Review: The Portuguese Woman

A recent four film Mubi season has served as an introduction to the work of Portuguese director Rita Azevedo Gomes: and if my current feelings are any indication, this is something I’m to be grateful for for a long time to come. The quartet comprises Fragile as the World, about two young lovers who flee to live out their romance in the primordial forest; A Woman’s Revenge, a perspicuous, highly reflexive film in which the act of storytelling both clarifies and condemns both the teller and the told-to; the eclectic essay film Correspondences, on the exchange of missives, poems, complaints, and friendship between the Portuguese poets Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Jorge de Sena; and The Portuguese Woman, adapted from a short story by Robert Musil. 

Set during the 16th century, in a Europe at near ceaseless war with itself, the recently married Lady von Ketten (Clara Riedenstein) and Lord von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe) are ending a year-long honeymoon, she by giving birth to their son, he by beginning a new campaign against the Bishop of Trent. She’s advised to return to Portugal, for war requires patience, a patience he possesses because his ancestors possessed it: even if they decide to sue for peace, it won’t be long until the next conflict, which will again whisk him away from her side, emerges. But her determination is stronger, more vivid than his. She rides with him and company to her new home: a rotting dereliction of a castle high in the hills of northern Italy. “I’ll know how to wait, too,” she tells him. And she will have to: the Lord, merely weeks after the Lady takes up her new residence, leaves, and returns to her only twice over the next eleven years.

At her new abode she meets her domestic retinue: the housekeeper, cook, scribe, musician, ladies-in-waiting, various servants, and a slave (played by A Woman’s Revenge’s Rita Durão) who will become her most constant companion. But in a high-angled shot surveying the courtyard one figure stands unique among the others. She—credited only as Passageira, “passenger” or “traveller,” and played by Fassbinder regular Ingrid Caven—is introduced in the film’s opening moments singing Walther von der Vogelweide’s lovely lyric “Under der linden.” Here, the anachronism is more unmistakable, as she’s the only woman with her head, red-haired like the new arrival, uncovered. As the courtyard empties she assumes the space for herself, only to belt out the first line of The Aeneid aloud to, well, who? To herself? To a viewer, to no one and everyone? At first she could be a trobairitz, but her modern dress (luxurious silks and furs) and singing style, that of a nightclub chanteuse, give her away: she’s more like a Greek chorus, commenting obliquely on the text. In the persistence of her presence, often lurking unannounced or unemphasised within a shot, she seems to stand-in metaphorically and meta-theatrically for the sense of disruption, the jolt to form and standard practice of women in the early modern period, the Lady causes during her entrance into the household, through her unconventionality, strength of resolve, and self-possession.

A flashback refines the Lady’s motivations. A memory of younger days: in a grand and regal house, playing with her sisters, looking up at a ceiling painted with magpies. Her sister asks what the words next to the birds mean. “It was for the best…,” the soon-to-be von Ketten replies. This has the ring of a Roland Barthes sentence-aria: a summary statement about love and life, to console or to strengthen the person who says it. The words have that effect on the Lady, who stores them for future use, when their employment may fuel her acceptance of life’s possible unhappinesses, and keep her in readiness for better states of being, happier frames of mind, lovelier loves. 

During a visit from her sister-in-law, Antonie (Luna Picoli-Truffaut), Azevedo Gomes demonstrates her interest in poetry, verbal and visual, as a way of channelling into the Lady’s interior existence. Antonie, whose husband did to her what von Ketten has done to her relative, but died early in the process, commiserates both of their lives. She does not want the Lady to live in this decaying place, but she is politely disabused of the urgency of her warning. Something in this life suits the Lady: “I longed,” she says, “for a land full of unexpected things. Tense as a bowl.” Like a good poem, this reveals and conceals at one and the same time. The Lady desires a life rife with discoveries, with surprises. But “tense as a bowl”? The simile throws me. But there isn’t time to work out what this may mean: as their conversation continues, it begins to snow lightly—then heavily, a whirl of white falls on them as they laugh. This is brazen in its artificiality: the “snow” is clearly a few pillows’ worth of feathers. But in that moment the revitalising snowfall is precisely what the Lady desires out of life: “unexpected things.” There’s a transformational delight in this brief scene (the kind a poem furnishes), and it speaks to what the Lady, in her long time of waiting, has learned: to cultivate the pleasures of the internal life, to attend to that which would fulfil her sense of selfhood—especially since she lives in a context that would seek to minimise it. 

