Thursday, May. 13, 2010

Cannes: Best-Ever Film by a 101-Year-Old Man

Don't tell this to Manoel de Oliveira, whose The Strange Case of Angelica showed at Cannes today, but directing movies is a young man's game. (Yes, alas, the auteur's club is still a virtually all-male preserve.) Given the 20-hour days, the crisis management, the zillion artistic choices to be decided on the fly and the need to caress and deflate egos, it's a job that requires a field marshal's grand vision and a lacemaker's attention to detail. Above all, it requires stamina. Directing is not a sprint but a marathon; only the strong survive.

The surprise, then, is that so many filmmakers keep at it into their senior days. In 2007 the Toronto Film Festival welcomed new works by Richard Attenborough, 84, Youssef Chahine, 81, Sidney Lumet, 83, and Eric Rohmer, 87. (Chahine and Rohmer have since called their final "Cut"; the other two remain impossibly vital.) Last year's New York Film Festival offered films from Alain Resnais, 87, Jacques Rivette, 81, and Andrzej Wajda, 83. But these fellows are pups compared with, say, France's Jean Delannoy, whose masterpiece, La symphonie pastorale, won prizes at the first Cannes fest in 1946. Delannoy, who directed his debut film in 1934 and his last in 1995, died two summers ago at 100½. Then there's the great, notorious Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will, Olympia). She saw the release of her final film, Underwater Impressions, on her 100th birthday in 2002 and lived another year beyond that.

Oliveira, 101, has them all beat. Born Dec. 11, 1908, the year D.W. Griffith made his first one-reeler, Oliveira can boast a film career spanning nearly 80 years. His debut docu-short, Douro, Faina Fluvial (Working on the Douro River), a panorama of dockside life in his native Oporto, Portugal, came out in 1931. He was also an actor, appearing in the second Portuguese talking picture ever made, as well as a race-car driver who steered his Ford V8 Special to a win at the 1937 Estoril circuit rally. But Oliveira didn't hit his cinematic stride until the 1980s — his 70s — when the obsessive love story Francisca charmed and wowed the Cannes crowds. His breakthrough film, if a director can have one of those when approaching 80, was The Cannibals in 1988. A gaily macabre epic in the style of fellow Iberian Luis Buñuel, the movie proceeds at a gentle lull for an hour, then explodes in a delicious orgy of artificial limbs, charred torsos and a family feast of roast viscount.

Since then, Oliveira has been a regular here, earning a Jury Prize for The Letter in 1999 and two awards from the international critics. He shows no signs of slowing up: Angelica is the second film of his second hundred years, following Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl, which played at the 2009 New York Film Festival. Wednesday evening, May 12, among the black-tied swells at Cannes' opening-night party, Oliveira was a dapper presence and the star attraction. On his arm was his wife, Maria Isabel Brandão de Meneses de Almeida Carvalhais, 92. This Dec. 4 they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.

Oliveira has made his share of old-man movies. In the 2001 I'm Going Home, an aging actor (Michel Piccoli) has trouble summoning the energy for mediocre roles after his wife's death, until he finally announces his retirement in the words of the film's title. The 1997 Voyage to the Beginning of the World follows Marcello Mastroianni as a veteran director (also named Manoel) visiting his childhood home. In the simple fable about old age reconciling itself to memory and destiny, Mastroianni wears the wizened smile of a man who knows he is visiting his youth for the last time. This was indeed the grand Marcello's last film, but since then, Oliveira has made 20 more. And Angelica has the assurance of a director just hitting his prime.

The protagonist this time is a young man, the photographer Isaac (played by Oliveira's grandson Ricardo Trêpa), but the preoccupation is still with death. Hired to take pictures of Angelica, a lovely, recently deceased blonde, he finds her propped in a graceful pose on a chaise, like Jacques-Louis David's Madame Récamier. As he snaps his photos, he thinks he sees Angelica smile at him. Developing the photos in his rented room, he sees her image move and smile again. She appears on his balcony and takes him for a flight through the night sky. Isaac's landlady and her other boarders — when they're not debating antimatter, the economic crisis and "the seven mosquitoes of the apocalypse" — wonder at the photographer's distracted, zombiefied air. They should recognize the symptoms of a young man in love and his need to be unified with his inamorata whatever the cost.

Oliveira's films have never been vivacious, exactly. He prefers a steady pace and a static view, using only a half-dozen or so moving-camera shots in Angelica. The average mall moviegoer might be baffled or sedated by the film's stateliness, its dreamlike melancholy. But that's just one difference between the Hollywood action pictures the world loves and the art films that find their most rapt audiences here at Cannes. Historians of cinema all, we connect the dots between this latest Oliveira effort and his first — like that early documentary, Angelica contains scenes of Portuguese workmen singing of the Douro River — and fall into a trance no less seductive than the one that lures Isaac from this world to the next. At 101 (and a half), Manoel de Oliveira is not just the world's oldest filmmaker; he is a magician with a hand that is slow, steady and still beguiling.