Berlinale 2009 Review: Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl
Berlin, one of Europe’s most storied and progressively minded hubs, has a lot to recommend a visitor: vibrant nightclubs, glitzy shopping districts, regal avenues, and the BVG, it’s famously efficient city transportation system. The German capital has more than 150 museums, loads of theaters, and a few architectural marvels dating back to the Prussian era; history, which hangs like winter fog over the Mitte district, is evident everywhere you look. This year, Berliners will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that totemic expression of the division between East and West, so visits to the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie for a first-timer are almost obligatory. The city’s also home to the Berlin International Film Festival, beacon to film lovers around the world, and the sole reason for my presence there.
Part of the pleasure and excitement of attending a major film festival, especially one as august as the Berlinale, is the opportunity to see new films before anyone has had a chance to express an opinion about them. Or before the hype machine has muscled in with its own agenda. The other delight, of course, is the opportunity to make discoveries, to be exposed, for the first time, to a new sensibility. (Or, in the case of Retrospectives, an old one.) To be taken, that is, by surprise. So it’s a little dispiriting to come home after a week at the 59th Berlinale feeling so unenthusiastic about my trip, apart from the generous sprawl of my rental flat in the hip, Turkish-flavored neighborhood of south Kreuzberg (1,200 square feet) and its cost (60 Euros/night: cheap). The Berlinale was an event, to be sure—the barricade-rattling, celeb-frenzied press corps at Potsdamer Platz, the central locus of the festival, was a sight to behold—and I don’t regret the expense of traveling overseas and being part of the international swarm. But for the most part, the Competition films I saw were dull and underwhelming, and in some cases (Happy Tears, Mammoth), downright maddening. There was little relief in the indie-centric Panorama and artsy/experimental Forum sections, which I gravitated to after three days of dreary, early-morning treks to the crimson-colored, audaciously grand Berlinale Palast. Screenings there left packed houses of journalists and industry dealers grumbling openly to their colleagues about the less-than-thrilling programming. At least I wasn’t alone in my cine-misery.
Still, the experience wasn’t without a few bright spots, one of which was Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl by Portuguese master Manoel De Oliveira, certainly the best feature I caught in Berlin, and the leanest, clocking in at a mere 64 minutes. Putting a fresh, stately spin on an age-old theme—the agonies of romance—Oliveira, now at a sprightly 100 years of age, gracefully explores the quest of a young accountant (Ricardo Trepa) to win the hand of a comely maiden (Catarina Wallenstein) after spotting her waving a Chinese fan in the window across from his second-floor office. The trouble isn’t Luisa’s willingness to court the handsome, well-born suitor, but Macario’s soon-to-be-empty pocketbook.
Set in contemporary times, but immersed in the mannered 19th-century milieu of upper-class Lisbon society, Eccentricities is adapted from a tale by the late writer José Maria Eça de Queirós, to whose kin Oliveira has dedicated the film. Imagine Jane Austen or Balzac transposed to an old-fashioned precinct of post-EU Iberia and you wouldn’t fall far from the mark. Terse and forlorn, but etched with wry humor, the film presents characters who exist in a world of fusty Edwardian decorum where the possibility of love is constrained by one’s financial means and class position, or in the case of Macario, the consent of an uncle. Oliveira opens the film on a train where the distraught young man divulges his tale of woe to a pretty, middle-aged blind woman riding in the seat next to him. From his faraway stare and dreamily stilted account, we are primed to empathize with his view that “Romance begins in art and reality.” To him, Luisa is an alluring and deeply sensual aesthetic object, at one with her fan and the gently rustling muslin drapes that enshroud her seductive visage in the breeze. Macario can barely contain his voyeuristic tendencies or his ardent desire for the classy, coquettish lass, who he soon meets through the intervention of an acquaintance. Marriage is proposed; but Macario’s uncle disapproves, and tosses him out of a job when he refuses to drop the matter, leaving him penniless and hopeless.
One of the eccentricities of Oliveira’s work, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in his Film Comment tribute last year, is the director’s preference for artificial performance styles. Certainly, there is a theatrical quality to the way people converse and deliberate in the film, whether in lavishly appointed drawing rooms and literary salons or the oppressive confines of a bare-bones flophouse where Macario takes up residence. Artifice heightens the “madeness” of the film. Another is the notion, expressed by Oliveira himself in his “Cinematographic Poem” (1986), that the best films are like great books, “difficult to penetrate because of their richness and depth.” Film-as-literature informs Oliveira’s technique as well as the general mood of Eccentricities, especially in a key scene where a poet offers a long, dramatic reading from “The Keeper of Sheep,” a poem by Alberto Caeiro (a heteronym of Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa) about attuning to the “flow” of nature, while a clutch of men retire to play poker in the adjoining room. With this partially tongue-in-cheek interlude, Oliveira establishes the pedigree of Luisa’s clan and the significance of the cultural arts to aristocratic life. He also works in a coded theme with this stagey device—attachment is the source of pain—that slyly speaks to Macario’s dilemma.
Working from an Industrial Age precept that infused the literature of the late 19th century, Oliveira’s superbly restrained and formally elegant film ultimately posits the idea that commerce does not reckon with sentiment; in the world of exchange value and commercial transaction, the purity of one’s product is of the utmost importance. And it is on that droll note that the film, abruptly and tragically, draws a curtain on the two lovers, leaving us to gasp at the marvelous way this veteran director (through what must be Eça de Queirós’ mordant source material) guides us masterfully down a path of obsession and iron determination, only to spring a trap door on the blind innocence of his hero’s romantic longing. The shock and pleasure that comes to a viewer in this moment is echoed in the shriek of a train whistle, announcing an end to Macario’s tale and the film’s clipped journey. With cinema this crisp and controlled and fully realized, one can only hope that Oliveira keeps chugging along himself, as he has shown every intention of doing, well into the distance.