Eccentricities of a dead girl
Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is 103 years old - just turned 103 a few days before I write this, in fact. I lead with this because every review of a de Oliveira film is forced to reckon with this fact, on account of every single time he makes a movie, it sets a record that isn't going to be beat anytime soon (the likeliest candidate to pass de Oliveira, Clint Eastwood, would have to still be making films in 2034), and also because it allows the reviewer to perhaps unconsciously make certain allowances. It is, after all, damned impressive that a 103-year-old man is making movies, even if he's the sharpest 103-year-old in the best shape of any centenarian in the history of human aging, and if those movies are a little bit on the simple, minor side... I mean, fuck, are you going to be the one to tell the 103-year-old that his movies aren't hugely ambitious? And thus it is that a pragmatically tiny and "uncinematic" - a word that's awfully easy to use, even though by definition, anything that is screened in a cinema is necessarily "cinematic" - movie like Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl can get, not over-praised, maybe, but certainly it's easy to give it an extra point just for the fact that he made it.*
No such allowances necessary for The Strange Case of Angélica (which was, anyway, filmed when de Oliveira was 101, and that's just way less impressive), a film that is in every way a fine achievement, and would be even if it had been the first film of a brash twentysomething, though it's hard to imagine any twentysomething who'd be willing to put so much care and emphasis into something as featherlight as this blend of fable, social study, and philosophical tract, in which nothing that any human does is quite as arresting as the shot of a cat studying, with grave intention, a birdcage several feet off the ground. And that would be the twentysomething's loss.
The film's plot reads like magical realism, and that's probably the most accurate way to describe it, although it doesn't quite fit. Anyway: a particular callow young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is called late one night on an emergency job. It turns out that Angélica (Pilar López de Ayala), the daughter of a wealthy family, died very unexpectedly, and her surviving relatives desire that she be preserved photographically while her body remains beautiful. Lacking any real opinion on anything, Isaac performs this task without complaint, though when he trains the camera on the dead girl, she opens her eyes and smiles at him with a warm, friendly look. This throws him. It does not, however, trigger feelings of horror, nor does it kick off a meditation on the nature of death, but places him in a transport of emotion, where he sees in the form of Angélica's spirit - de Oliveira doesn't ever make it clear, and doesn't especially seem to care, if the things Isaac sees here and later are real, or a dream, or a hallucination.
Any assumption one might make that this is headed for Ghost and Mrs. Muir or even Laura territory is so far off target as to beggar description; indeed, it's hard to say that The Strange Case of Angélica is really headed anywhere in particular, though Isaac's obsession with the girl does form enough of a narrative spine that we cannot call it shapeless. What shape there is, however, is exquisitely shaggy, the unhurried telling of a story that drifts into a number of sidetracks - the fellow inhabitants of Isaac's rooming house discuss astrophysics over breakfast, while Isaac himself is taken up with a project documenting the construction workers in the city, with the implication being that he wants to prove that they existed before heavy machinery drives the craft to extinction. It is, in short, a film that has been fleshed out with things that de Oliveira finds interesting, and we're invited, but not forced, to equate the director with the young photographer, snapping images here and there, fascinated as much by the shape of images as by the meaning of them. A lifetime of work in the cinema (de Oliveira has had a career longer than nearly any other important filmmaker has been alive) has left the director with a well-honed eye, and with cinematographer Sabine Lancelin (a baby of 52, who has made several other films with the director), he has assembled a number of shots that are incredibly perfect and incredibly casual about it, assembling images that don't jump out at you with their stylish excess, because the filmmaker simply has too much self-assurance to need to show off. A picture's worth a thousand words, and since I can, I shall show you what I mean, rather than fumble about trying to describe it.
Leaving the beautiful compositions aside - not without reluctance - everything about The Strange Case of Angélica speaks to an absolute confidence of craftsmanship. It is neither hurried nor deliberately slow-moving in the fashion of Antonioni or Tarkovsky, instead pausing for moments with a kind of curiosity about where they're going; there are a number of paradoxes that resolve themselves simply because the film doesn't seem to mind that they exist - the archaism of the images and dialogue clashing with the modern settings, or the evocative off-screen sound playing against shots in which the frame closes off the world and seems to deny that such a thing as off-screen space even exists. It is an old-fashioned 21st Century movie, in which visual effects are used precisely because they look fake and thus magical, rather than because they trick us into believing things that aren't there.
Looking as unique as it does, the film is still chiefly about the human feelings and thoughts within it; though there's no useful distinction between image and emotional narrative here, which is of course as it should be. This is still, ultimately, a little snip of a thing about being shaken up by strong feelings that we might as well call love, even with all of the distractions and such along the way, which could feel unbearably aimless if the whole thing wasn't presented with such crispness and complete lack of fussiness. The very same light touch that threatens to make The Strange Case of Angélica seem hurtfully minor is what saves it from being dull: de Oliveira takes nothing terribly seriously, and yet finds everything equally worthy of note, and if his movie is insubstantial, it's only because everyday life sometimes is as well.