At the New Zealand International Film Festival: a trio of period dramas contemplate desire, aesthetic pleasure, and intellectual history in transition.
The artful period drama has long been a fixture of New Zealand International Film Festival line-ups, and though cynics may point to this trend as pandering to the vogue for all things prim and proper (for which we have Downton Abbey to thank for the resurgence), one only needs to look back to Mysteries of Lisbon for a recent masterpiece located squarely in the genre. Like Raúl Ruiz’s sublime 19th century melodrama, Beloved Sisters, an accomplished costume picture, was originally a television mini-series given a second life through the release of a theatrical version. While I can’t comment on Dominik Graf’s ‘director’s cut’, the alternative displays a briskness and emotional energy that is evidently intensified by the tidier feature length. Bounding between three points in a tumultuous love triangle—the eponymous siblings, Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (a magnetic Hannah Herzsprung), and their shared objection of affection, the dashing yet insecure poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter, eye candy in the Alexander Skarsgård vein)—this is an uncommon historical drama that puts the personal before posterity. However entertaining in its romp through Europe’s post-enlightenement coming-of-age, and by turns the discourse of revolutionary thinking, Graf’s film is more invested in the private struggle of its lovers, whose irrational passion, though conducive to soap opera, has the effect of cutting through the formality and propriety of the era. The characters themselves are fighting, be it shrewdly through marriages of convenience as they carry out their secret pacts and trysts, against the stifling convention imposed by society, and the cumulative effect is a film with a desperate tension beneath its lavish surface—more Brontë sisters than Jane Austen, at a pinch.
At the more tasteful end of the spectrum, Reaching for the Moon covets the Mad Men demographic with its account of the love affair between another poet, American Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Bishop, and the Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares during the 1950s and 60s. Easy on the eye, there’s much less of a compulsion to agitate the form here, with director Bruno Barreto opting for a set menu of artistic preoccupations: creative self-doubt, political impulse, personal and professional jealousy, self-destruction and loathing, all dutifully introduced around the aesthetic pleasure of words and structures. Through Bishop’s letters and Soares’s designs, these concerns come and go without any real subtlety or impact, and it’s this even temperament that betrays the conflict of personalities at the heart of the film. Miranda Otto’s Elizabeth is a pale, reticent writer, emotionally guarded and hands-off in every other respect, while Glória Pires’s Lota is all Latin passion, formidable and flamboyant—opposites attract, but the sparks they create never amount to fire. Meanwhile, the question of how this film fits into the queer cinema bracket is a curious one. On the one hand, it is a love story told through an ungendered lens—biographically, this is faithful to how Bishop viewed her relationship with Soares—and it is liberating to see a gay romance portrayed in the most uncomplicated terms, without self-conscious labels or agendas. On the other hand, it is extraordinary to me that their sexuality is never broached in the film, and that as characters they are never confronted by it through the prejudice or enquiry of others—at the very least, a lost opportunity to explore Bishop’s apparent apathy towards the subject of lesbianism and womanhood.
Albert Serra’s new film, Story of My Death, is anything but a polite fantasy—it does contrive to bring together Dracula and Casanova in the manner of a literary crossover movie, but it is also prepared to give us a scene with the Italian libertine taking a long, painful shit in his private quarters. This unglamorous, humorous quotidian moment is just part of the scaffolding of the art cinema form Serra has worked rigorously under since Honour of the Knights (2006) and Birdsong (2008), corresponding period films centred on men of myth (Don Quixote, the Three Wise Men). While it is easy to regard this mode of filmmaking—long static takes, wordless encounters, non-professional actors, austere visuals, and so on—as nearing the point of saturation, Serra brings a richness, a serenity, and most importantly, a strangeness to the established art of slow cinema. This quality can be traced back to Serra’s fascinating, almost masochistic process: filming scenes at extreme length; whittling down hundreds of hours of footage to a series of precious, disparate, yet somehow complete moments; turning “shit into gold,” to quote long-time advocate Mark Peranson (whose interview with Serra on Cinema Scope is essential reading). The result of this labour is a film beautifully poised between naturalism and artifice as it transitions from light to darkness through a magic-hour gateway that is quintessentially Serra. At once folksy and bawdy, cerebral yet lustful, and caught nervously between the ages of enlightenment and romanticism, the history within Story of My Death is only deepened by these transfixing binaries. In the costume drama stakes, I’d be surprised if this gloriously untraditional film didn’t ruffle a few feathers at a festival catering to so many different markets, but from where I’m sitting, it may prove to be as radical and rewarding as anything furiously modern and forward thinking—Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D comes to mind as a leading contender—in this year’s programme.