Monday, September 01, 2008

"Doomed Love / Amor de Perdição (1978): Manoel de Oliveira's Greatest?" - Co-written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (Amor de Perdição, 1978), an adaptation by the director of Camilo Castelo Branco's nineteenth century novel, has very recently emerged as the knowledgeable cinephile's choice for the greatest of Oliveira's films - a position, it should be added, that has found a convenient alibi in the film's virtual invisibility (it remains unreleased anywhere on VHS or DVD). Following a recent 16mm screening of the 265-minute picture at Washington's National Gallery, this piece's two authors can do nothing but agree with the above position, however unlikely it might seem that one of the director's least seen should rate as his very best. That this position is in no small measure a product of the narrative's real emotive strength only reinforces the unlikelihood of its obscurity (in the clandestine context of Oliveira's high art corpus, of course).

Unlike the impossibly arcane focus on Portuguese history and nationality that characterizes many of the director's better films, Doomed Love trades on the more universal Romeo and Juliet plot that Branco's novel triangulates with a second love interest for its male lead Simão (António Sequeira Lopes). The aforesaid devotes himself fully to Teresa (Cristina Hauser), who naturally is the daughter of his father's sworn enemy. Simão is himself worshiped by the beautiful daughter of a blacksmith, Mariana (Elsa Wallencamp), though his star-crossed love for Teresa, accepted if not tacitly endorsed by the second woman, prevents their coupling. Suffice it to say that neither of Oliveira's pairings will find satisfaction, though Mariana will press her lips against Simão's at the moment of his death and then will join him - diving alone through the canted frame - under the water's surface, following his burial at sea.

With Mariana pulling Simão below the water, to be followed by the latter's correspondences floating to the water's surface, where they are promptly snatched by a single hand, Oliveira crystallizes the central thematic preoccupations that animate Doomed Love: this is a film that uses text to reveal that which is hidden by surfaces, as instantiated by the narrator who reveals himself to be the novel's author, and possessor of the letters, in the film's closing voice over. This strategy, while purportedly exceedingly faithful to Branco's novel, nevertheless naturally breaks with cinema's own predilection for exterior manifestation. Here, the novel's interior voices are related in voice-over, both off-screen and on, which both match the images on camera, procuring a redundancy, or more interestingly perhaps, fail to synchronize. Among the finest examples of the latter is Simão's assassination of Teresa's cousin - and fiance - of which we are told of as the pair face one another. Following a fifteen-second gap, the on-screen narration reaches the aforesaid voiced-over revelation, thereby highlighting the novel form's summary quality.

In fact, Doomed Love is structured upon the formal differences between film and literature, appropriating the latter to underline the artificial quality of narration in cinema no less than in the art of prose. This arbitrary quality appears in Oliveira's framing choices, such as in Simão's brother's horse back departure through the woods - adopting a singularly obscuring angle - or in the picture's utilizations of zooms that traverse the interior spaces before abruptly stopping. Then again, Oliveira's organization of space as often emphasizes the inherently cinematic, as when an extended take framing Teresa behind a diamond-shaped iron screen continues to highlight the architectural device throughout the shot's duration, thus becoming not simply a novelistic detail but a figure generating a phenomenological experience in its own right.

This non-literary duration occurs throughout Doomed Love, as in an excessive passage depicting Simão lying face first on his bed or in an interval in which Teresa's father's servants light the candles of a chandelier and roll up a carpet in preparation for the girl's birthday dance. Here the mode of representation again trades on the experience of lived duration, though it does so with the inflection of opera, and of the servant chorus doing double duty as stagehands. Oliveira has adopted this tradition in a medium that no longer requires its practicality. Likewise, the blacksmith João himself seems to follow from theatrical antecedents, even speaking his lines directly into the camera as an actor in theatre or in the opera might speak directly to its audience. By contrast, Simão's younger sister pulls a chair into the camera's immediate foreground as she discloses her family's fate in direct address. In this moment, it is as though the camera is being addressed as a camera, as a device to record for an unspecified future.

Then again, it is the film's past-tense that shines through most clearly, from the opening titles that will only later be fulfilled in Simão's transport to India, to the picture's obsessive strategy of narration that seeks to tell a family history in the same language as the novel. This is a cinema of the past, and thus of fate, of "doomed love," rather than of the perpetual present-tense that the medium traditionally utilizes. To this end, Mariana's premonitions of Simão's future serves to make the future past, evisioned as it is in her off-camera imagings. These hallucinations, as well as the on-screen spectre of a dead, dictating Teresa provide the film with some of its less conventional modes of address. In the end, Doomed Love is a catalogue of modes of telling in its many cinematic and non-cinematic forms.

