Declarations of Independents: The Masterpiece You Missed [DOOMED LOVE]

From The Soho News (June 3, 1981). This is also reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism.  — J.R.

How can I persuade you that the best new movie I’ve seen this year, the only one conceivably tinged with greatness, is a voluptuous four-and-a-half-hour Portuguese costume melodrama, shot in 16-millimeter? Obviously I can’t. So rather than make you feel guilty about missing a masterpiece — as a couple of my friends managed to do when it was at MOMA last spring — let me assume at the outset that you will miss DOOMED LOVE all ten times that it shows at the Public between May 26 and June 14. Bearing this in mind, the following notes are an account of what you missed, are currently missing, or will miss.

1. If it’s confusing and misleading for some to call DOOMED LOVE an avant-garde film, this seems mainly because of the widespread working assumption that “avant-garde” is a social category above and beyond an aesthetic one. As industry-oriented critics like Kael and Sarris are frequently reminding us (the former obliquely, the latter unabashedly), the crucial professional issue is not what movies we go to as critics but what parties, junkets, festivals, universities, grants, and other circuits of power we have easy access to — not what we see but what we have is our calling card, whereas “taste” is largely a rationalization for the personal erotics of self-gratification, cooperation, conflict, and flattery founded on such a system of exchange. From this standpoint, calling DOOMED LOVE avant-garde might be tantamount to signing its death warrant. Indeed, it might even be worse than that, because avant-gardists as a group aren’t even likely to claim the body at the morgue afterward. Practically speaking, in a philistine New York context, the film lacks both a launching pad and a burial ground; yet like any irritating, yammering masterpiece it somehow manages to create its own space for breathing and existing. Spoil-sports who insist on acknowledging and humoring it could do a lot worse than consult Carlos Clarens’s perceptive interview with the seventy-three-year-old writer-director Manoel de Oliveira in the May–June Film Comment.

2. Adapted from a famous nineteenth-century Portuguese novel of the same title by Camilo Castelo Branco, DOOMED LOVE is a veritable workshop of ideas about the incestuous relationship between novels and movies, and the diverse possibilities of literary adaptations. (In this respect, GREED is an obvious precursor.) Most of the so-called avant-garde aspects of the film derive directly from this meditation and problem, whereby each scene becomes the filmic solution to a literary challenge. They are aspects, in other words, that need to be examined existentially, in terms related to the inner needs of the work — means for expressing an otherwise inaccessible content — not games specifically designed to tease or torment mainstream critics who are insulted by movies that attempt more than CAVEMAN . Vocabulary is part of the problem here. One set of words about films exists for people who see them, another set for people who make them, and a third for the academics who study them. Assigning any or all of these sets to DOOMED LOVE is like copying down those celebrated descriptions given by several blind men who’ve been groping the same elephant. Put all these accounts together and you still don’t have a single functioning mammal. The best new films always confound the old definitions, anyway. Much of the time, de Oliveira is using mise en scène and off-screen narration to create two-part expositional structures (e.g., a WAVELENGTH-like camera movement up to a window while the narrator reflects on the fates of the characters), each part tailored to the other.

3. At the center of the process of literary adaptation underlining DOOMED LOVE is a dialectic between the seen and the imagined, the perceived and the unperceived. Early on, there’s a strangely literal fleshing out of a literary image: “The marriage of Venus and Vulcan obsessed him,” says the narrator of a character, and, sure enough, we see a blonde in a loin cloth with similarly garbed attendants and a bearded Vulcan with a hammer. (As de Oliveira clarifies in the Clarens interview, there are actually two narrators. One of them, female, forecasts the future — rather like Mariana, one of the leading characters.)

Intricate dovetailings of narration and dialogue produce some elegant displacements and overlaps in and on the sound track. When the heroine’s father shouts at her in close-up, the sound of his voice ceases at the precise moment that the male narrator announces that the (off-screen) daughter doesn’t hear him because she’s left the room. Much later, the imprisoned hero responds in person to the narrator’s off-screen report of Mariana’s blacksmith father’s announcement (visible but not heard) that his daughter is delirious — a scene much easier to follow than to describe. Here the collision of the two narrative conventions, far from dismantling the scene, gives it a kind of layered density — an effect that’s amplified by the gradual accumulation of objects and furniture in the hero’s cell, which seems to make the space grow deeper at the same time that it inches its way closer toward an ordinary domestic interior.

4. A vest-pocket period spectacular set in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, DOOMED LOVE has clear affinities with such low-budget epics of obsessive energy as Sam Fuller’s PARK ROW, Werner Schroeter’s EIKA KATAPPA, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s WINSTANLEY, and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s HITLER, A FILM FROM GERMANY. Following an aesthetics of economy that reduces spectacle to a shadow-dance of the mind — an abstraction of love rather than a glitzy substitute display (the Hollywood solution, despite a sunset or two worthy of Technicolor Selznick) — de Oliveira’s long takes are often positioned in front of clearly (and sometimes beautifully) painted backdrops, and intermittently orchestrated in relation to a percussive contemporary score (by João Paes).

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The first shot in part 2 of the movie, after the intermission, is a static red-tinted landscape (mountains, sky) that modulates to the tone of light brick as day breaks and church bells start to ring. There’s a cut to the camera prowling around a courtyard where the hero, Simao (António Sequeira Lopes), is seated while the pealing continues — a rhythmic idea picked up by Paes’s score until a woman rings a doorbell and the music stops. Shortly afterward, in the same pivotal scene, Simao commits a crime of honor — shooting a rival who happens to be the cousin of his beloved Tereza (Cristina Hauser) — which seals his fate for the rest of the film and all eternity, whichever comes first. (Like Romeo and Juliet, the teenage couple come from feuding noble families.)

