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Unspeakable desire: Dennis Lim on the films of Joao Pedro Rodrigues.

THE MOVIES OF JOAO PEDRO RODRIGUES might be seen as attempts to film the unfilmable. Their ineffable subject is desire in all its guises (and disguises), and their modus operandi is to follow that desire to its logical--or illogical--ends. In each of his three features--O Fantasma (2000), Two Drifters (2005), and To Die Like a Man (2009)--the Portuguese filmmaker has focused on a character defined by an all-consuming hunger. A garbageman with a raging libido, prowling Lisbon's nighttime netherworld for anonymous sex. A troubled young woman dreaming of motherhood, convinced she's carrying the child of a dead gay man. An aging drag queen who has devoted her adult life to the impersonation of womanhood, bumping up against the hard facts of biology. Each wrestles with longings so intense and so desperately large that they eclipse the gap between the carnal and the spiritual.

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As confrontational as any debut feature of the past decade, O Fantasma tackles the matter of same-sex desire in the graphic, head-on terms befitting a budding queer-cinema provocateur. There is explicit sex--notably, unsimulated fellatio in a public bathroom--but more than that, the hero, Sergio (Ricardo Meneses), a handsome, sullen trash collector, exists in a more or less constant state of arousal. The film opens with a black dog bounding down a hallway, scratching and yelping at a closed door beyond which his master, handcuffed, is being sodomized by a man encased in a latex bodysuit. (Only later do we learn that it is Sergio behind the mask.) The rhyming shots of canine and man set the stage for a movie that takes shape as an anatomy of animal lust. A sexual outlaw worthy of Genet and a sensualist of the gutter, Sergio responds to attraction with feral curiosity, by touching and sniffing and licking. He's insatiable, a walking erogenous zone, and the world is full of potential objects of desire.

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Literal trash cinema, O Fantasma finds a poetic synchronicity between the furtive compulsions that drive no-strings hookups and the nightly rounds of garbage collectors, both generally unseen rituals of a city's ghost world. As he would do in his subsequent films, Rodrigues tells his story largely under cover of darkness. Few movies have conjured a nightscape as enveloping and textured as that of O Fantasma--Rodrigues and his cinematographer, Rui Pocas, shot on sensitive film stock and, where possible, with only the available light of street lamps.

Rodrigues values the night for both its ability to conceal and its capacity to reveal. Sergio's Lisbon is a shadow land of temptation, where he's liable to stumble upon such enticements as a night-shift cop conveniently cuffed and gagged in the backseat of a car, or a strapping hunk intently polishing his shiny motorcycle. The biker Adonis ignites a primal passion in Sergio, who's immediately compelled to scavenge the man's trash for tactile souvenirs: worn leather gloves, ripped swimming trunks. He dons the stolen Speedo and soaps up his groin while autoerotically choking himself with a shower hose. Moving on to spying, stalking, and outright cruising, he's eventually rebuffed, but the rejection only deepens his obsession: He marks his turf by breaking into his beloved's house and pissing on his bed. As Sergio's behavior becomes more extreme, the movie grows more surreal, turning into a hallucinatory reverie of nocturnal stealth a la Les Vampires, the Louis Feuillade serial that the Paris police banned in 1915 for glamorizing criminality.

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The particular genius of O Fantasma is the way it translates its hero's urges into his physical movements, and these movements, in turn, into the rhythms of a trance film. Sergio's odyssey is an oneiric one--the closing credits are accompanied by Alan Vega singing "Dream Baby Revisited" (it's all "a dream," Vega reminds us over and over)--and it is both an allegorical journey through subterranean desires and a literal one through liminal spaces. Rodrigues favors neither-here-nor-there locations (a country road abruptly bisected by a busy freeway, residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of town) that bring to mind what William S. Burroughs termed the Interzone, a metaphoric vision of the margins where "nothing is true, everything is permitted." (Equally apt is the Joy Division song titled "Interzone," which begins: "I walked through the city limits ... attracted by some force within it.") Like some kinky superhero of transgression--Irma Vep meets Tom of Finland--the Phantom leaps fences and scales walls and scampers across rooftops, slipping in and out of windows and doorways, traversing boundaries both psychological and physical. By the end, having traded his yellow sanitation worker's uniform for skintight black latex, he ends up in the most spectacular of the film's defamiliarized landscapes, a massive garbage dump as unworldly as the surface of the moon.

