Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 22, 2009 2:40 pm 
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Old-fashioned storytelling, stylish but odd

This measured-paced tale (Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura) by the Portuguese master, who's now over 100 years old, is from a short story by 19th-century 'realist' Eça de Queiroz. In De Oliveira's treatment, the story gains a surreal feeling and its basic structure makes it seem rather like a fairy-tale or fable. In the frame setting, the protagonist, Macário (Ricardo Trêpa) sits next to an elegant middle-aged lady (Leonor Silveira) on a train to Algarve and tells her he's unhappy, and that he'll tell her why. She's all ears, the tale unfolds.

In Lisbon, Macário had an orderly, somewhat pampered existence, living with his uncle Francisco (Diogo Dória) and working as the accountant upstairs above the uncle's attached textile business.

And then one day Macário sees a beautiful blond woman in the window opposite, waving a Chinese fan, and he falls hopelessly in love with her. She is Luisa (Catarina Wallerstein), and she lives with her mother (Júlia Buisel). Macario goes to some trouble to be introduced to Luísa, and is tongue-tied, but she immediately responds and takes him in tow.

Very shortly Mácario asks Tio Francisco's permission to marry. But his uncle refuses point blank. Mácario says he'll marry anyway. "Then you're fired," Francisco says, "and get out of my house. Now." The hero moves to a tiny room and soon runs out of money, unable to get a job with anyone he knows, because they don't want to displease his uncle. Macário seizes an opportunity to go and work in the Cape Verde islands and comes back with a fortune. Luísa has waited for him, but his generosity to a friend causes him to be duped and he loses his whole Cape Verde nest egg. Though his uncle reverses his positions and asks him back, a desire for independence forces Macário back to the islands for another lucrative stint. But after all this he ends by discovering Luisa was not worthy of him in the first place.

The film-making here is elegant and beautiful, and the abruptness and cruelty of events call to mind Patrice Chéreau's stunning 19th-century tale Gabrielle (2005) -- which, however, has more emotional power, a richer mise-en-scene, and more three-dimensional characters.

We are clearly in the Old Europe in Eccentricities, with its old-fashioned interiors, spacious, geometrical street scenes and big windows with well-lit views. One particularly lovely shot shows a large mirror with a stairway and rooms behind it, all suffused in a golden light. The simplicity and austerity of the film are enhanced by having no music, except for a harp played at a chamber concert at the home of a wealthy man (a scene again somewhat reminiscent of Gabrielle).

The word "eccentricities" is ironic, but the film has its own eccentricities, since the action has a distinct 19th-century quality but prices are in euros and clothes and accoutrements are 21st-century (if not obtrusively so). Also strange is much of the behavior; motivations are never clear. Why does Macário fall in love so fast? Why is he in his uncle's charge? Why does his uncle refuse -- but later reverse himself? Nothing is revealed about Luísa, except for her superficial appeal and coquettish allure. Her perpetual Chinese fan makes her more a symbol or a motif than a real young woman. All of this might make more sense if set more distinctly in the period of the writer, but it is still stylized storytelling, rather than Zola-esque 19th-century realism. What does it mean then to say Eça de Queiroz was a 'realist' writer? Though fascinating for its composure and elegance, the film seems largely a curiosity.

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl(2009) was a selection of the 2009 New York Film Festival and seen at Lincoln Center as part of the festival.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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