiction of precarity), a process that ends up flattening them (whatever the radical intention of the critical-political discourse) into mirror-reflections of realities and topics outside cinema. If Villaverde’s films teach us anything, it is that their fragile space of transformation – affective, imaginative, aesthetic – takes place within cinema and its particular powers.

 

Both the cinematic style and the narrative construction of Villaverde’s work violate the most typical principles of what we conventionally take to be the realism of social issue films. We will discuss three major levels of Villaverde’s formal work: subjective point-of-view; dysnarrative and dysnarration; and a specific fracturing of mise en scène strategies in her staging and editing.

 

First, her cinema is eminently subjective, centred on what happens inside the characters, and the way they feel and experience the world around them. In Os Mutantes, many shots show the perspective of the protagonists, or communicate their visual and aural sensations – such as a fairground ride tilted in the frame as it is seen by the characters when they awake on the ground; or an upside-down frame which is the vision of a boy idling in the water.

 

This interiority is reinforced by solitude, and by the reigning distances between characters, often staged literally in the mise en scène’s rigorous spacing and separation of bodies. In this regard, we especially note that anything resembling a conventionally erotic or tender sex scene, one not associated with rape, prostitution or some gesture of violent coercion, is strikingly absent from Villaverde’s oeuvre. Even authentic love, when it figures in the unfolding or resolution of events, is a matter of absence and distances: witness the relationship of Vera and Sam in Cisne.

 

The second major aspect of Villaverde’s cinema that militates against realism is its very particular approach to telling stories. A somewhat neglected idea from film theory’s past is useful in trying to get a grip on this: the idea of dysnarrative (sometimes rendered in English as disnarrative) and its corresponding dynamic of dysnarration. The term originated with Alain Robbe-Grillet’s literary theory (1989) arising from his involvement with the nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, but it relates to his own cinematic practice as much as his more widely celebrated novelistic practice. For Robbe-Grillet, dysnarrative does not indicate a total rejection or smashing of narrative; nor an entirely non-narrative, plotless approach. Rather, it works on what he called the suspension of narrative, of its conventionally driving motor forces and mechanisms of spectator identification.

 

The panoply of a typical fictional world – characters, situations, hints of various binding intrigues – was not ejected from the type of new narrative that Robbe-Grillet proposed (and himself helped to create on screen). Instead, characters were abstracted into types or figures; locations became charged, expressionistic environments or containers of action; and intrigues entered into a rondo of circular reprise, repetition, variation and transformation. Film theorist Francis Vanoye elaborated Robbe-Grillet’s ideas at the end of the 1970s and beyond, beginning with his 1979 book Récit écrit, récit filmique (“written narrative, filmic narrative”, 2005).

 

Vanoye’s intervention was timely, because in the 1980s a new type of dysnarrative, distinct from Robbe-Grillet’s own practical example, evolved among a group of filmmakers working quite autonomously: in Jean-Luc Godard’s features of the decade, in Leos Carax’s first major works (Boy Meets Girl, 1984; Mauvais sang, 1986) and, at the end of the decade, in Portuguese cinema: Pedro Costa’s striking debut O Sangue (1989) (see Martin 2013). All these directors are influences on Villaverde, as we see most clearly in her first two features, A idade maior and Três Irmãos. But she has fully reinvented for herself this discontinuous line of dysnarrative experiment by the time of Os Mutantes. In the same period that she has been making films, her closest neighbour, on all the formal levels we are describing, is Claire Denis. Yet, to date, scholarly film study (in several of its major territories and languages) has had far more to say about Denis than Villaverde.

 

What does it mean to call Villaverde’s films dysnarrative – what unique characteristics of her method can this help reveal to us? Fiction – even, as we have indicated, taken to the point of outright melodrama – is hardly absent from her work; there are always central characters whom we follow along the path of a particular journey, no matter how fraught, mysterious or uncertain that journey may be. Moreover, her films (like Carax’s) are full of strong, sudden, violent events: murder, death, assault, abandonment, catastrophe. Where an intricate process of dysnarration congeals is in the presentation of each block of the story, piece by piece – each shot and each scene.

 

In Villaverde, we find a radical version of what has been theorised (in relation to Denis) as the archipelago method of story-formation – in which images are not composed to illustrate a pre-given plot; rather, the narrative emerges from the unstable succession or montage of block-like image-events and sound-events placed in an associative chain. Chakali (2005) explains this concept of the archipelago narrative:

 

Here the shots come first, are the “original” material, and from there the narrative arrives in Denis, never the reverse: in her work, the diegesis does not pre-exist the shots, it is produced in a strictly cinematic way.