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O Fantasma, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2000, made inevitable ripples through the gay-festival circuit. At once sexier and more unnerving than the usual gaysploitation fare, the film is so direct and absolute an embodiment of brute desire that it cannot help but expose the reflexive puritanism that still surrounds on-screen sex, gay or straight. Critics have long been inclined to praise erotic scenes for their discretion (as in, say, Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence [1993]) or to defend explicit scenes by branding them unerotic (Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs [2004]). Full-frontal confrontations are hardly uncommon among Euro-art auteurs (Catherine Breillat, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe), but for most of them, hard-core sex is merely nihilistic, rigged with punitive payback for characters and viewers alike. Without fear of pleasure or pain, O Fantasma shows a character indulging his perverse appetites. Even as Sergio sinks deeper into abjection, Rodrigues withholds judgment. Consigned to the trash heap by the end of the film, Sergio barely seems human, but he remains a dark quintessence of human desire, a beast that can be neither sated nor denied.

RODRIGUES COULD HAVE POSITIONED himself as a cerebral purveyor of queer eroticism--doing so would probably have lent traction to his international career--but as a chronicler and connoisseur of desire, he gravitates to urges that are tangled and mysterious, hard to classify or even fathom. It was clear in O Fantasma, where Sergio is caught up in an erotic triangle with a female coworker and their male boss, that Rodrigues is interested in more than same-sex desire. A similar dynamic frames his debut short, the fifteen-minute Parabens! (Happy Birthday!, 1997), in which two men, awakened by a phone call from the older man's girlfriend, face the bleary morning after a one-night stand. (The animalistic bent is also present in Parabens! The younger guy, played by Eduardo Sobral--Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, Rodrigues's longtime partner and regular art director, plays the older one--frolics on the floor with a cat and mimics its behavior, slurping milk from a bowl.) But Rodrigues's most outlandish three-way can be found in Two Drifters--titled Odete when it premiered at Cannes in 2005--which brings together a dead man, his grieving male lover, and a young woman who believes she has been impregnated by the deceased.

Two Drifters opens on a lingering, tightly framed kiss and pulls back to introduce boyfriends Rui (Nuno Gil) and Pedro (Joao Carreira), saying goodbye after celebrating their one-year anniversary, for which they exchanged rings inscribed TWO DRIFTERS. (Their movie is Breakfast at Tiffany's, their song "Moon River.") "Till death do us part," Rui solemnly swears--and it comes sooner than he could have imagined. Pedro drives off around the bend and crashes his car. A weeping Rui cradles his lover, dead only weeks after his twenty-first birthday, and the heavens open up in sympathy. As this unabashedly wet prologue suggests, Two Drifters is the kind of movie that cues its action to portentous downpours and gusts of wind--which isn't to say it's remotely predictable: Without warning, this deeply eccentric melodrama thrusts the tragedy of Rui and Pedro into the reckless path of its heroine, Odete (Ana Cristina de Oliveira), a statuesque roller-skating price checker first seen gliding up a supermarket aisle to Andy Williams's Muzak rendition of "Both Sides Now."

Alternating between Pop art vibrancy and funereal gloom, built on symmetry and contradiction, Two Drifters could be understood as an attempt to look at love "from both sides now," pitting Rui's understandable ache against Odete's inexplicable need. Entranced by a pregnant shopper, Odete tells her boyfriend she's going off the pill, and when he refuses to father her child then and there, she throws him out in a rage. After it has finally sunk in that he's never coming back, she wanders, apparently by chance, into Pedro's wake and surreptitiously steals the ring from his finger--by sucking it off the corpse--while his mourning mother sleeps in a nearby chair. Odete somehow gets it into her head that this dead gay boy she has never met is the father of her unborn child. Despite a negative pregnancy test, her belly begins to swell, and she assumes the part of black-clad widow to comically morbid perfection. Odete's more grandiose gestures of devotion--hysterically flinging herself onto Pedro's coffin at the funeral, moving to the cemetery to be with her baby's daddy (empty stroller in tow), sleeping on his grave surrounded by lit candles--invite ridicule, and in the hands of a crueler filmmaker, she would simply be a loony-bin candidate, a fag hag of cosmic proportions. But Rodrigues resists both cheap tears and easy laughs. He refuses to fully explain Odete's behavior and declines to choose between a metaphysical and a psychological interpretation. She's diagnosed with a phantom pregnancy, but that doesn't account for the climactic turn of events in which Odete, her baby bump gone, gets a pixie haircut and transforms herself into a cross between Pedro and Holly Golightly.

