The iconic drumbeat of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” has elevated a number of films to an almost classic status: ‘Mean Streets,’ ‘Dirty Dancing,’ and now Miguel Gomes’ ‘Tabu’. A movie with the rhythm of doomed love deep in its bones, Gomes effectively (read: sparingly) deploys his soundtrack to mirror the emotional swells in both the characters and audience alike.
The first half (dubbed “Paradise Lost”), where the companionship among a triumvirate of women (an ageing woman, her black maid and her neighbour) in a modern-day Lisbon apartment complex, is given all the detail of a domestic chamber-piece. Then, the sudden death of one of them prompts an extended flashback (dubbed “Paradise”), only slightly connected (at least prima facie) to the master narrative and set decades earlier in colonial Africa, a ravishingly visualized locale where an illicit love affair is silently witnessed by a spectral, melancholic crocodile.
Much has been made of how ‘Tabu’ frolics with cinematic tropes at will (references to ‘Bande à part,’ ‘Out of Africa’ and even ‘Crocodile Dundee’ are littered here and there, though never overbearingly), but you needn’t be a pedant; its loose themes of sin, regret and history are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film that they never really detract from the prevailing mood of playful romance. Indeed, fluidity is at the very core of Gomes’ aesthetic; ‘Tabu’ has the breathless, non-sequitur momentum of a dream. The second half of this inverted diptych has no diegetic sound, for instance, save for the occasional trace of footsteps, water or clapping hands. It is an especially beguiling example of muted melodrama: time passes, people change, events occur, but the singular moments of transgression linger. It’s a film of real depth, despite its light touch.
Guy Maddin, one the other hand, is certainly not renowned for a genteel approach to his monochrome subject matter. The new film from this Canadian extraordinaire is called ‘Keyhole,’ which succinctly conveys the voyeuristic pleasures that lie therein. Inspired by 1930s gangster flicks, the film re-imagines The Odyssey as a deadbeat dad returning to his home (with his criminal bedfellows in tow) and simultaneously dealing with all his childhood memories. Adopting only a couple of film noir aspects, however, Maddin mines his pet tropes of domestic unease and psychosexuality, featuring vaudevillian skits that include a bicycle-powered torture instrument, a ghost that screams in between drinking a glass of milk, and a funny-if-juvenile recasting of the ‘cyclops’ as a dusty penis that Ullyses’ father-in-law chooses to fellate.
I’m not denying that it’s a rather perverse (what Maddin film isn’t?) and sometimes barely coherent exploration of Freudian chaos, but it certainly doesn’t warrant such negative reviews it has been receiving from the press who consistently fail to appreciate the richly extra-textual nature of all Guy Maddin’s cinema. (If they were bemused by ‘Keyhole,’ his reported next project, involving filming live seances in public places, looks to be stranger still.) Building an implacable series of bold provocations, these 93 minutes felt like an even darker emulation of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s ‘L’Age d’Or’ with its string of surrealist signs and gags. But touching only upon its shimmering idiosyncrasies and fetishistic paraphernalia, though, it is all too easy to miss the surprising amount of poignancy and warmth underlying Ullyses’ madcap quest to undo the damage that time’s arrow inflicts on all of our lives. It’s about the searching sorrow of a wanderer who wishes to “return what was lost” and finally recover from the inchoate anxieties of the past.
I’m a little late to watching this polarizing film, having only caught it whilst on holiday at ‘Zeffirellis’, the self-proclaimed “one of the best” (and, incidentally, one of the very few) cinemas in the Lake District. As yet another film which takes a stance on the inevitable pendulum of love, ‘Take This Waltz’ coldly opens with a scene which fails to impress: a solitary Margot (Michelle Williams) is coerced by a group of Nova Scotian tourists into historically re-enacting the flogging of an adulterer. For a film that’s about the confronting of marital issues and the emotional anguish of wavering between two lovers, her tender husband Lou and local boy Daniel, the scene is the dramaturgical equivalent of a flogging of audience. ‘Take This Waltz’, with its contrast between the prosaic and the popular, becomes a rom-com that flaunts all the familiar tropes but with a focus on metaphors to emphasise meaning. It’s an uphill battle, but director Sarah Polley does redeem herself, if just.
Some critics have dismissed the ritualised baby-coo exchanges (“I wuv you so much I want to mash your head with a potato masher”) of Lou and Margot as insufferably precious, but I interpreted them as rather slick signifiers of the cosy void of long-term relationships. Such exchanges are the result of desexualised intimacy, of having very little left to say after so many years together. Polley then sadly scuppers these well-conceived skits with clunky emphases (in this case, an anniversary dinner extends into awkward silence which Margot, of course, just has to vocally acknowledge). This a film where every conceit is contrived: a seemingly earnest inversion of ‘When Harry Met Sally’’s signature scene, which finds Margot silently suppressing an orgasm in a martini bar; the juxtaposed bodies of the elderly and young in a communal shower so as to demonstrate how the ageing waltz is unkind to both dreams and flesh alike; and Margot’s fear of airports – “I don’t like making connections” – as a bright neon sign of subtext, of her fear of being between two relationships. These elements are confirmed by the candy-coated cinematography (an overkill of summery red that makes ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ look like the epitome of restraint) and a self-consciously overthought sense of how hipsters live (indeed, Daniel supports his painting by dragging a rickshaw around Toronto each day).
Elevating the ironic sanguine of Video Killed The Radio Star (a pop anthem that’s concerned with how the arrival of something new-fangled makes something else seem obsolete) to almost a form of transcendence, however, Polley does succeed in replicating the richly melancholic end-of-adolescence, joy-versus-fear of transition that Greg Mottola perfected in ‘Adventureland’. With Michelle Williams customarily doing a fine job at being impish and immature, her naturalness is encapsulated in the fleeting moments of Margot’s complete abandon which expose the real crux of her stark decision. In fact, once you overcome the few frustrations of the screenplay, the central performances enable this tale of midlife malaise to seem quite genuine (that is, if you can also ignore Sarah Silverman’s stunt-cameo as the Holy Fool Who Speaks the Truth which recalls Michael Shannon in ‘Revolutionary Road’). With her lack of stimulation finally collapsing the relationship’s foundations, Margot leaves Lou for Daniel and their opposing libertine lifestyle is singularly conveyed in a circling 360-degree ménage a trois sequence scored to the titular song by Leonard Cohen. After this risqué, near-Ophülsian scene, we see Margot and Daniel not knowing what else to say or do to/with each other. (Taking into account ‘Away from Her’ and now ‘Take this Waltz,’ Sarah Polley seems to believe that the depressing coming of age offers only two prospects: Alzheimer’s or ennui.)
Perhaps with a director that’s so daring, the crashing waves of new attraction have destroyed the shoals of my expectations (I was certainly not expecting to hear the film’s moralistic thesis actually voiced: ““Life has a gap in it, it just does. Don’t go crazy trying to fill it.”) Whilst the aesthetic doodling came across as too twee, I still enjoyed this patchwork film, owing mostly to Michelle William’s counterbalancing nuance (such emotionally reticent acting proving that she truly is the heir to the one Meryl Streep) and Polley’s unapologetic exploration of the interplay, or lack thereof, between the pillars of short romance and long domesticity.