 

Villaverde, too, produces the diegesis “in a strictly cinematic way”. Ellipsis, fragmentation, indirection, partial vision and hearing – the pervasive sense that we are never receiving the whole of any given event, only its shards – are paramount in her aesthetic manner. Even the scene of Andreia giving birth in Os Mutantes can be only retroactively grasped – since, during that traumatic event itself, we see no one but her. It is not uncommon to have a Villaverde scene in which there are two people speaking, but only one of them visible – perhaps in a single, seemingly truncated sequence-shot that absorbs the entire action. Such micro-mysteries – who is off-screen? what is actually happening here? – are expanded, through large-scale practices of dysnarration, into macro-mysteries.

 

Villaverde’s films are full of strange enigmas, sudden apparitions, and puzzling associations of events and characters (usually across the different time frames of past and present). The goals of her characters are presented in a deliberately cloudy, ambiguous fashion – it is only when the strong actions occur (usually after a long, tense priming) that we can retroactively impute motivation and orientation and, even then, with some doubt. The narrative scheme of each film can more or less be sorted out after the fact of viewing (and over multiple viewings), if one has the patience and can piece together the fleeting hints and clues; but it is no accident that her work (far more than that of, say, David Lynch) generates some astonishingly incorrect synopses among even professional spectators.

 

The basic structure of Villaverde’s complex plots tends to proceed as follows: after the introduction of the central characters (usually, as we have noted, the members of a family, whether seen interacting together, or separately), there is a series of narrative splittings – wanderings, travels, encounters – that introduce new characters. These new characters may remain peripheral to the central plot (carrying the sort of comparative, symbolic or metaphoric significance familiar from a long gallery of minor players in art cinema storylines) – but, more often, through twists and revelations, they are drawn into the centre of the intrigue.

 

In Água e sal, for instance, it is intimated that Ana’s new lover (played by Miguel Borges and identified only as Deconhecido or Unknown) may once have been intimately involved with Emília, and therefore possibly also the biological father of the child that has been taken away. The dual effect of Villaverde’s dysnarration – this growing sense that everything is atomised and yet secretly interconnected – creates, like in Denis’ films L’intrus (2004) and Les salauds (Bastards, 2013), an experience for the spectator that is both ominous (even paranoiac) and strangely hopeful: it is only through the mysterious paths of such connection that Cisne will arrive at its heightened happy ending.

 

The third major way in which Villaverde’s films escape the realism of the social issue genre is through their very particular handling of mise en scène across the twin, integrated phases of staging and editing. While one, time-honoured formulation of mise en scène presents it as the art of bodies in space – which is as true of classical cinema (Howard Hawks, Max Ophüls, Kenji Mizoguchi) as it is of the more conceptual, neo-classical work of Manoel de Oliveira or Rita Azevedo Gomes – Villaverde, again in the 1980s tradition carved out by Godard, Carax, Costa, Chantal Akerman and others, is fixed on something different: limbs in space, not whole bodies but their frequently bisected parts and details.

 

 

Villaverde’s unusual choice of camera placement and perspective (plunging angles, decentred framings, Antonioniesque configurations of people and environmental materials or textures) often has the effect of retarding our immediate comprehension of a scene, and depersonalising it as well (as in the extended, sensual spectacle of blowing hair that opens Os Mutantes).

 

 

At times – particularly in Três Irmãos – Villaverde’s mise en scène follows the model of what Raymond Durgnat (2014) once designated as the notional scene, a scene which is sketched rather than fleshed out in a conventional way. She does this according to two variations. First, out of a few, minimal elements (two actors in a park, for example, or three people sitting in a bar), a diagram is quickly drawn (one character stands in place, another enters, eventually both exit at different moments and on different trajectories) and the plot action plays itself out only as strictly required, without any need for realistic scene-setting or establishing detail; this has often been Akerman’s chosen option. Second, and more in the spirit of the so-called violent scenes in Godard’s Alphaville (1965) or Carax’s Mauvais sang, action is subjected to a Pop Art-like abstraction via the powers of cinematic montage: a series of static poses (limbs frozen in space) is simultaneously strung together and spaced outvia hard-to-locate sounds (cries, gunshots), insertions of black frames, and snatches of music set at an incongruous counterpoint to the typical, generic nature of such events.

