When I reviewed "Belle Toujours," I promised I would not comment again on director Manoel de Oliveira's age. Of course I lied. The Portuguese master marked his 100th year on this pale blue dot by releasing his 16th film of this young millennium (counting shorts) and has already followed up with "The Strange Case of Angelica" (2010) considered by many to be not only his best film of the past decade, but one of the best films on the festival circuit this year. For the record, I agree wholeheartedly.
"Eccentricities of Blond-Haired Girl" is no minor release either. Like many of the director's recent features, "Eccentricities" whisks by at a brisk running time, but in just 64 minutes he manages to pack in a sly, thorough dissection of male egotism and a heartfelt ode to the arts.
As the film opens, Macario (Ricardo Trêpa, the director's 37 year old grandson), an accountant from Lisbon, relates his tale of woe to a stranger on a train (recent De Oliveira regular Leonor Silveira). It is, Macario assures her, an epic tale of doomed love, a tragedy that surpasses understanding. Though, quite oddly, she hardly ever looks directly at him, she appears to hang on every word.
"What happened next you cannot imagine."
"What happened next?"
Actually, what happens is not only quite imaginable, it's fairly mundane, and Macario's penchant for the dramatic flourish is one of several ways in which De Oliveira underscores his protagonist's vanity. The story begins one day when Macario, hard at work (or hardly working) in his office, spies a beautiful young woman (Catarina Wallenstein) leaning out a window across the street and waving an antique Chinese fan. This perfect, painterly image is enough to capture his heart, which is a good thing because the "Blonde-Haired Girl" (Luisa) never becomes anything more than a pretty picture, or a collection of fetishistic "eccentricities," for Macario to look at and then project his own fantasies onto.
Watching the film, I was struck by the ways in which this old-fashioned love story mirrors the heady experience of Internet romance. It's amazing how easy it is to fall head over heels for a username, an avatar, and a few shared photos when that ambiguously-defined person just coincidentally happens to be the very person of your dreams. As with most virtual romances, Macario's fantasy doesn't quite gibe with reality, but more on that later.
De Oliveira may or may not be Internet savvy, but I'm certain that 19th century author José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, whose short story served as an inspiration for this short film, wasn't a big instant messenger. But De Oliveira's films, much like the director, have a strange way of spanning eras. Many scenes in the film feel like they could easily be taking place in the 19th century of the short story, yet there are indisputably contemporary markers: a computer, the use of euros, etc. Perhaps everything blurs together when you're one of the few (very) active directors whose life almost completely encompasses the lifetime of cinema. The effect is quite pleasing, adding a slightly surreal dimension to the viewing experience.
As Macario's "unimaginable" story unfolds, it's clear that he is an unreliable narrator, seeing the events, much like he sees Luisa, through a very limited perspective. Everyone is out to get him. His marriage plans are foiled at every step, first by a strict uncle who denies his request to marry (another 19th century artifact) and later by economic problems plaguing Europe during the current recession/Depression. But the shit really hits the fan (pun intended) when, after his heroic travails, he finally wins his obscure object of desire and takes his first real look at her. The instant he discovers an "eccentricity" that doesn't fit in with his specific vision of his blond-haired girl, well, you cannot imagine what happens next. In this final moment, De Oliveira's condemnation of his conceited, clueless protagonist is both devastating (particularly for Luisa) and rather funny in a deflating, depressing way.
De Oliveira also takes time out to acknowledge his debt to author Eça de Queiroz who, in another time-compressing feature, is mentioned prominently and reverently in the course of the telling of his own story. The director also features quite a few lovely sculptures and paintings along the way. Many of his shots are meticulously composed portraits themselves, frames within frames that beg you to watch several times just to focus on different planes within the image.
The view from Macario's office is marvelously dynamic. Paintings hang on each side of the opening to his balcony, one shrouded in darkness, the other half-visible after he raises the curtains and lets in the Lisbon sunlight. Seen through the balcony is Luisa's window, now shuttered and covered by its own curtain, looking for all the world like it could be a painting as well. And when it opens and Luisa stands there fanning herself, it has transformed into yet another painting, one with a subject so lovely the nearby church bells must ring out loudly to herald her appearance. Watch this scene (it starts exactly at the 10 minute mark on the disc) which begins in almost total darkness (just a lattice work patch of light on the floor is visible) and reveals one wonder after another and you will begin to understand the genius of this centenarian master.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer. Image detail is fairly strong throughout, but my impression is that the colors (esp. yellows) are a bit muted, though the generally flat look of many scenes is intentional as so many shots are composed like portraits. Detail isn't quite as strong in some of the darker shots and some digital artifacting is discernible, but overall this is another strong release by Cinema Guild.
The DVD is presented with option to listen in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. I don't think there's a huge difference between the two, and the sound design is fairly straightforward marked either by silences or dialogue (all clearly-mixed) with virtually no music or ambient sound. Optional English subtitles support the Portuguese dialogue.
Cinema Guild has included two wonderful extras.
"The Panels of Sao Vincente de Fora: A Poetic Vision" is a 2009 short film (15 min.) by the industrious De Oliveira that I'll admit I didn't quite cotton to, but it's great to have nonetheless. The disc also includes a lengthy press conference from the 2009 Berlin Film Festival (73 min.) in which we see that our hero is still sharp as a tack (and only needs light use of his cane) and works a crowd as if he's been doing it for about 70 years.
The DVD also includes a Trailer and a tantalizing preview (9 min.) of De Oliveira's newest film "The Strange Case of Angelica" which should get your mouth watering if you haven't had the chance to catch it at a festival yet. I hope this means Cinema Guild will be releasing the DVD early in 2011.
The slim 4-page insert booklet features an essay by critic and programmer James Quandt.
"Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl" is the perfect jumping-on point for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with a director whose becomes more vital and relevant with each passing year. Cinema Guild is quickly becoming a favorite with film buffs for its high quality release of great contemporary films, and this one of the strongest additions to their library.