Riedenstein’s performance is a study in temperament: at first, afflicted by irritation and boredom, she’s moved to put those in her charge in their places with harsh words and severe, dismissive gestures—she refuses placation. But she gradually attains a more contented, even serene air. The Lady bestows those loyal to her with enfolding smiles and tokens of intimacy: this general benevolent aura Riedenstein ramps up for the Lord’s first home visit, during which her narrowed, darting eyes and habit of closing in and drawing back from him enact at first a warmth, later an intensified, playful flirtatiousness. But a second figure enters who inspires a similar manner: her beloved scholar cousin, Pero Lobato (João Vicente), enters the home—whether or not they engage in a tryst Azevedo Gomes leaves unclear, but their closeness is enough to light the fires of rumour, and ignite the jealousy of her husband. This ambiguity is productive both dramatically and in terms of the performances, because, once the Lord returns—already depleted from battle, near dead—it etches a smouldering, agitating sense of stress on Urgeghe’s face, but frees up Riedenstein to suggest a state of increasing merriment, a near-permanent glow.  

The mise-en-scène of The Portuguese Woman is startlingly elaborate. Although her compatriot Pedro Costa is often touted as a living master of digital cinematography, it’s a distinction the two filmmakers should share. Working with cinematographer Acácio de Almeida, Azevedo Gomes composes, through intricate blocking when still and precision while moving, shots of extraordinary expansiveness and depth. With its crisp deep-focus, coupled with a penchant for locating an expressive diagonal line and a scheme of imbuing compositions with a tension between light and shadow, the film is constantly yielding exactly that which the Lady so desires: the unexpected. There’s often a pocket within the frame, away from the main subject, which will claim the eye’s attention; only to be counterpointed by the sharpness of the sound design, which will draw the ear’s attention away even from that secondary point of interest, towards another layer in the slow, exacting, perceptually demanding arrangements of the film’s scenes.

Two examples of how Azevedo Gomes activates more than one visual plane at one time in her shots, the first using movement: early in the film, the Lady and her servants are in the garden, she reads while they sing, one frolics with a mask, another picks flowers. Rabbits bounce around their feet. The Lady rejects an invitation to play. As if downcast by this, the camera retreats, in doing so revealing another lady-in-waiting in the foreground, waiting by an opening in the wall and another unnoticed area of the shot (frame right). The reframing changes the emphasis, complicates the nature of her position. By opening up the space the camera seals her into this frame-within-the-frame; which is in miniature the operation of the narrative: the fullness of her sense of self only becomes acknowledgeable the more—or, the longer—she exists within the castle’s enclosures.

A later instance demonstrates the film’s brilliance in the same by using stillness. The old housekeeper (Pierre Léon) is sitting by the entrance of the courtyard, the frame’s foreground, playing with a kitten the size of his palm. The Lady is drawn by the cuteness of the creature, sits next to the housekeeper, and borrows the kitten. She stands, and as she does, the household staff all bunch together to gaze at the soft kitten, letting out its diminutive meows. The crowd dissipates; the Lady walks away with it in her hands. The old housekeeper moves forward as if to object, but before he can, he’s checked by the Lady’s slave, who has been lingering in the extreme background. The two areas of the shot interact briefly, then separate as the housekeeper returns to his seat and curls up miserably. His face is never without a note of worry, but even with it turned mostly away from view, this precise kind of dejection is new. In the rhythm of the staging, in the movements of the crowd, in the almost total silence (save for the kitten), in the Lady’s absent-mindedness, in Durão’s inquisitive eye-line, the scene is near-hilarious. And the cartoonish sadness of the housekeeper! And yet I wept at this moment, despite (because of?) that cartoonishness. Azevedo Gomes takes that sadness, pathetic as it is, seriously, and has the generosity to endow that affect with cinematic texture, if only for a minute; and because it directly parallels a later incident, the murder the Lady’s favourite pet, her wolf. There’s always another nuance. 

Invoking Carl Theodor Dreyer or Ingmar Bergman doesn’t seem inappropriate to the nature of Azevedo Gomes’s achievement, but these directors appear like guiding examples (Dreyer in staging, Bergman in dialogue—add to these more than a dash of the profilmic rigour of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) rather than revealing comparisons. I was thinking a great deal about Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou during The Portuguese Woman, in part because the latter grants what the former denies the possibility of: the reshaping, and repurposing, of a woman’s life in a period setting. But a closer relation exists within the scheme of Azevedo Gomes’s films, since The Portuguese Woman resembles A Woman’s Revenge reversed: the story told bolsters one party while destroying another. Except the previous film has a more pronounced underlining of its own fictive form. Here, this is isolated in Ingrid Caven’s musical interludes, which express a fact of the Lady’s life that she would not explicitly address, as Wallace Stevens, in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” puts it: ‘that there never was a world for her / Except the one she sang and, singing, made.’ Within the film the Lady can, in the unlikeliest conditions, fashion an internal life of her own design: one bright with beauty, strangeness, and joy. 

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