Further, this strategy of summary is further reinforced by Oliveira's uses of sound and dialogue that (seem to) literally transpose the source material, such as in a conversation between Simão's parents where the voice-over specifies that they argue. In so doing, the filmmaker eliminates the dialogue that would comprise this argumentation, choosing instead to adopt the novel's summary quality. They simply argue, silently.

This effort of transcription may also be found in the extreme low-key nocturnal passages that recur in Doomed Loved, though in these instances it is a matter of detail rather than elision, even if elision is the visual effect of pronounced darkness. Most spectacularly, the film's principle action set piece occurs in the pitch black of night, eschewing cinema's technically-demanded perversions of naturalism in conventional day-for-night strategies. In greatly reducing the visual field, Doomed Love, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) and Victor Erice's El Sur (1983) follows Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) in simulating its period's lower key lighting. In other words, it seems to be very much an art film of its particular moment.

Then again, as always, Manoel de Oliveira's modernism singularly partakes in a relation to the arts that generated cinema, from the novel to opera. Indeed, its stage-bound settings refer more to opera or theatre than art cinema's conventional documentations of place, such as in the plaster board sea-going and stage-coach vessels that reinforce its constructedness. Yet, while much of the director's corpus ultimately underscores cinema's deficient nature, as an augment of theatre, here Oliveira's anti-cinema adds to its medium, providing a means to supply the sub-surface while reframing cinema as precisely what it is: not life, but art - and art which is as gloriously and exhilaratingly arbitrary as its many antecedents.

5 comments:

nathaniel drake carlson said...

While I appreciate the well considered thought that went into this assessment and I certainly acknowledge the formal accomplishments you speak of I'm afraid I just can't agree. I wish I could.

I recently and finally saw this during the retrospective in Chicago and brought along two friends, one of whom teaches theatre and the other film. I knew more or less what to expect and I thought this would be a perfect group to experience it with. The friend who teaches theatre had never seen any Oliveira before though he was well informed and prepared as well. My other friend was, admittedly, less amenable to this from the start as he is hardly an Oliveira fan and gets stuck on the dialogue heavy nature of the films. He understands and appreciates that this is endemic to Oliveira's project but that doesn't endear it to him. I set all this up so that I can attempt to somewhat justify my own response as not totally anomalous.

Almost from the start I was not liking what I was seeing and my discontent grew rapidly and deepened over the course of the next hour and a half. I was literally startled when intermission arrived as I genuinely felt as though the screening had already lasted the full 4 + hours. The remaining two were virtually unbearable and I was really disappointed to be exposing my friends to this one as a necessary experience purely on the basis of its overwrought reputation. Though they were good sports about the whole thing neither were impressed by it.

And it's not as though we were missing the relevant insight here. God knows I'm an ardent enthusiast for Oliveira but in all honesty I prefer almost anything else to this. My friends and I all complelety grasped the details you analyze here but it just was in no way enough to justify the picture's excruciating length.

For me it functions as an archival piece mostly, capturing a specific stage in the development of Oliveira's aesthetic. It does have value in that sense, yes, but I can't understand or relate to the excessive enthusiasm from people whose opinions I respect, such as yourselves, Zach Campbell, Rosenbaum, etc. Once again, for me almost every facet of this picture which you point to has been refined since this to achieve considerably more impressive aims. The foregrounding of the formal moves on their own has little resonance for me.

Also, I just can't believe that the content here which all the meta-textual gestures are designed to elucidate didn't just feel like profoundly boring, hoary old material to you. One of the things Oliveira generally does so very well is select great texts to adapt or else engage with terrific collaborators in a visionary way. But this basic narrative material is so relentlessly banal and solipsist and (perhaps intentionally) hermetically limited in scope or resonance that I simply could not care less. The formal advances are wasted on all this nonsense and don't elevate matrerial which has so little depth or worth. I assume we are meant to be compelled and astonished by the concept of devotion itself in its panoply of expressivity, ranging from rational to irrational and be then compelled to assess the legitimacy of our own assessment of it. But if the "love story" at the center has such arrested ambition it's hard to see it, once again, as deserving of this treatment. Is the point that it shouldn't have to be any particular kind of love to merit that? Okay, but even so it still feels oh so very slight by comparion to the virtual perfection of something like La Lettre.