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Whether or not Odete's calling is a spiritual one, her quest affirms the nourishing role of fantasy--never mind if it more closely resembles faith or psychosis--in coping with the pain of loss. Odete and Rui, the two lonely drifters of the title, are brought together by the ghost (or the memory) of Pedro; by his ring, the totemic object that links all three characters; and, above all, by Odete's irrational insistence that she has a place in this story, in Rui's devastated life. Is it madness or munificence that compels her to remake herself into a vessel for Pedro and Rui's reunion? Does it matter? The sustained ambiguity pays off breathtakingly in the final scene, profane and poignant in equal measure: Odete, dressed as Pedro, fucks Rui from behind, the camera retreating to reveal Pedro watching the two of them, the impossible menage a trois consummated at last.

If Two Drifters ends with its heroine transcending her physical self, To Die Like a Man revolves around a character who, despite her best efforts, is unable to do so. The biology-defying conclusion of Two Drifters left Rodrigues thinking about what he calls "the disruption of gender, the idea of this floating gender," and spurred him to make a film about a life lived between sexes. A big-boned transsexual who dotes on her pocket-size white dog, Tonia (Fernando Santos), born Antonio, is the dignified, fatalistic heart of To Die Like a Man and a battle-scarred mainstay of the Lisbon drag scene. Well into middle age, having lived as a woman for decades without undergoing the ultimate gender-reassignment procedure, she must contend with a younger, svelter rival at the club she has long ruled, with an unstable junkie lover young enough to be her son, and with an actual son, long estranged, who storms back into her life, a ticking time bomb of internalized homophobia. Worst of all, her health is failing: She has an unnamed ailment (presumably aids), and toxic implants have left her breasts infected, her nipples weeping silicone.

The film's title gives away its ending and points to its central mystery: Why would someone so determined to live like a woman resolve to die as a man? The macho connotation of the title's "die like a man" is crystallized in an introduction as abruptly violent as the opening of Two Drifters. One soldier applies greasepaint to the face of another (military drag) in preparation for a camouflaged patrol in the forest. A nighttime sequence follows, as immersive and eye-straining as the jungle scenes in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady (2005). Separated from their platoon, the two soldiers stop to make out and fuck, then head toward a beckoning house in the woods, where, through a window, they see a pair of drag queens at the piano. An uneasy reaction, an ill-timed joke, and one of the soldiers shoots the other dead. (The killer, we later find out, is Tonia's son.) It's indicative of Rodrigues's slyly wicked streak that he would start a film called To Die Like a Man in the vein of a war movie, then shift to detailing the battle between an ambivalently pre-op transsexual and her own rebelling body.

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By American standards, and to viewers familiar with the postliberation debates surrounding queer representation, Rodrigues can seem remarkably unconcerned with political correctness. O Fantasma matter-of-factly presents promiscuity and fetishism as aspects of gay desire, and To Die Like a Man could be accused of indulging the deathless stereotype of the tragic tranny. But Rodrigues shows Tonia as a product of her generation and cultural conditioning. As much as she wants to be a "complete" woman for her boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), she can't bear to go through with the final surgery--partly because she remains a staunch Catholic ("I feel like I'm planning a crime," she tells a friend) and partly because the violence of the act horrifies her. Over the opening credits, Rodrigues, who studied biology and wanted to be an ornithologist before switching to filmmaking, provides a graphic origami demonstration of a sex-change procedure: "You fold it over, sew it up, turn it inside out," the surgeon deadpans.

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In tone and spirit, the queer-themed film that To Die Like a Man most resembles is Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget (2007), a mournful, clear-eyed comedy about the travails of being, as they say, gay and gray. For much of her life, Tonia has exerted meticulous control over her physical appearance. Now terminal illness forces an acknowledgment of her corporeal limits. Her decision to die as a man might be read as a concession that biology is destiny. But who's to say it isn't also one last assertion of the fluidity of gender? Facing her mortality, Tonia sheds her war paint and armor--wipes off her makeup and hangs up her sequins, that is--and asks to be buried in a dark suit and tie. Looking down at the casket, a friend remarks, "Another joke she played on us." A film that opens with two boys playing at being men spying on two men playing at being women, To Die Like a Man works its way toward something resembling the postmodern position (courtesy of Judith Butler) that all gender is drag.

