Issue 10: Winter 2012
Tabu: Opening Of Its Own Accord
Miguel Gomes' Tabu is a film, like Godard's Eloge de l'amour (2002), that might seem as if it has been made the wrong way round, with the past taking place after the future, so that we would need to look again at the film to wonder how certain lines, actions and unusual behaviours contain within them elements of a past story that has yet to be revealed. Gomes' film is initially set in present day Lisbon, and then moves back in time after one of the film's leading characters, Aurora (Laura Soveral), passes away. Her neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madruga) tracks down a figure of some importance in the late woman's life and, after the funeral, he explains to her how significant they were to each other.
Tabu is also very much a film in two halves in the sense that the first section is observational; the second narrational. If in the first half it is as if people contain huge areas of silence within them, the second section shows why this might be so with the release of some of these feelings. The important man in Aurora's life was Gian Luca Ventura, her great love, a man she met not long after meeting her husband, and with whom she had an affair while she was pregnant with her husband's child. But the film is permeated by a sadness much greater than a lost love, and its achievement lies in making the story seem wholly important but at the same time not at all significant. How to explain this paradox? Perhaps by saying something about time, about the manner in which the film's first half contains time within the bodies of the characters, and the second half releases it into the nature of an event, an event that is both personal (between Aurora and Gian-Luca) and more broadly political, as the film touches upon but refuses to explore the uprisings in the Portuguese African colony where the second section takes place. This isn't at all because Gomes refuses the political dimension; more it would seem that he didn't want to make a film about politics where the issues would be more important than the individual.
Tabu's interest in the individual though doesn't lie at all in the individualistic, and this is why the problem of time is so important to the film: time passes through the individual and erodes the singularity of self. When we see Gian Luca Ventura as an old man (Henrique Espírito Santo), we see an impressive face, but not a face we would immediately recognize when we see the dashing, younger Gian Luca (Carlotto Cotta) later in the film as the older self narrates his story and the film plunges into time past. When Eric Kohn in IndieWire says "'flashback' doesn't quite describe the abrupt shift to storybook romanticism that defines the rest of the running time", he touches upon the film's problem with the temporal, but a comment from Proust's Time Regained helps us understand something of the film's ambition and success: "But it is sometimes just at the moment when we think that everything is lost that the intimation arrives which may save us; one had knocked on all the doors which lead nowhere, and then one stumbles without knowing it on the only door through which one can enter - which one might have sought in vain for a hundred years - and it opens of its own accord."
In the film's first section it's as if the film is knocking on three doors - Aurora's; her neighbour, Pilar, who would seem to be the film's central character; and Aurora's maid, Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso) - but halfway through the film and with the introduction of Gian Luca, it is this door that opens of its own accord and that the film disappears into, becoming, as a consequence, a very different film without at all arriving at the arbitrary. Like Eloge de'Lamour, Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006) and Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1995), Tabu searches out a register of feeling that is stronger than the coherence of its form, and finds it in the affair between Aurora and Gian Luca, in a body language of passion completely at odds with the bodies of those in the film's first section. If Aurora and Santa, Pilar and also her friend, a painter, all share a sense of despondency in their bodies, the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) and Gian Luca possess instead anticipation. Now if Gomes had given to these youthful bodies their full extension the film might have lost contact completely with its first half, but instead by changing what would seem to be the form, Gomes remains consistent to his theme: he manages to retain the film's air of disappointment by making sure the love affair is very much a chronicle of love and death foretold.
How does Gomes do this? First of all by refusing to allow the past to become anything more than a fragment of memory as the story is narrated by the aged Gian Luca, with the occasional interruption from the Aurora of the past as she responds to the letters he sends. Gomes also relies on partiality of sound: though we hear nobody in the past speak as the voices are muted, we do hear the band playing and its singer singing. There are various ambient sounds we hear also. It's as if the past is trapped between oblivion and recollection, a mode which literature can easily offer but is much harder to do in film, and this is where the film resembles the cinema of the great Marguerite Duras but actually feels closer to her fictional work. In a film like India Song (1975), Duras worked with the disjunction between voice and image, as the film told the story as narration, while the actors were caught in the image rather like people in a game of musical statues. They could move but they remained at the same time inert, as if aware of the melancholy in which they were caught, and their body language and their silence reflected this.
