Thursday, March 26, 2015

Feature: João César Monteiro’s Come and Go (2003)


This piece was written for Reverse Shot's 'Take Five: Reverse Shot in Space' symposium.

Lust for Life 

“I will be dust, but dust in love.” —João de Deus, God’s Wedding

João César Monteiro’s final film, Come and Go (2003), begins with a brief tracking shot. Moving left and at a slightly convex angle, the camera traces the contour of a large fountain at the center of an outdoor park as the director walks, in character, across a concrete clearing, dropping a pound of uncooked liver at his feet for a group of gathered pigeons. In and of itself, the shot, a modest flourish by any measure, is nothing spectacular. But in the context of the film—and further, in wider consideration of Monteiro’s late period work, in which he systematically worked to eliminate superfluous gestures—it proves rather startling. At only one other juncture, at well over two hours into this nearly three-hour film, does Monteiro move his camera—and even then, it’s as a circular pan around a church courtyard, position firmly planted. In fact, save for a subtle zoom or two, the film’s frame will remain fixed for nearly the entirety of its running time.

These are fairly obvious observations, with Monteiro likely choreographing each move in an effort to draw attention to the maneuver itself. But what’s striking is how much formal freedom Monteiro exhibits even while his camera is anchored in place, with many of the meticulously rendered setups testing the temporal capacity of the filmed image even as they allow for a certain magnification and immediacy of movement within the frame. And this is especially impressive when one considers the limited number of locations utilized. Come and Go is a fairly literal representation of its title, featuring Monteiro as João Vuvu, a horny old widower (and as such, the last variation on the director-actor’s João de Deus character, which he portrayed in multiple films beginning with Recollections of the Yellow House [1989]) whose afternoons essentially amount to a series of routine trips of randomized encounters at home and around Lisbon, conjoined by bus rides to and from the park at city’s center. A majority of the film transpires in these three locations: within Vuvu’s home, on the bus, or at the park. The only daily difference is whom Vuvu may meet along the way—and he meets many. Over the course of a few days spent with Vuvu the viewer is able to glean a considerable amount of information concerning his family, friends (or lack thereof), fascinations, and, of course, fetishes.

Monteiro, who was dying of cancer during the film’s production and who would pass away before its premiere at Cannes, was a known libertine—or, at least, his screen persona intimated as much. A lapsed Catholic with a perverse sense of humor and an immense regard for the lecherous in the worlds of literature and poetry alike, Monteiro was, to put it mildly, a man of conflicted interests. By the dawn of the seventies, after brief stints in film school and later as a critic, Monteiro would begin making films of his own, works of both fiction and nonfiction invested as much in the mythic as the historic notions shaping contemporary Portuguese culture (his first films were made just years after the fall of the Salazar regime, and they certainly reflect a newfound freedom of expression). But it was Recollections of the Yellow House that precipitated a concerted shift into unmistakably personal filmmaking, and further into a late period style predicated on austerity and a kind of dramaturgical determinism in contrast to his earlier work’s lush, expressionistic streak. The director’s decision to cast himself as his lead actor in Recollections provides an almost too-perfect bridge between the two eras, and indeed, his unapologetic absorption of the João de Deus personage and his litany of indecent impulses and indiscretions makes it all the more difficult to separate the man from the myth. At a time when the phrase has absorbed countless impractical connotations, Monteiro may in fact embody the truest form of vulgar auteur.

The quasi-autobiographical nature of Monteiro’s late work comes to a conscious conclusion with Come and Go, which unfolds like a retrospective of its lead character’s—and, by extension, its director’s—various conquests and convictions, before summoning death and ending in a kind of aural benediction. On evidence of Monteiro’s frisky, rather lithe physicality as a performer, his age may not have necessitated such a relatively small-scale production, at least to the degree it understandably has his most celebrated (and still living!) compatriot, the 106-year-old Manoel de Oliveira. Rather, this spatial consolidation seems—just as it had in his previous film, Snow White (2000), which consists largely of spoken word atop a black screen—a natural byproduct of Monteiro’s chosen form of cinematic reconciliation, what, for the sake of thematic continuity, we might call a ceremonial, first-person rite of passage. Thus, the film offers the sense that Vuvu’s home (Monteiro’s home?) is for him a sanctuary of sorts; which is to say a secular sanctuary, but a sanctuary nonetheless. Monteiro in turn limits what we see of the house to what a guest might see: the entryway, the living room, the kitchen. For a film so concerned with the pleasures of the flesh, it’s interesting to note that we never see Vuvu’s bedroom or any space of more traditional intimacy. When we first return to his chateau, Vuvu is met at the door by an attractive young woman named Adriana (played by Rita Pereira Marques), who has arrived in answer to an ad placed for a housekeeper, an offer we quickly infer as a pretense for an aging man’s irrepressible appetites rather than a legitimate bid for domestic assistance. And it’s a process he appears content to repeat without commitment. Adriana is but the first of many candidates evaluated and eliminated.