5. A considerable portion of the plot consists of the epistolary romance between Simao and Tereza, conducted (a ), in part 1, while he’s secretly convalescing from a gunshot wound in the home of a blacksmith whose daughter, the devoted Mariana (Elsa Wallencamp), takes care of him (like Lancelot in Escalot), and Tereza is sequestered in a convent, and (b ), in part 2, while he’s serving a voluntary prison term for killing the cousin, having refused any appeal, and Tereza herself has become bedridden with a wicked Camillean cough. In both (a ) and (b ), elaborate subterfuges are of course necessary to keep the correspondence going. As in the protracted agonies of separation that structure the plot of PETER IBBETSON , the couple never gets it on — when he’s shipping off to India as a convict, she dies while waving a distant farewell to him from a balcony — and the whole narrative leading up to this becomes galvanized into an explication of what’s keeping the couple apart in separate shots, as well as a formal explanation of what’s binding these shots together. Personally, I found every stage of this process absolutely absorbing.

Mulishly persistent in their devoted renunciations, their obsession with medieval codes of chivalrous duty, Simao and Tereza are equaled only by the sacrificial Mariana, as self-effacing as Melanie in GONE WITH THE WIND . “When I see I’m not needed, I’ll end my life,” she flatly declares to Simao, around the same time she’s sailing off with him on the prison ship. True to her word, she leaps into the sea only a matter of seconds after she’s overseen his own burial; significantly, the two events occur within the same shot. If the theme of martyrdom evokes Carl Dreyer, it’s worth noting that de Oliveira has had a lifelong struggle in getting his few features made that seems comparable to Dreyer’s cosmic difficulties. (In a filmmaking career spanning half a century, his seventh feature to date, FRANCISCA , just surfaced in Cannes.)

6. The consistently inventive mise en scène of DOOMED LOVE can’t be adequately summarized here, but a few more generalizations and examples may be in order. The use of both long shots and long takes is masterly; an early instance of the two together — in which the camera, accompanied by Handel, pans from a discreet distance with Tereza as she scurries through an autumnal forest, then returns to Simao sitting on a log — is simply breathtaking. (A bit earlier, in a lush interior, actors seem to freeze as in MARIENBAD or INDIA SONG , becoming distilled essences in a mural.) As the characters and situations — that is, our perceptions of them — grow, the camera often moves in closer during certain long takes, as if following the defensible assumption that intimacy and emotions have to be earned before they can be shared or shown. (Elliott Stein has aptly compared the film’s paring-down principles to Bresson’s.) Along with Mark Rappaport (an early enthusiast of DOOMED LOVE , whose somewhat related efforts in IMPOSTORS can still be seen on weekends in the Bleecker’s James Agee Room through mid-June), de Oliveira probably does about as much with mirrors as Hitchcock and Ophüls do with staircases. But part of his own game is to relate this usage to his very elaborate play with windows and open doorways, and in certain cases deliberately confuse us about what we’re actually watching. In one memorable shot, Tereza’s father, facing left in fuzzy close-up, addresses Tereza, who’s facing us in a clear-focus medium shot; by the end of the scene, both characters are facing the camera, until he turns around and she, now walking away, is shown to be a mirror reflection.

7. The title DOOMED LOVE Can be taken as a definition of acute cinéphilia — the same fatal disease that infected Dreyer (“What is film to you?” an interviewer asked him in 1950; “My only great passion,” he replied) — and what this elicits and engenders. Ironically, it seems to work less well as a description of the lives of Simao, Tereza, and Mariana — all three of whom seem so busily, engagedly preoccupied with their all-consuming obsessions with one another that it’s hard to regard either them or their love as “doomed” in any way. In a sense, the whole force of the film can be felt behind the tension of that contradiction, whereby cells of confinement eventually become banal domestic interiors and obsessions turn into everyday commonplaces. It’s a staple of fiction probably dating back to Clarissa, a genre convention in which getting it on equals either ending or else somehow violating the plot. François Truffaut — whose TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, THE STORY OF ADELE H. , and THE GREEN ROOM can all be regarded as faltering (if poignant), formally bashful, conceptually timid steps in the direction of defining a grand literary passion that only DOOMED LOVE succeeds fully in articulating — has been trying to make this movie most of his life.

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Watching this classically wrought example of controlled madness for 270 minutes, in the small auditorium of the Public’s Little Theater — a black-walled vault that used to house the “Invisible Cinema” designed by Peter Kubelka for Anthology Film Archives a decade ago, all ninety seats shuttered or blinkered to screen out all social distractions (a perfect way to see LA RÉGION CENTRALE , but lousy for Buster Keaton) — I was reminded once again of the battles between narrative and nonnarrative cinema that used to be waged in this room. (Today the battles are over, the warring tribes shipped off to separate schools or summer camps, and a mongrel like DOOMED LOVE, doomed by its own integrity, has to walk the night without the sponsorship of either ghetto.)

Seen in terms of Freud and Barthes, the conflicts I’m talking about were largely Oedipal versus pre-Oedipal impulses, plaisir versus jouissance, pursuit of plot versus a polymorphous-perverse grabbing after everything else (at least within hailing distance of an infant’s fist). Staging yet another shotgun marriage between these warring families in every spectator, at every moment, for existential rather than socially expedient reasons, DOOMED LOVE is heavy and long with its curling, curving linear plot, yet rich in the sort of meditations (and concentrated meditativeness) that can usually take place only around stasis. What a pity that you didn’t get to see it.

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