In Tabu, the two leading characters are not aware of their future past, of what the body will seem like reflected upon by a self in the future looking back, but instead oblivious even to their present. Here they are in colonial Africa, with Aurora married and with her husband's child in her womb, and Gian Luca says that he lived this intense present with no thought for the future at all. Where Duras seemed to want a melancholic feeling that would trap the characters in a past that they couldn't escape because of the weight of the future reflections that will contain them, Gomes, through Gian Luca's voice over, returns us to the past with the emphasis more on nostalgia than on melancholia. The difference between the two is the difference between a past that has been irretrievably lost but that remains halcyon, and a past that is contained by the regret that things could have been otherwise. One wouldn't want to say Gomes's vision is simply nostalgic, but its register is different from Duras's, and the aesthetic choice to incorporate a wider variety of sounds, to give the characters agency in their actions even if we do not hear their voices, reflects this.
Duras's fiction is equally melancholic, and yet her fiction breathes more easily than her films because where in the likes of India Song Duras finds a form for melancholia that indicates sensory motor-collapse, a mode in which one's agency is so limited, so incapable of action, that it mutes many of the audio elements and the body's movements, this is a given of literature and not a subtractive force. One of the problems with film is the opposite from that in literature. Where the writer starts with the blank page that she must then fill; the filmmaker works with a full frame that he must accept contains more than he might immediately wish to be present. A scene in a novel can describe one character's appearance but leave the other character not at all visually sketched. It can describe the sitting room the characters are in, but choose not to describe the kitchen they walk into. To offer the equivalent detail/vagueness in film form is to produce the radical in one medium that would be conventionally accepted in the other. Duras was obviously an experimental novelist as she was seen to be part of the nouveau roman of the fifties, but her perspective on time and space seemed less radical than those in some of Alain Robbe-Grillet's, Claude Simon's or Nathalie Sarraute's work. The partial angle Duras offered as she explored the problem of time still fitted into the conventions of novelistic expectation. Her directorial work (as opposed to her script for Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour, which is another matter) did not, and this could lead one to say she is a great writer and only an interesting director, or a fine writer but a more radical filmmaker.
Tabu is in this sense a more conventional film than Duras's work, but achieves something of her novels' affect. What it leaves out does not feel radical; it seems to push the problem of time without pushing beyond the acceptable limits of the form. What the film leaves out doesn't arrive at the formally exhausting, but instead the emotionally precise. One doesn't need to hear what the characters say, since the voice-over conveys the feelings, and the body language of the characters augment them. When Gian Luca's narration insists that he had broken people's hearts and lived a carefree life, when he tells us that though he had lived near Aurora for months but had never met her, we know that their meeting will be monumental. And when they do meet, we see in their body language- as Aurora refuses to meet Gian Luca's eyes unless talking directly to him, as Gian Luca steals the occasional gratuitous glance at her- that this is coup de foudre. The voices might be muted, but the situation isn't ambiguous. In India Song, by contrast, the body language remains indeterminate and the sounds do little to add to narrative information.
As Gilles Deleuze (in Cinema 2: The Time Image) and others would note: Duras is a filmmaker interested in the separation of sound and image, in acknowledging the breach that exists between the two, evident in the different technology utilised, and that for the first thirty years of cinema filmmakers worked in silence. Some filmmakers worked with separating sound and image (like Godard and Duras), others insisted on absolute fidelity to source sound (Straub and Huillet), others accepted the image as pure and the sound as an addition (the dubbing used in much Italian cinema, including the films of Fellini and Pasolini, whom the Straubs railed against for using post-synching in a brief piece collected in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen's Film Theory and Criticism). Others are like Rohmer who, despite the occasional experiment (Perceval ), usually incorporated the importance of the word through voice-over or lengthy conversational disquisitions: unrealistic perhaps, but not challengingly troublesome. This would lead, for example, to Robbe-Grillet dismissively commenting on Rohmer's 'lazy' use of talking heads in an interview in Paris Review.