 

A more complete analysis of the intricate and crucial mise en scène aspect of Villaverde’s cinema – including the interaction of image with sound – must wait for another occasion (see Álvarez 2017). For the moment, we note a major motif in Os Mutantes involving physical suspension, floating, hanging in air – in many inventive variations. Characters lie at the end of a train with their head over the side; they lean back as they sit in a truck; they regularly play perilously at the edge of one precipice or another, courting the abyss. This motif recurs, to varying extents, across all her work: the opening, memory/fantasy sequence of Três Irmãos (once again, its ultimate status is left deliberately unclear) shows Maria, both as child and adult, performing a perilous somersault on a thin, elevated ledge.

 

Hence, connections are shattered at every level in Villaverde’s cinema: from the theme of the dysfunctional family, through all the broken links provided, tantalisingly, by the formal strategies of montage and mise en scène, and not least in the films’ ubiquitous practices of dysnarration. And yet these are not so-called “puzzle films”; on another, simultaneous level, they are visceral and direct.

 

3. Figures and Feelings

The portrayal of teenage life in Os Mutantes is extremely violent, physical and sensual. As usual in Villaverde’s cinema, her refusal to explain every detail of interior motivation figures as an ethical decision of the filmmaking process. However, the film shows a deep understanding of two fundamental drives that these teenagers share. First, the urge for freedom, which prompts them to constantly escape; and second, their deep anxiety over not being loved, the feeling that they have been abandoned, and the fear of being forgotten – which pushes them to inscribe their names in walls so as to affirm their identities, if only in a precarious way.  This is a typical gesture for characters in the genre of juvenile delinquent films internationally, but Villaverde’s treatment of it – with a choral polyphony of voices on the soundtrack laid over the impressionistic montage of wall inscriptions – gives it a special poetry.

 

Precarity, although bound up with the idea of freedom in Villaverde’s film, is not presented with the least bit of romanticism. There is none of that Beat-era, bohemian fantasy of going on the road and picking up work, food, shelter and companionship in an easy and abundant rhythm. Villaverde’s characters find themselves instantly and irreparably caught in a vicious double-bind: the moment they break out of an institution in their impulsive grab for independence, they are immediately, utterly dependent on anyone who can provide them with a morsel to eat, a bed to sleep in, or the prospect of earning any money. Andreia in Os Mutantes and Sonia in Transe fall prey to this punishing cycle (comparable to, in a slightly more glamorised key, the itinerary of the central female figure in Benoit Jacquot’s striking À tout de suite [2004].)

 

Villaverde portrays well how boring and tiresome it is for Andreia in Os Mutantes to listen to adult, authority figures as they reprimand her, or try to make her see reason. For her, these conversations are always simply something interfering with her plans, hence stopping her from moving forward. Her deepest motivation would seem to be (if we follows the hints, clues and moods) that she refuses the social equation that positions a fiduciary institution such as a welfare centre (however well-meaning or caring its individual staff) as replacement parents. Andreia closes herself up like a block of ice – ice in various states (blocks, cubes, sheets) is a recurrent motif in Villaverde’s work – so that no one else can know her, or have access to what she is feeling.

 

In the same way that there is a continuity between Ana in Água e sal and Vera in Cisne (they are both artists, economically self-sufficient, broadminded and, despite their evident class status, highly sensitive to the plight of precarious people who are also fighting for their independence), there is a continuity between Andreia in Os Mutantes and Sonia in Transe. In the latter case, this link is emphasised by the fact the same actress (Ana Moreira) plays both characters. Andreia and Sonia have both been dispossessed of their freedom. While Andreia escapes, and affirms her identity by making her own decisions and repeating her name in a mirror (a more dramatic reprise of Antoine Doinel’s ritual in François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, 1968), Sonia keeps her name secret, as if it were the only thing that others cannot take from her, that she can still protect. Andreia applies lipstick as a sign of reclaiming her freedom; while the only way for Sonia to protest her prostituted status is by smearing her lipstick.

 

 

 

These small, direct actions and gestures, in place of typically white-elephant narratives with a social message (Farber 1998), are frequently what give us the key to the characters in Villaverde’s cinema. Their feelings are never really spoken, explained or narrated in any conventional way (the words “I can’t say” and “I don’t know” recur like a mantra throughout her work); rather, they are represented through psychosomatic affects (lack of air and difficulty of breathing, insomnia, sweaty fever, burning, bleeding eyes), explosions of energy (breaking a window in Os Mutantes, bicycling under the sun in Cisne, swimming to the point of exhaustion in Agua e sal …), and dreams or fantasies.

