Behold the courage of Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes: hoping to do a film in the vein of “Meet Me In St. Louis,” he and a crew traveled to the small Arganil Municipality in the country to begin work on a movie featuring a small family band — that is until the movie’s investor died before signing on the dotted line. Instead of calling it a day, Gomes pressed on and made “Our Beloved Month of August,” a doc/fiction hybrid that captured the essence of the lively environment while commenting on the fragility and banality of a film production. It’s a special, beautiful beast of a movie that unfortunately didn’t see much of a release. Luckily, Gomes has quickly followed up with the brilliant “Tabu” (which we gave an A-grade review to out of TIFF).
Beginning with a rather conventional opening chapter titled 'Lost Paradise,' the filmmaker tells the tale of middle-aged activist Pilar and her starlet neighbor Aurora, the latter who believes her African maid is practicing witchcraft on her. Set in a chilly, modern-day Lisbon, the droll days pass and Aurora suddenly becomes gravely ill, confiding in Pilar about a man she had an affair with — a man who the dedicated friend seeks out, urging him to relay his story. The second he opens his mouth, Gomes begins a new journey, abandoning Pilar for 'Paradise,' a nostalgic romance in a freewheelin’, colonialist 1960s Mozambique. 'Paradise' is a strange segment, one completely coated in melodrama yet told in a rather distant, unaffecting way (for instance, there is no dialogue — all of 'Paradise' is told via voice-over). Both segments transform the the other in mysterious ways, commenting on the way time and memory can distort reality.
All in all it’s another distinctive effort from Gomes, one you can catch in New York on December 26th. The director spoke to us during the New York Film Festival about the inspiration for the story, his distaste for the conventional three-act structure of screenplays, and his longing for silent cinema.
Starting With The Hangover
While the inspiration for the first chapter of “Tabu” is a bit ordinary (Gomes explained that the characters and situations were relayed to him from a relative), the following branch, 'Paradise,' has a much more colorful backstory. "When I was doing 'Our Beloved Month Of August,' I discovered that a song in the film was originally done by a Portuguese band in Mozambique in the 60s, so I met them. They talked to me about the old times in Africa, about the songs they played (whatever were the hits at the time), how they picked up girls, etc," explained the filmmaker, noting their nostalgia for a terrible colonialist regime. "They were attached to the regime and missing it, which is not my case, but what I think they were missing the most was their youth, and that intrigued me very much." As for how the divergent stories were eventually structured as one, the director described the idea in terms of binge drinking. "If the second part is the drinking, we start with the hangover. When you get to the section of partying, you continue to have the sensation of this hangover, so when you see the love affair, she’s already gone, she died in the first part. The guy that is going to tell the story, he’s an old man, and you can feel the weight of time contaminating this story, and all the fatigue that is in the first portion charges the second."
It's not part of the inflated "cinema is dead" declarations that have been going on as of late, but Gomes does have a unique perspective on the current state of movies. "Just as the guys playing in this band were missing their youth, cinema too is missing its youth. Now it is more than 100 years old, and during the process of aging a person becomes more aware and loses their innocence. You cannot believe in the same things you believed in as a child," the director said. "I tried to regain a little bit of this innocence that cinema lost (or we as viewers lost) with my film." Is it too nostalgic? Gomes fills the memories contained in 'Paradise' with artificial constructs such as a copious amount of voiceover to distance the audience, making it so that cinema-goers will have to actively believe in the fiction he is weaving. "The beauty of cinema is that it allows us to go back in time, to our childhood maybe, and believe in unbelievable things. All of this is a construction so it’s artificial, it’s not reality, it’s not the same world we are living in, it is cinema. But I guess that cinema can generate an inner truth, and there is a truth that exists in artificial structures that you can relate and react to in an emotional way," he resolved.
And while he admits to being incredibly taken by musical comedies, the Portuguese filmmaker cannot resist adding a little bit of conflicting reality into his escapism: "My interest is that with fantasies and artificial structures, you don’t have to reject reality and I wanted to have both in the film. That means filming the material reality of that place, Mozambique in the second part, and having the fiction functioning among the Mozambique nowadays. I remember that there were kids wearing Obama t-shirts and my production asked if I wanted them to take them off. I said ‘hell no.’ There are guys with specific mustaches designed on thenm and girls who have their hair made in the style of the 60s, that’s the fiction. But we should not put away Obama t-shirts because we should not reject reality." It's an idea that also finds itself as one of the themes of film, the equation between reality and the desire of fiction. "I think the characters in the first part have an urge for fiction, that’s why they go to the cinema, that’s why they continue to read Robinson Crusoe, that’s why Aurora is always acting and performing to the others. We need in our daily, normal life a space for fiction." Just as fiction peeks through the cracks of the first one, the freewheeling nature of the second chapter sees reality — whether it be the furious husband violently confronting the adulterous couple or just the ignorant nature of the colonialist structure — rearing its ugly head to rain on everyone's parade.
Hollywood's Yearning For Formula
"There are now these guys that work in cinema called script doctors. This confuses me, because if there are script doctors that means the screenplays are sick or something, they need medicine. They always are talking about the way we shoot, the structure of film, the script at least, and I think their supposed model is classical American cinema. But I don’t exactly know what they’ve seen and I think they're missing something. I always give this example: in one of the high moments of classical American cinema, ‘Rio Bravo’ from Howard Hawks, the bad guys are in jail and their gang is coming to break them out, maybe kill John Wayne and Dean Martin. Because they are scared, they start to sing. Ok, so this is the standards of classical structure, at least in that genre. But when they stop singing, what do they do? They sing another one. And this is completely dysfunctional in the pattern of what should be. Logically, two songs in a row is too much. Why did Hawks do that? Because of the pleasure of it. I also made this film’s structure for my pleasure and hopefully the pleasure of the viewers that go through these rules and such, and for me it’s fun to go through them to get to the end. There is an oversimplification these days, they weren’t always these strict three-act structures and such, they had a lot of nuances. Sometimes it was not that linear."
Unleashing The Phantoms
The director often starts a film by collecting a number of ideas that he has a strong yearning to do, which is why some of his movies tend to have very different, opposing elements. A lot of these inspiring elements also happen to be from movies, and Gomes often unleashes them into the wild. "Having watched a lot of films and digesting them, they’re not always clear in my head, they are mixed and vague, more like phantoms. So I have all the sensations of other films I’ve watched, more recent, some old, and I think that there is a space in every film to let these ghosts enter. These phantoms can be so alive in films. That can be the reality. You don’t have to choose them, you just have to film what’s existing now, but let the phantoms of other times enter the film you are doing," he explained, while also name-dropping a great contemporary film that he thought did a similar thing: "Holy Motors." "I was quite impressed by that. All the phantoms of cinema: musical comedy, thrillers, horrors, political films, all run rampant in that movie."
On Shooting Digital
Despite the imposing digital environment of cinema, Gomes elected to shoot "Tabu" in both 35mm and 16mm, believing it to be the only appropriate way to tell his story. "I felt that the only honest way to do it was to use something on the verge of disappearing, film stock, and try to do it like cinema was done for years and years." The director insists that he is no purist and even admires some movies that have engaged in the digital world. “Pedro Costa does very good films on digital, and ‘Holy Motors’ was shot on digital and that’s a hell of a good film. Still, it’s sad because I’m pretty attached to film. I think it continues to be much better than digital, which is too clinical for me. Even some cameras were designed by companies that make eye glasses. So it’s completely different from photography, it’s a new thing. But I’m not saying that every cinema should only exist on film,” Gomes concluded.
Here's the trailer below.