It is as if recent films like The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius, 2011), A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj, 2010) and Tabu are interested in returning to elements of the silent cinema and the question might be 'to what end'? If The Artist is such a wonderfully gentle waste of time, it is because it is not at all interested in creating a problem greater than its element of homage. Tabu wants to return not so much to the silents as to utilise a mode halfway between silent film and audio cinema. While the first half of the film shares similarities with A Useful Life as it captures well the quiet, tentative sadness of an existence possibly half-lived, the second half allows the film to move from the silence of the body containing its secrets, to a mind revelling in its capacity for recall. We should remember that Gian Luca has been sworn to a lifetime of secrecy, and it is only on Aurora's death that he can now at last talk. As he starts to speak, so the heavy bodies of the first half become the energetic bodies in the second.
All the main characters get to move quickly and passionately (Gian Luca, Aurora, her husband, Gian Luca's best friend Mario) through space. Whether it is Gian Luca moving through the African locale on a car or motorbike, or Aurora crossing from her own place to Gian Lucas's for their first assignation, life has no excess gravity, but only the grace of bodily movement. Where the first half Tabu sometimes suggests movement within stillness, evident when Pilar and Aurora sit in what looks like a shopping mall and the background constantly moves behind them as they talk, in the second half the camera seems more documentative, no matter its careful delineating of screen space. When, for example, his fellow band members throw Gian Luca into the pool, Gomes's camera allows for them to grab him on screen, disappear from the frame as the camera remains fixed, and then shows him tossed into the pool without the camera ‘flinching'. There is more than enough movement in the bodies for the camera often to settle for the transfixed.
The film's very title invokes silent cinema, or rather the birth of sound as it references Murnau's classic of the South Seas. Murnau's film was a prelapsarian account of life on a small island; Gomes' is a colonial take on the ‘dark continent'. Where the tabu in Murnau's film was consistent with a Malinowskian look at what constitutes a taboo in primitive cultures, Gomes' film is very much interested in what constitutes a taboo in a colonial one. There have of course been numerous films about taboo-breaking in the pickled heat of colonial Africa, from White Mischief (Michael Radford, 1987) to Chocolate (Claire Denis, 1988), from White Material (Claire Denis, 2009) to Out Of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985) - some great and some much less so. This is partly why we proposed that Tabu's story wasn't significant, and one might even call it stale. Told in the present tense it, would have lent itself towards a melodramatic story that it doesn't entirely avoid (some will have problems with Aurora shooting Mario), but, told from the position of hindsight, it feels instead as though it has the inevitability of the tragic. However this is tragedy not in the Greek sense of a present foretold by the gods, but the past tense of a tragedy that might never have been told at all.
Earlier, in the film's first section, the dying Aurora deliriously talks a little about the experience that Gian Luca will then reveal in detail in the second half, and it is possible this is a story that drove her half mad by living through it and that the rest of her wits were lost in refusing to disclose it. There are practical reasons why she wouldn't do so - Gian Luca killed his best friend though the rebels take responsibility for this, as the film ironically suggests that the personal becomes the political: that Mario's death set in motion the civil war. Nevertheless it was Gian Luca who was responsible. Also, while her husband understands that she has been having an affair, it is an event that Aurora would no doubt have wanted to shield the daughter she speaks so fondly of in the first half from. Aurora initially seems a batty old woman with paranoiac tendencies and a racist streak. She doesn't become any more sympathetic on the basis of later revelations, but she is at least comprehensible. Would others have treated her differently if they had known more about her past, we might wonder?
