Manoel de Oliveira, whom I blogged about before for his Belle tuojours, was born in 1908. Do the math. The man is 103. I loved his 2009 film, Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl. There’s something very Bunuel-ian about him.
The Strange Case of Angelica is a simple story. Isaac (Ricardo Trepa) is a photographer called upon to take some shots of Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), the recently deceased daughter of a wealthy family. As he takes the photos Angelica turns to him and smiles. No one else seems to notice. As he develops the photos the same happens. As he obsessed over Angelica, Isaac is also drawn to a group of nearby farm workers, whom he photographs regularly.
Similar to Bunuel in his straight-faced delivery, commentary by peripheral characters, and his fascination with the absurd, de Oliveira is also far more sentimental and whimsical. While things don’t always work out for his protagonists, his narratives are strewn with romanticism and nostalgia.
de Oliveira’s style is deceptively simple. The camera hardly moves, and frequently frames the characters in wide-shot with too much head-room, emphasizing their smallness (in the environment, and in the larger plot…and in the world). The director is not interested in direct explanation. His is a film that purports the old adage that the photograph is a window into the soul. A mantra that is reinforced by the closing of windows in the final shot, the de Oliveira is interested in looking, and looking as a way of falling in love. The film – as Isaac falls in love with Angelica via photography and becomes obsessed with the workers to the extent that he must photograph them – is an extended metaphor for the pure pleasure of viewing, and finding solace in uncomplicated images.
While there are certainly Blow-Up comparisons to be made, de Oliveira isn’t remaking a film via photography as Antonioni’s protagonist does. Nor is he revealing some internal (to the photograph and character) meaning through that diegetic celluloid. This is a less a mystery than a romance. Though it’s hard – nearly impossible – to accurately decipher the workers in the field, their role seems to be appropriate: Isaac’s obsession drives him from the banal talk enjoyed by the other boarder’s at his apartment. He yearns for a type of simplicity embodied by Angelica and obtained by love. The rhythmic, sweat-driver field work is the closest thing he can find.
I’ve included a few frames from the film below. These don’t make up a full sequence, but clearly illustrate de Oliveira’s style:
de Oliveira’s framing is so odd. The first shot above represents the strange wide-shots at play. The frame is fairly balanced, though Isaac is clearly the subject in the foreground and standing. Still, nearly equal weight is given to the side characters, and our attention is split between a non-reacting protagonist and active throwaway lines.
The 3-shot below it is so crowded and flatly framed. Almost any other film would shoot this in side-framed shot-reverses to get a little more depth. de Oliveira’s frame looks almost comical and perhaps that’s the intent – these are characters after all who talk about nothing in particular while quietly gossiping about Isaac.
The third shot has depth to it, but is a nice representation of how de Oliveira tends to show a space. Couple this one with the first shot and you get a series of straight forward, 180 degree reverses. It’s counter to a lot of classical filmmaking, which might search for other angles, or move the camera for visual interest. de Oliveira lets the negative space linger, and really isolates the characters through the actual composition and the lighting. Notice how Isaac is dramatically framed by the window and how that light is thrown on the bird cage? That bird will eventually die, furthering the relationship between windows and the soul.
The last still there is just to show the exaggerated wide-shots and overwhelming space frequently at play. Almost all of these have a certain amount of awkwardness to them, as though you might expect something more to happen – whether it be camera or character movement. It’s as though de Oliveira wants something to be pervasively – if barely – off.
Edge of Darkness
I don’t really have much to say about this film. It’s a straight-up action film, with Mel Gibson doing a bad Boston accent and playing a cop who’s daughter was gunned down in front of his house. I haven’t seen the series on which it was based, though I’m hoping that it’s more remarkable than this one.
Edge of Darkness isn’t a bad film, it’s just rather uninteresting. I’ve never been a Martin Campbell fan, either. Though he apparently directed the series, his subsequent films are all fairly typical genre fare, the main exception being Casino Royale, which really did inject some life into the Bond series. Still, that’s only a standout because of its task of reviving something long dead, not creating something from scratch.
Edge of Darkness does have a few cinematic moments worth noting, particularly one where, just pre-car crash, the camera lingers for a few seconds to long at an angle that isn’t quite ideal. It predicts the car crash by doing so. We’d expect the cut, but because we don’t get it our minds, whether consciously or not, fill in the blank: ‘why haven’t we cut back to Mel yet? Oh, because something is about to happ-‘ And then the car crash. It’s a technique that’s all over films, and is particularly effective in the awesome short film Spider.
On a bit of a tangent, I looked at Mel Gibson’s filmography. It’s tough to believe that the last film that I legitimately like that he was in was Ransom (apologies to all of you Payback, Million Dollar Hotel, What Women Want and The Patriot fans). Even that film isn’t great – it’s just entertaining. Ransom was made in 1996. That’s a hell of a slump.