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Friday, Oct. 1, 2010

'Eccentricities Of a Blonde-Haired Girl'

Blondes really do have more fun — and heartbreak


Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira should be listed in the dictionary under "antiaging" — at 100 years old, he has released the wonderfully titled "Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl" (released in Japan as "Blonde Shojo wa Kagekini Utsukushiku"), which is packed with romantic loveliness and balanced by a tight, precise editing style.

Eccentricities Of a Blonde-Haired Girl Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Biggest fan: Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein) strikes a seductive pose for her lovestruck voyeur across the courtyard in "Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl." © FILMES DO TEJO II, KES FILMS DE L'APRES-MIDI, EDDIE SAETA SA, 2009

Director: Manoel de Oliveira
Running time: 64 minutes
Language: Portuguese (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Oct. 2, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In every aspect, the film shows the sensibilities of someone half Oliveira's age, and an erotic longing rarely savored in today's cinema is drawn here with youthful ardor. Yet "Eccentricities" bears the hallmarks of maturity and experience — the film is a showcase for Oliveira's acute observational powers and a temperament akin to fine, aged wine.

This is a love story, but that love is reminiscent of something Oscar Wilde or Honore de Balzac described — it nearly always breaks at least one lover's heart, and it's never meant to be consummated. Certainly, the protagonist, Macario (Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira's grandson), doesn't seem interested in making love so much as pondering upon and obsessing over Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein), whose comely figure he sees in the window across the courtyard. Macario works as the accountant at his uncle's boutique,and from his desk he can see the alluring Luisa, waving a Chinese fan and leaning slightly over a window sill with aristocratic flair and ennui.

It's this image Macario treasures, even after he succeeds in courting Luisa (with her mother's permission). And when his uncle, enraged by his nephew's infatuation, kicks him out of the firm, Macario weeps because he can no longer watch Luisa and feel his pulse racing.

Luisa, on the other hand, is an enigma. Her allure is tangible when the fan is in her hand, standing at the window as she seems to contemplate the world without interest or judgment. When she's out of her house and on the street, or attending a literary party (to which Macario also manages to wrangle an invitation), she's just a pretty girl, her mystery somehow extinguished for reasons that are never even alluded to.

Is Macario aware of this? He never says so, but probably knows it: When he lands a new job in Cape Verde, the prospect of a long separation from Luisa doesn't exactly devastate him.

"We need to build a solid financial base if we're to be happy in our life together," is how he puts it to her, and though he may be right, the utter bourgeois quality of his statement fills the screen with foreboding. Luisa, though, is in agreement. In fact, she agrees with most of Macario's suggestions without venturing to make any herself. When he comes back from Cape Verde having duly made a fortune, she says yes to marriage. When he gets conned out of every euro he has and tells her that a wedding is no longer in the works, she's OK with that, too.

In spite of Macario's efforts, happiness is never on the cards for the pair, and it seems fitting that he and Luisa share just one on-screen kiss (and even that is implied rather than shown) and not much more. They'd made a great couple when gazing at each other from their respective windows, but the closer they get, the less they seem to hit it off.

The film is based on a 19th-century novella by Eca de Queiroz, and Oliveira's conceit is setting the story in present-day Portugal (though one without cell phones or iPads) while giving his characters the upper-class mores and hangups of two centuries ago. It's actually jarring to see Luisa walking on a busy Lisbon street square — as if she had been conning us all along, and any minute she's likely to throw that fan into a recycle bin and hurry into something depressingly modern, such as a Gap store.

Since the late 1980s, Oliveira has made movies at the rate of one every year — a record matched only by a few filmmakers in the world today, including Woody Allen. Unlike Allen, he's not into philosophizing, inside jokes or cynicism. Rather, Oliveira displays his penchant for storytelling perversity: tracing the exaggerated formality of a bygone era when lovers were called suitors, marriages were for life, and sexual attraction was fiery and fierce but kept strictly under wraps, or glimpsed between waves of a feathered fan. That it's all happening in the 21st century can only be described as this film's delightful eccentricity.

Japan title: "Blonde Shojo wa Kagekini Utsukushiku"

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