Yet maybe one of the things the film is interested in is compassion without information, fellow feeling without knowledge. At one moment Pilar goes in search of Gian Luca after Aurora requests his visit as she lies dying. She visits the address she is given and a man answers the door. After momentary wariness he accepts Pilar into his garage and announces that she is a good woman, his dog can sense such things. Earlier in the film, someone else reckons she is a caring woman too, after Pilar insists on giving a gift to someone through a friend. If Pilar is the film's compassionate centre, nevertheless it is Aurora who is its emotional core, the figure for whom passion burns brightly, where for Pilar evidence indicates it doesn't burn at all: feeling permeates, manifesting itself in care for others and a love of God. As she prays before going to bed, she is a woman who finds meaning in the Lord but finds purpose in helping others. There is nothing in the film to indicate Aurora is such a person, and it makes sense on a passionate level that Aurora would go half-crazy, a self-absorbed figure capable of a psychic auto de fe. When she talks about her wonderful daughter we of course see no evidence of this wondrousness, since she never appears, but the comments from her maid indicate that this is just one of many areas in which Aurora fails to read reality.
What the film asks us to do, through its reversal of temporal coordinates, through its observational first half where we get to study body language, is to muse over characters that are locked into their pasts. What does the body of a sixty or seventy year old tell us, and how might we access this history, this accumulation of time and event? Overall, the history of cinema has been about youthful action over aging reflection, with the exceptions often feeling demographically targeted rather than temporally investigative (On Golden Pond [Mark Rydell, 1981], The Whales of August [Lindsay Anderson, 1987], The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel [John Madden, 2011]). They don't plunge into time; they stay close to the shores of reminiscence. Tabu asks us to muse over the lives of its leading characters by giving us so little of their past in the first half, and so exclusively the past of Aurora in the second. What feelings has Pilar denied we might muse when we see her crying while watching a film in Tabu's prologue? What past history would the maid have to divulge if someone accessed her life? Even Pilar's friend, the painter, contains within him hints at a past to which we are not privy.
It is a common enough expression that everyone has a book in them, but another way of looking at this, when we're watching a film, is to wonder whether the characters we're witnessing look like they have a story within them that could unravel into a film of its own. Tabu could just have easily plunged into the maid's life, enquired into Pilar's or explored Pliar's friend's existence, and we might think this for at least two reasons. Firstly that the film's quiet concern for the lives of others contained in Pilar's empathy, is a feeling the film seems to share. The second is that by following Aurora and Gian Luca's story with the partiality of memory, the film opens up the space for partiality in all its manifestations. It lies in the approach a film has towards storytelling as opposed to the angle.
The angle is the starting point required to create dramatic narrative, and this often demands extraordinary events the characters have endured, whether it is crossing the North Pole, climbing the Eiger or fighting in a war. It's as if one senses in the demand for an angle the impatience of the audience for a story that will not waste their time. In the approach, however, it is less the drama of event than the capacity for generating co-feeling. Perhaps Aurora and Gian Luca's story is the most dramatic that could be told out of the lives we are shown, and yet if the film is so interesting it is not because it has chosen this story, more that it could just as easily have chosen others. Its sensibility is on the side of approaching people's lives instead of looking for an angle on them. It is partly why we proposed the story is wholly important but not at all significant as it tells one story but leaves us wondering about the others we haven't been told about. What is the maid's story, what secrets does Pilar hold, and what about Aurora's daughter, who remains a telling off-screen presence? Often a film's angle doesn't allow for creating these types of spaces, and we might think it absurd to wonder what is going on in the minds and bodies of supporting characters in many a film. Their purpose isn't to have either a mind or a body with a history, only with a function. They are an element in the angle of the story; they are not there for the possibilities they contain within them.
Tabu is a film where surrounding the characters there is always more feeling than function, and so consequently even off-screen characters retain a presence. Not only the daughter, we might think, but also a Polish student who didn't make it to Portugal; why not we'll never know. One of the definitions of a tabu is the space that shouldn't be encroached upon by others, as privacy is respected, and people allowed to keep their own council. Gomes' film respects this space all the more by hinting at these thoughts and feelings, but being under no obligation to reveal them, only to hint at their revelation through most of the characters, and explicitly illustrate it through the characters who for many years has been keeping it all in: Aurora, and the person who finally gets to talk about it- Gian Luca.
Tony McKibbin is an independent writer and teacher who writes for The List in Edinburgh and various film and literary journals worldwide.