The Woman in the Window:
Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl at the Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco June 24-27
By Richard von Busack
How does a director who is 101 years old make a movie? Manoel de Oliveira’s brief but poignant Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl (2009) answers that question: like no director alive.
Just over an hour long, and based on a short story by Eca de Quieros (1845-1900) the film unfolds in flashback from a train ride, just like Bunuel’s Obscure Object of Desire. There is one single line of narration: “What we will not tell a wife, what we will not tell a friend, we will tell to a stranger.”
On a train heading to the beaches of the Algarve, the fortyish Macario (Ricardo Trepa) pours his heart out to a maternal older woman, telling the story of the sacrifices he made to win the hand of Luisa (Catarina Wallenstien). Luisa was a woman he flirted with through a window facing his office: she is a well-born coquette with a round Chinese fan, which she uses as a kind of semaphore. (It’s supposed to be enchanting and exotic, but here’s evidence of distance to the tale: with its foofy dyed plume, the fan looks like the kind of novelty found in a Chinatown bin.)
Macario lives with his uncle, a merchant, and he works as an accountant for the family firm. But he loses both position and home when he asks his uncle if he can marry the girl across the way. He will eventually discover that Luisa isn’t worth what he’ll suffer to get to her; Macario is blinded to her character flaws, which soon become unignorable.
This shorter film isn’t as profoundly solid about the limits of cinema and art as was De Oliviera’s I’m Going Home; it’s very much a short-story film: enigmatic and hard to sum up with a simple moral, and it doesn’t end with any burst of irony.
What interested me, besides the brutal simplicity of the ending (a train seen from an overcrossing, barreling off into infinity), was the task de Oliveira makes himself: how to tell a story of the 19th century when setting it in the 21st? It’s this aspect that’s the most convincing, when the movie could have looked quaint and stale.
Eccentricities... is set in a checkerboard tiled, traffic-free street of old town Lisbon, within a circle of merchants and minor nobility: the sort of people who need formal introductions to someone they want to ask out, and who needs permission of their own families to marry; places where salons are still held, where poetry is read and Debussy is played on the harp. There are still lives out there like this, one feels—in the stodgier arrondisements in Paris or the richest, most blandly aristocratic neighborhoods in Mexico City.
The director keeps strict control over his actors, who play locked-in Latinos obsessed with correctness. And he keeps motor vehicles at bay—we sometimes hear the buzz of a Vespa in the distance, but that might be about it. He keeps this motif up until the last encounter between Luisa and Macario, when we see the rush of cars and the honking of horns in the near distance.
Eccentricities… has the formality of silent movies, keeping the central location even after the hero leaves. Macario goes off to the Cape Verde Islands to make his fortune; we hear letters about his life there.
Yet De Oliveira jests with the old-school technique: he cuts to a close-up of a lady’s leg, raised leg heel-backwards during the movie’s only kiss. (This convention is very dead, but it was once well known enough to be parodied in a Naked Gun movie, with Leslie Nielsen raising his leg at the same time his girlfriend did.)
The result is a film set outside time, which De Oliveira stresses by a shot of a curious church tower bearing a clock without hands.
Older directors generally get pessimistic, convinced of fatality and folly; this tranquil yet affecting movie seems serene and acute. The director is clearly not blaming the untrustworthiness of women or the foolishness of men; it’s a film that suggests the danger of idealization. The imago Luisa, with her ripe, sullen mouth, is nobody’s vixen: she promises nothing really: she does what she’s told and waits as a young lady does, while trying to get on demurely with her own personal compulsion. Promised semi-precious stones in exchange for becoming a good wife, she grabs diamonds instead.
It’s billed during this three day run with De Oliveira's first film Douro, Fana Fluvial (1931) a silent 18 minute portrait of the Douro, “a river with a life of its own,” during at a time when oxcarts were still found in the streets of Porto. The style here is a Portuguese answer to experimental documentaries like Berlin: Portrait of a City and Man With a Movie Camera; suffused with avant-garde restlessness it shows us a suicide’s eye view of the titanic Luis 1st bridge and the glittering water underneath. The foaming prows of boats are edited into a speedy procession. In a market, fish and fowls are jammed in military rows as sharp as a cluster of knives, seen photographed point-first. The forward motion is relentless. It’s almost impossible to think that this work is by the same man who would become a calm old master 70 years later.