Zach Campbell over at Elusive Lucidity also makes an elegant case for the metaphysical implications of Oliveira's techinque but ultimately is left with skeptical conclusions regarding the foundation of his own investigation. Deservedly so in my opinion and I hate to say that. I can't help but think that this very fact though, specifically the implication that the metaphysical potency of Doomed Love may be subjective and self-applied and thus easier to ultimately disregard or reject with relief, is the very reason for its stunning popularity with somebody like Rosenbaum, whom I can't take seriously anymore since his dismissal of Valley of Abraham (Oliveira's greatest film in my view) and his highly dubious list of Oliveira's films in ranked order of preference.

Anyway, sorry to ramble on like that but I would genuinely like to know your thoughts on these matters as I suspect your attitudes are closer to my own than mine are to either Campbell or Rosenbaum. Thanks again for the well considered write up.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Nathaniel,

Thank you for your fine comments.

I suppose, ultimately, my assessment of Doomed Love's place among Oliveira's work derives from my opinions on Francisca and Valley of Abraham, which I feel very strongly are his two best works other than Doomed Love. Francisca may have it beat on its formal radicalism and Valley of Abraham on its level of entertainment (relative to Oliveira's corpus) but I do think Doomed Love brings something substantial to bare on both fronts. I personally find it more moving than Francisca and more formally adventurous and rigorous than Valley of Abraham. I look at it as the Oliveira film that has it all, and that, to wit, does not seem to strike such an avowedly anti-cinematic position, but rather adds to cinema's equation.

Also, Rosenbaum's Oliveira piece was flummoxing and the list beyond arbitrary. Actually, it was quite honestly stupid.

Michael

Lisa adds: Doomed Love is exceptional for the balance it strikes between the literary, the theatrical and the cinematic, something achieved by neither of the two other works mentioned. Also, its strong artifice in its aesthetic may just be a matter of a personal preference that Michael and I share.

Kevin Wilson said...

There's no opportunity in the UK to see any of de Oliveira's films, but I noticed my local library has a VHS of Abraham's Valley, the director's take on Madame Bovary. Would you recommend this?

On a different note, how did you manage to get the "new film" and "classic film" segments on the right hand side of the blog? It doesn't seem to be in the layout
templates. I was just wondering for my own blog.

Ta.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Kevin,

I very much recommend "Abraham's Valley," which to my thinking is one of the three finest Oliveira pictures I have seen (among the 15-20, roughly). Among his not insignificant number of masterpieces, it is rates with the very best, including "Doomed Love." While I have stated my preference for "Doomed Love," largely on the level of its formal/stylistic rigor, "Abraham's Valley" is to my mind a more consistently engaging experience. Do see it.

Also, you can add items like "New Film" or "Classic Film" through the "Add a Widget" command within the "Customize" tab. Sorry to all you non-bloggers out there.

Jason Hedrick said...

Michael and Lisa - you have an exceptional blog, and I thank you for your articulate appreciation of "Doomed Love." All that you mention here--the way in which it "adds to cinema's equation" and strikes a balance between "the literary, the theatrical, and the cinematic" seems so in tune with elements I find exciting in my experience with film. But, I have to say, even though I am not familiar with de Oliveira's work, and I even anticipate seeing "Valley of Abraham," I cannot imagine any other reason for the praise "Doomed Love" has received, which I saw at the Gene Siskel Film Center a few years back, than a fetishistic, perhaps egoistic, engagement with the most obscure, bleak corners of cinema history. I say that knowing full well that an auteur as influential as de Oliveira is always interesting to cineastes in the entirety of their filmography, and with an experiential knowledge of what it is like to defend those bleak corners myself...but, my god, "Doomed Love" is a slog. Even while re-reading your descriptive passages, I failed to reengage or even recall any of it, my brain perhaps recoiling as it did post-screening, when I stood outside the theater amazed and relieved at how quickly the whole experience had fallen out of mind. With that said, one of my passions is the ongoing conversation of great film, particularly the avant-garde, the meta-cinematic, the farthest, most challenging reaches. I would never tell anyone that they are wrong for liking what they like--I taught film for a number of years, and although the temptation has presented itself, it gets you nowhere. I believe you love "Doomed Love" for all of the reasons you expound on here--keep up the great work. Ultimately, I just needed to express how confounding it is to me that there are people out there who love this film. Thanks for your time, jjh