Monteiro shoots these interior sequences from a remove, with the action (such as it is) situated at a distance, typically far enough to frame the actor from head to toe (floors and ceilings are likewise visible in many instances). Long his preferred aspect ratio, the director’s 1.66:1 framings here both accentuate, rather than solidify as they would in 1.33:1, the solidarity of the proceedings, as well as hint at the vastness of the surrounding city, which Monteiro otherwise visually circumvents in an effort to narratively narrow in on his character’s activities, all of which typically occur at the center of the frame. The compositions therefore are all but symmetrical, with the starkly decorated living quarters arranged around just a handful of lamps and rugs, bookshelves and paintings. The kitchen, shot from a single angle over a half dozen scenes at least, appears to consist of nothing more than a nondescript refrigerator and a small wooden table, the only distinguishing feature being the beaded, rainbow-colored window dressing placed prominently at the center of the frame. And it’s all captured in natural light, generating deep shadows in a most ominous manner. Amidst the diminutive decoupage, Monteiro is free to exploit his lengthy, mantis-like physique as well as an assortment of leisurewear, novelty items, and sex toys (a giant plastic penis makes an appearance on more than one occasion). Stretching across couches and hunching over tables, smoking cigarettes and playing odd instruments, Monteiro cuts an at once comedic and composed figure, our knowledge of the man’s sickness belying the agility of his movements (despite Monteiro’s carnal streak, he embodies many characteristics of the silent film actor, and in particular Charlie Chaplin, whose own late film, Monsieur Verdoux [1947], bears at times unsettling resemblance to Come and Go). The dissonance between Monteiro’s formalism, typically reserved for subjects of rather more severe temperament, and the ribald nature of his narratives accounts for a great deal of his films’ humor.

Come and Go’s diagrammatic design, meanwhile, is articulated most comprehensively via the careful negotiation between geographic and cinematic space. The bus is all that links Vuvu’s home to the outside world, and Monteiro is judicious in his attention to the ritual of public transportation and the way it physically bisects Vuvu’s primary retreats. Vuvu typically sits in the very middle of the back row of the bus, while Monteiro positions the camera in the center of its carriage, again capturing the full bodies of his actors in the middle distance as the cityscape moves along in the background. On the rare occasion Vuvu may sit elsewhere, the camera will likewise pivot to an off-angle, yet similarly sit in place, capturing in a single take what can seem like the entirety of a given trip, the only movement the result of the ride’s natural turbulence. Once he’s aboard, activity bustles around Vuvu, the ambience of idle chatter filling the soundtrack as he sits quietly amidst the commotion, only occasionally joining the conversation. The bus is one of the rare communal spaces Vuvu chooses to spend his days, and an inordinate amount of screen time is given over to these scenes, which could otherwise register as quite literally transitional but which often evolve into public musical performances, lending the film a protracted, stepwise structure. But then the onset and accumulation of time is one of the film’s primary themes, suspending Vuvu between tenses as he indulges his routine pleasures.

The narrative, meanwhile, hinges on the return of Vuvu’s son, Jorge (Miguel Borges), who we learn from an earlier conversation has been imprisoned for murder and armed robbery. Jorge’s reappearance spurs an internal reckoning on the part of his father, and their lengthy debates, which range from the theological to the hypersexual (often conflating notions related to both), bring past traumas painfully into the present, reorienting the spiritual dimensions of their relationship and altering the trajectory of Vuvu’s quest for enlightenment. Subtle aberrations in the film’s visual syntax likewise become more prevalent upon Jorge’s arrival, precipitating an encroaching, inevitable sense of gravity. In addition to the aforementioned circular survey of conversations outside the church, there’s also the only series of scenes set in the evening (one of which transpires outdoors and is framed as a two-shot of father and son with their backs to the camera), a few inexplicably surreal flourishes (a scene featuring Marques recast as a bearded woman whose facial hair is matched only by her pubic growth being particularly memorable), and a black-and-white dream sequence set at a funeral (in which Vuvu’s kiss reanimates a dead woman’s corpse), all of which seem to symbolically summon Vuvu’s fate.

The film ends as it begins, back at the park and in the peace of the midday sun, with the by now familiar image of Monteiro seated mid-bench and cross-legged, his head and toes stretched vertically towards borders of the frame. Vuvu, recovering from a brief stay in the hospital—where he’s managed to rendezvous with a nurse between diagnoses—is greeted by one final female figure, she of presumably angelic countenance, perched high in a tree and enveloped by branches in what must be the only shot in the film not counterbalanced with negative space. The two speak at a distance of the curiosity of this, their first encounter. “I came alone, for no special reason. One hand full of nothing, the other empty,” she says poetically. “I’d like to join you, but with my arse in this state I can’t move, let alone climb a tree,” he responds plainly. The young girl, a beacon of purity in this otherwise prurient filmic realm, soon vanishes from view, leaving Vuvu alone on the bench, looking longingly toward the sky. Monteiro, who up to now has shot these exterior scenes as he has interiors (static setups, demarcated tableaux, etc.), then dissolves back to the empty tree and finally onto a full frame shot of his own left eye, the film’s one and only close-up, which he proceeds to hold upon for over four minutes as a chorus of voices slowly overtake the soundtrack. It’s a striking succession of images, pregnant with premonition and suffused with the gentility and self-anointed grace of a man whose cinematic alter ego was built on contradiction yet sustained by an unmistakable compassion, however cosmopolitan. And in those eyes we glimpse a lifetime—a world of pain, a world of pleasure. [RS]

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