Not that Rodrigues is interested in proving a thesis. Gender may be performative, but he pointedly declines to show his drag queens vamping onstage. There are morsels of backstage drama, but the focus is on the performance of the everyday. Rodrigues says he thought of To Die Like a Man as "a film that was against spectacle," a goal he achieved in the most blatant sense by shooting in the compressed 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which lends the movie an enchanted, jewel-box quality. Containment appears to be one of Rodrigues's primary strategies, or maybe it's just second nature. There is in all his work a sense of internal contradiction, of counteracting the material in order to enrich it. O Fantasma, for all its sexual forwardness, makes frequent use of ellipses and lacunae, leaving much to the imagination. Odete positions tragedy and comedy as opposing forces, each holding the other in check. This formal tendency is apparent even in Rodrigues's early documentaries, Esta e a minha casa (This Is My House, 1.997) and Viagem a Expo (Journey to Expo, 1998), both about the same family of Portuguese immigrants in Paris making homeward pilgrimages, both travelogues that have the feel of closed loops. (Rodrigues is returning to documentary with his latest project, The Last Time I Saw Macao, although he says this film is in a different vein from the early docs--an essay on cinematic and personal memory directed with Guerra da Mata, who grew up in Macao and with whom Rodrigues also directed a fictional short, 2007's China, China, about a young Chinese woman in Lisbon.)

With To Die Like a Man, Rodrigues endeavors to create a musical without conventional musical numbers, and the challenge occasions some of his most playful and exuberant filmmaking to date. After the controlled hush of O Fantasma, almost silent but for a sporadic canine chorus, Two Drifters established his gift for sound-track epiphany: A heartbroken Rui's late-night drive is set to the raw, woozy Big Star ballad "Kanga Roo"; a tender-creepy graveside interlude brings on a shivery blast of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," sung by a children's choir. To Die Like a Man mines the quotidian for quiet hints of euphoria. While characters are apt to break into song, a cappella, the action never erupts into choreographed spectacle. But whenever someone starts to hum (almost invariably a Portuguese pop song about loss and yearning), the film falls under a spell and conjures up a moment of subtle rapture. As Tonia's friend helps fix her wig, Rodrigues tints the image red, then blue, and cuts to an overhead angle as Tonia spins around in her chair--a bit of homespun Busby Berkeley. In another scene, when an annoyed Rosario changes the station on the car radio, Tonia continues the tune, almost under her breath, and the camera lingers on her face, seen through a window smeared with raindrops and reflections. The true showstopper, though, is saved for a visit to the forest, where Tonia finally meets the woodland creature first glimpsed in the prologue, the incongruously urbane grande dame Maria Bakker (Goncalo Ferreira de Almeida): Their nocturnal ramble is interrupted when the moon turns red, and all the characters, bathed in its eerie light, sit down to listen to a tremulous cabaret hymn ("Calvary" by the transgendered singer Baby Dee), which emanates from an unseen source.

"I think it's pretentious and horrible to say you have a style," Rodrigues told the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2006. Accordingly, perhaps, he has many. The profusion of mirrors in his movies recalls Douglas Sirk; the anguished humor brings to mind Rainer Werner Fassbinder; the use of nonactors, the flat acting style, and the propensity to withhold (not to mention the title Odete) evoke Robert Bresson. But a checklist of influences hardly does justice to Rodrigues's unpredictability, his knack for balancing a multitude of paradoxical tones and registers. Belying its heroine's inability to change, To Die Like a Man shape-shifts at will, refusing to settle on any one mode for long, moving fluidly between gravity and whimsy, reality and fantasy.

The film's emotional peak arrives in song, in a final scene--captured in a single bravura crane shot--that returns Tonia and Rosario to the cemetery they had earlier strolled through, this time in matching suits and coffins. Perched on a columbarium wall, resplendent in plumed headdress and rhinestone tiara, Tonia surveys the scene below and belts out a keening fado: "Oh how I'd like to live in the plural / The singular is worse than bad." This longing for plurality--for both sides now--gets to the heart of Rodrigues's fundamental boldness and generosity. The critic Parker Tyler concluded Screening the Sexes, his pioneering 1972 treatise on homosexuality in the movies, by observing that "there are as many sexes as there are individuals" and with a Utopian plea for a truly liberated film art, receptive and conducive to "totally free inventions of the libido." With panache, conviction, and more than a touch of the perverse, Rodrigues has taken up his call.

A retrospective of Joao Pedro Rodrigues's films will be on view at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, MA, Oct. 1-3 and at BAMcinematek in Brooklyn, NY, Oct. 6-8.

DENNIS LIM IS A NEW YORK-BASED CRITIC AND THE EDITOR OF MOVING IMAGE SOURCE.
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Author:Lim, Dennis
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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