Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (2009)
Reviewed by Paul Cogley
Portuguese movie director Manoel de Oliveira was born on December 11, 1908. According to his Wikipedia page, he is currently in pre-production on a movie called The Old Restelo.
Back when de Olieveira was only 101 years old, he made a spare, dreamy elegant movie “Singularidades de Uma Rapariga Loura,” the Portuguese title of Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl. It is an adaptation of a short story by Eca de Queiroz, Portugal’s great 19th century writer, and it retains the feeling of a tautly told story in every gesture and spoken line.
The movie opens on a train. A narrator states that sometimes the things you can’t tell your family you can tell a stranger. A young man —clearly in duress—then proceeds to tell his story to a fellow passenger, a middle-aged woman who listens with curiosity.
While the story is shown in flashback, the movie returns on occasion to these two on the train, as if we need reminding that the story remains an unresolved chapter in the life of the young man. In the course of the story, the young man, whose name is Macário, is told that he is foolish. Certainly he is foolish as only a romantic young man can be, although, in his case, somewhat more so.
One day, while he is working at his desk, a young woman appears at the balcony across from him. She is a real beauty, and Macário is instantly infatuated. On the night they finally meet, they sit in at a poker game. A poker chip falls to the floor. The dealer searches, but the poker chip is not found. Is the movie moving into shades of magical realism with a vaguely paranormal event? No, only dropping a clue that will only be understood when Macário completes his tale.
The two decide to marry. But things start to go wrong. And, since we know this will end with Macário traveling alone on the train, we are drawn into the tension of what happened.
After seeing two of his movies, I notice a delicacy to the atmosphere of de Oliveira’s direction that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Often, de Oliveira does not allow his cameras to move, but has his actors play into the frame, a technique that goes back to the earliest days of filmmaking. The furniture, wall fixtures, and rooms match the eras they were built in, late 19th and early 20th-century Lisbon. People wear the dresses and suits that hark back to the sartorially sophisticated first decades of the 20th century. We might spend a moment at a harp recital of a Debussy song, another moment with a poem by a Portuguese poet.
In one scene, Macário kisses the hand of his uncle in homage to him, perhaps as was the custom when Eça de Queiros wrote this story in the 19th century. Nevertheless, when we see Macário at his desk, he works in front of a laptop computer.
When Macário brings his story to the present—the trip on the train—I wanted to hear from the woman passenger. Surely, she would have something to say from which Macário might learn a thing or two. But, de Oliviera doesn’t give much voice for the one character that might just have a bit of wisdom to share, since she is in a later stage of life. She was placed there on the train by de Oliviera as a stand-in, so-to-speak, so that we might listen along with her as we watch this movie. In the end, we are left to rely on our own experiences to reflect on what we’ve seen and heard from the young and foolish Macário.