 

In Transe – the film that goes farthest in expressing, by every possible means, the mental state of its heroine – even the landscape becomes a reflection of Sonia’s inner self. The ice that breaks, the trees that fall, or the violent breath of wind form an external representation of her turbulent, inner reality. Sonia is kidnapped by a Mafia ring and forced into prostitution: her journey becomes a descent into the hell of globalised Europe. Humiliated, mistreated, violated and sold, she enters a via crucis that drives her from Russia to Portugal, via Germany and Italy.

 

Transe begins by introducing an important key for its reading: repetition, which associates the individual drama of the central character with its mythical, social and historical aspects. Repetition (of dialogues, situations, settings) becomes a constant, the only possible way of representing the looped, closed circuit in which Sonia moves. This is reinforced by references to the figure of Andrei in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – as Teffi (2014), a contemporary of the Russian author, lamented, “a living person dies once, but Prince Andrei was dying forever, forever”.

 

Isak Dinesen (a likely influence on Villaverde’s artistic sensibility) wrote in her Seven Gothic Tales (1991): “The cure for anything is salt water – tears, sweat, or the sea”. Água e sal, in its title as well as in its landscapes, suggests a process of healing open wounds – both for the woman inside the diegesis and for the director herself, through the creative process of making the film. Transe, by contrast, depicts the trance state as a psychic survival mechanism – a state of complete and utter dissociation that cinema can evoke better than any other medium. The film deploys an extreme formalisation of terror and the fantastic in order to dissolve the distinction between the real and the mental: limbs in space, broken narrative and cinematographic blur are taken to the point of extreme abstraction, as the heroine is immersed in a dance of light and dark, shadows and colours, in a landscape she cannot recognise and though which she wanders, unable to determine its coordinates. As Villaverde remarked in an interview  (Bittencourt 2012): “She’s living in a dream”.

 

4. A Profane Parable

Villaverde’s characters are indeed dreamers (and another of Dinesen’s gothic tales, long nurtured as a film project by Orson Welles, was precisely “The Dreamers”, which has intriguing affinities with Cisne); their fantasy is not always distinguishable from their reality. These realms exist in continuity or blend together, forming a space where memories, imagination and traces of the present co-exist.

 

In Os Mutantes, when Andreia goes to visit her mother, they take up positions sitting next to each other; suddenly, a shot from above shows Andreia walking from the other side of the room, kneeling, and leaning her head against the mother’s legs. As often in Villaverde, the unexpected shift in position and perspective alerts us to the process of radical doubt at the very heart of the film’s interlocking narrative and formal mechanisms – a characteristic which aligns her with a particular tradition of filmmakers including Carl Dreyer and Otto Preminger.

 

Again in Os Mutantes, Andreia imagines her ghostly double leaving the hospital room and stealing two cigarettes, which they then share with complicity; when the double disappears, Andreia still has the object. This continuity is also operative elsewhere in the film, when a boy’s nocturnal fantasy, by the water, conjures an adult soccer player kicking a ball; when we see, in the next shot, this same ball land in the water beside the same boy floating on an air mattress, we can no longer cleanly tell where fantasy ends and reality begins.

 

In Transe, Sonia crosses the limit of the real: she dreams of her Russian homeland, which possesses a white, archaic beauty; and of a child who gives her ice cubes. The various marks and traces of these fantasies reach a hallucinatory point of culmination just before the final scene, and immediately after the brutal rape of Sonia involving humans and dogs that occurs in a small, red cabin (a seeming condensation/transmission of motifs from a not dissimilar, highly abstract and experimental film about sex slavery in Eastern Europe, Philippe Grandrieux’s La vie nouvelle, 2003). In Sonia’s penultimate, dissociative fantasy – introduced by a Lynch-like track forward into the sheer blackness framed by the cabin door – all traits associated with melanxiety find a form: off-screen statements and questions are repeated, childhood is evoked, a princely soldier enters and offers to read to her, as she sits in a white, period costume. This scene is the apotheosis of an idea that has been gradually suggested throughout the film: the link between the heroic male soldiers of wartime and the dispossessed women of today’s globalised world.

 

Such exchanges and gestures as we witness in the scene – Sonia asks for a book, then simply lifts it to her chest from underneath the bottom of the screen – are unreal. Throughout the sequence, the complex, asynchronous mix of music (an orchestral arrangement of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words”, Op. 19) and sound (wind, crickets) further consolidates the inextricability of the levels of real and phantasmic. Everything about the sequence suggests to us that Sonia may really be dying, or already passed over into death – but the subsequent, final tableau refuses to either confirm or deny the hypothesis.

