It’s right there in the title. No, not the “BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL” part, that object of beauty framed in her window like an untouchable museum piece. The detractors don’t seem to notice anything beyond this crumbling skeleton of a Victorian romance, inspired as it is by realist writer Eca de Queiroz, but Manoel de Oliveira’s 2009 film wouldn’t know realism if it spiraled into prostitution to support its family of invalid immigrants who just finished off the leftovers of their faithful dog. No, ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL is a batty, bizarre little picture that parlays this ancient tale into a playful interrogation of freedom like Bunuelian graffiti on a church wall. This is a film that comes alive in the eccentricities.
Not that the romance bit is heavy or clumsy or humorless. It’s just that the obscure object of desire is a popular European plot right now, and ECCENTRICITIES shares more than story with its neighbors. In Oliveira’s swirl, you can easily distinguish the curious cannibalism of Resnais’ WILD GRASS, the dangerous obsession of Rivette’s THE DUCHESS OF LANGEAIS, and the earnest anachronism of Rohmer’s ROMANCE OF ASTREE AND CELADON. There’s the faint scent of the contemplation of Guerin’s IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA, and its cousin, the moody longing of Garrel’s FRONTIER OF DAWN, and you can just make out the sweet dryness of Skolimowski’s FOUR NIGHTS WITH ANNA. ECCENTRICITIES, though, is more than a film festival’s greatest hits. In Oliveira’s cubist kleptomaniac hands, the concoction is entirely sui generis.
Your first sign is the way this old-fashioned love labor, where polite society abides by inviolable rules, navigates a Lisbon of high-speed trains and computerized accounting, this film’s manifestation of Oliveira’s peculiar form of time-travel. Then you notice the frames, windows, and mirrors, then stairs and angles, then the bifurcated establishing shots that cut between two different times of day. It’s a maze, a geometric jumble that really announces its postmodernism in the centerpiece, a sequence of art performance set in a room dedicated to the author of the story the film was based on—and we’re not talking about Borges. It’s here that our hero Ricardo Trêpa barely listens (from another room as he watches others gamble) to a recitation of a poem by Pessoa (by another name) about the struggle between the burdens of compassion and the totally bearable lightness of hedonism before deciding responsibility’s a drag. And like that, Pessoa usurps Queiroz’ throne in the box just offstage, shadowing everything else.
It may be just a step above a character looking at the camera and asking if we get it, and when the film winks at TRISTANA we nod knowingly, but you could do worse than quote Pessoa, and Oliveira’s mixed media tendencies allow him to transcend a narrative this slight and arbitrary, performed by characters ridiculously contrived to teach our guy a lesson. Oliveira’s playfulness is borne out by the actors, who must provide some momentum in a film told entirely in static shots with precise framing: witness Trêpa’s funny little dance alone in his room, or the way Trêpa winds all the way around the room only to discover he was standing next to the guy he was looking for in the first place, or the way the train sequences are cheated so both actors are inexplicably facing us during this intimate confession. Then there’s narrative meta, as when Trêpa’s having a good cry and some guy accosts him because he left his hat in the scene. And self-consciousness, too, in the way the blonde kicks her leg back during the kiss—WILD GRASS without the orchestral studio music. The love story’s elegantly told (and resolved with comical speed), but the eccentricities are what linger, the tantalizing little mysteries that don’t really matter but keep you thinking about the relationship between formal aesthetics and narrative, not to mention Pessoa’s concept of truly individual actors. With ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL, it’s like Oliveira peed his pants while playing harp and people think his flubbed note was an accident.
[ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLONDE-HAIRED GIRL is currently available on Netflix Watch Instant.]
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and just joined Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.