An exquisite masterpiece, and perhaps the most beautiful film in color ever made, writer-director Manoel de Oliveira’s perfect Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura is based on a short story by José Maria Eça de Queirós. De Oliveira made this astounding film when he was a hundred years old. Starring his grandson, Ricardo Trêpa, it is from Portugal, Spain and France.
The film opens on a train bound for the Algarve; the conductor moves steadily down the aisle of a compartment in the opposite direction from the train’s, suggesting a kind of stasis. In his aisle seat, Macário (Trêpa) strikes up a conversation with the passenger, a stranger, in the window seat. She encourages Macário to unburden himself of the tale of romantic woe we come to see as flashbacks, in Lisbon: an opposition, if you will, between the moving train currently housing them and the young man’s recent memories, which largely attach themselves to his static gazing, through the window of his office in his uncle’s firm, at the girl with a round Chinese fan at the window across the way. His obsession with Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein, best actress Golden Globe, Portugal) draws his disapproving uncle’s ire, costing Macário his job and residence in his uncle’s home, and tossing him into poverty. By this time, he and Luisa are a couple contemplating marriage, plans for which are put on hold so Macário can go to Cape Verde to earn money. He makes money and returns, but there will be no wedding. Macário blames Luisa who attempts an expensive store theft; but, in truth, the blame belongs at least as much to Macário, who proves himself, in his pampered bigotry and narrow morality, his uncle’s nephew.
A reference point for this film, perhaps, is a Hollywood classic: Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941); but the film it most reminds me of is Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce (1969).
De Oliveira brilliantly captures, as realistic background noise, the sounds of traffic in Lisbon—and then, in another interior scene, we hear instead, faintly and poignantly, the twitter of birds: a memory more closely keyed to de Oliveira’s experience, as well as the anticipated passing of his spirit, than to jaded Macário’s experience. Filmy white window curtains seem somehow correlative to the fragile bird-sounds, as though fluttering along a divide between life and death, reality and illusion, materiality and memory. The cumulative effect is haunting.
Sabine Lancelin’s gorgeous color cinematography realizes, doubtless, de Oliveira’s intended color scheme: principally, soft reddishness and soft black, in addition to the soft white. These delicate “colors” appear to be dissolving; they occupy rooms and corridors, and evoke the mystery of life on the cusp of some other dimension. Impossibly, deep shadows are as diffuse as light. The reddishness tinges shot after shot with rue that reflects de Oliveira’s profound feelings rather than Macário’s shallow ones. Much as some viewers may be as yet too insubstantial to appreciate this glorious film, Macário is not yet capable of understanding his own life. One wonders if he will ever be.
I am glad that Manoel de Oliveira lived long enough to make this film. I am also glad I lived long enough to see it.
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