 

Transe works extensively to invoke images of a never-confessed desire. In Cisne, by contrast, the imagined desire is put into words. Vera and Sam meet after having sent love letters to each other over a long period; they both have, each in their own minds, an image of this first encounter. When it finally occurs, these images do not at all coincide: Sam tells Vera that he wants to be in her house without her present, while Vera tells Sam how she imagined approaching and embracing him … In this film, more than any other by Villaverde, the drama is a clash of subjectivities that becomes stronger when the image of a desire that has been kept within oneself for so long does not match the way it unfolds in reality – such as when Pablo at last visits the mother who abandoned him as a child, and this encounter is not how he pictured it.

 

In a section of his book Profanations titled “Desiring”, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben speculates on why human desires are unavowable – that is, why they resist being formulated in words. His answer to this (again, very Villaverdean) mystery is that desires are a matter of quasi-cinematic images, not of rational language – and that these images, the accumulated substance of our imaginary lives, lie in a crypt “somewhere within ourselves, where they remain embalmed, suspended and waiting2. According to Agamben: “The body of desires is an image. And what is unavowable in desire is the image we have made of it for ourselves” (Agamben 2007: 53). Indeed, as he goes on to insist, this crypt of unavowed desire is ourselves, our secret selves.

 

In the philosopher’s view, the daily, commonplace, social exchange of images or desires, in conversation or in media, is merely banal. But to “communicate the imagined desires and the desired images, on the other hand, is a more difficult task”. But isn’t this precisely the task that Teresa Villaverde, in her own, evolving way, has taken as her mission in cinema?

 

For Agamben, playing (as he often does) on the Messianic image-repertoire bequeathed to us by Walter Benjamin, the matter is resolved in a profane parable of the Last Day, when bodies and souls alike shall be released from their solitary crypts. Images will be separated from bodies, he muses, and the result is not so tragic after all, because we will realise that “they have already been fulfilled. Whatever we have imagined, we have already had” (Agamben 2007: 54).

 

Yet there remain the unfulfillable images, on which the Messiah goes to work: “With fulfilled desires, he constructs hell; with unfulfillable images, limbo. And with imagined desire, with the pure word, the beatitude of paradise” (Agamben 2007: 54). The cinema of Teresa Villaverde never ceases to both tie and unpick this image-and-sound skein of hell, limbo and paradise on earth.

 

 

This essay was initially commissioned for the book Portugal’s Global Cinema: Industry, History and Culture (Bloomsbury, 2017) edited by Mariana Liz.

 

 

References

 

Agamben, Giorgio (2007), Profanations (New York: Zone Books).

 

Álvarez López, Cristina (2017), “Transe”, MUBI Notebook, 19 March. <https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/what-is-an-iceberg-close-up-on-teresa-villaverde-s-trance>.

 

Berlant, Lauren (2011), Cruel Optimism (New York: Duke University Press).

 

Bittencourt, Ela (2012), “‘One Day, the Swan Sang This with its Wings’: An Interview with Teresa Villaverde”, Senses of Cinema, no. 65 (December), < http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/feature-articles/one-day-the-swan-sang-this-with-its-wings-an-interview-with-teresa-villaverde/>.

 

Chakali, Saad (2005), “À corps ouvert(s)”, Cahiers du cinéma digital, 22 April (no longer online).

 

Chakali, Saad (2014), “Un doux mystère’, Trafic , no. 90 (Summer), pp. 12-18.

 

Dinesen, Isak (1991), Seven Gothic Tales (New York: Vintage).

 

Durgnat, Raymond (2014), The Essential Raymond Durgnat (London: British Film Institute).

 

Farber, Manny (1998), Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (New York: Da Capo).

 

Gana, Nouri (2004), “Remembering Forbidding Mourning: Repetition, Indifference, Melanxiety, Hamlet”, Mosaic, Vol. 37 No. 2, pp. 59-78.

 

Martin, Adrian (2013), ‘The Moves I: Blood’, Transit, 29 October, <

O sangue

 

Mazierska, Ewa (ed.) (2013), Work in Cinema: Labor and the Human Condition (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

 

Robbe-Grillet, Alain (1989), For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).

 

Teffi (2014), Subtly Worded and Other Stories (London: Pushkin Press).

 

Vanoye, Francis (2005), Récit écrit, récit filmique (Paris: Armand Colin).

 

 

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin October 2014


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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