Manoel de Oliveira’s century of cinema continues. By BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

MANOEL DE OLIVEIRA has been making films since the silent era, and if the reputation of his earlier work is anything to go by, he’s been a hard filmmaker to pin down stylistically or thematically. On a side-note, his earlier masterpieces are in desperate need of increased availability. Turning one hundred hasn’t slowed the Portuguese master down either, and his frequent appearances in recent festivals show he’s still willing to experiment. His latest, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (Singularidades de uma rapariga loura) is a very old-fashioned narrative, full of suitors, guardians and love-at-first-sight. However, de Oliveira’s approach is anything but old-fashioned, an immaculately shot dream, that wryly concludes things are much more complex beneath the surface.

The narrative is simple and is based on a nineteenth century short story by hugely renowned Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós (which explains the anachronistic romance). The fact that this is a literary adaptation has perhaps been the one unifying trait of Oliveira’s vast oeuvre. It’s a tale within a tale, where Trępa falls in love with the woman across the way. He spies on her through his window, and eventually plucks up the courage to confront her. She seems happy to go along with him, but unfortunately his guardian uncle refuses to let him marry, firing Trępa from his job thus ruining Trępa’s marriage prospects. The rest of the movie is his attempt to work back to a marriageable position. The pursuit is also filmed coyly too, like a nineteenth century parlour game, with cut-aways from kisses, and hand-holding the extent of the hanky-panky on show.

That said, de Oliveira is an aesthete. The film is full of beautiful things, from people, to food, to artwork (including Debussy exquisitely played on the harp), poetry, sumptuous lighting and elegant shot construction. The film is self-reflexive (much like his wonderful sequel to Belle de Jour, Belle Toujours) constantly drawing attention to art and its existence. It’s all very witty and elegant, and the brief running time feels just right for such a seemingly slight tale. The end however subverts the superficial goings-on: a cruel, cynical flourish at myths of romantic obsession and possession, all told with a charming wink. If de Oliveira keeps making films like this, long may he keep doing so.