Miguel Gomes’ extraordinary new film Tabu opened today at Film Forum for a two-week engagement. To mark the occasion, we’re re-running our interview with the Portuguese filmmaker, originally published in our special NYFF issue. Read the full text below, and don’t miss a chance to catch this beautiful, bittersweet fever dream of a film.
Miguel Gomes is one of the shining stars of contemporary Portuguese cinema – and, for that matter, the cinema of the world. Over the span of eight years and three feature films – 2004’s The Face You Deserve, 2008’s Our Beloved Month of August, and this year’s Tabu – Gomes has created a cinematic world at once organic and controlled, stately and playful, arch and sincere. His films bear out their maker’s encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and toy masterfully with our assumptions regarding genre, narrative and style. Even when they’re cribbing from the annals of cinema’s past, though, Gomes’ films are anything but relics: in their sensitivity to human emotions both big-scale and small, their generous sprawl, their love for music, and their attention to the overlooked and undervalued, they teem with messy, pulsating life.
Double Exposure met with the filmmaker during his stay at the fiftieth New York Film Festival to discuss his new film Tabu, a cinematic fever dream set first in the dreary apartment houses of modern-day Portugal, then in the sprawling wilds of period Africa – and which manages in its two hours to pack in doomed love affairs, crocodiles, colonialist guilt, the longing of youth and the loss of old age (or is it the other way around?), and one of the finest Phil Spector cover bands you’re likely to see onscreen this year.
I want to start by talking about Our Beloved Month of August, and especially your decision to place yourself in the film so upfront. The film is fascinated by musical performance, with the way people vent their emotions onstage, and I was wondering if you, too, see yourself as a performer – even, [as in Tabu,] when you stay behind the camera.
To be honest, in the case of Tabu I decided not to play in the film precisely because of Our Beloved Month of August. I said “that’s enough; this time I’ll be absent.” I decided only to record the voice-over at the prologue of the film, the story of the explorer and the ghost and the crocodile that Pilar is watching in the cinema.
The people playing in my films are there because we cannot afford to hire professional actors and because I think they play well. In the case of Our Beloved Month of August, I tried to shoot things that were part of this universe, this region, and I thought, since we’d made ourselves part of that by shooting the film, we should be in the film. In the case of Tabu, we didn’t have a choice. The place I had chosen was a beautiful place with these tea plantations, but there were, like, five white people living there – which would have made it difficult to make a period film there about a former Portuguese colony in the sixties. So I asked the crew to play in the film, and the guys to grow mustaches. I thought, ok, given that there are few of us, we will be more impressive with mustaches than without mustaches.
I’m interested in music; in the August film it’s something that’s part of this region, in this month of August. The songs are so real—like the trees, like the river, like the people living there, like the beer. It’s part of the system. In the case of Tabu, I wanted to have people that would sing in the film. While doing Our Beloved Month of August I came across a song and discovered that it had been made by some Portuguese guys that lived in Mozambique. I met them and they told me I should shoot photos of them playing in white suits, talking about their covers of The Beatles, or whatever were the hits at that moment. I think they were missing their youth, which I understood would be one of the main things of Tabu. What the characters in the first part are missing in the first part is their youth, more than the loss of the Portuguese colonial empire, more than the loss of their land, what I think they’re missing is their youth.
Both Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu are rich to the point of overflowing with this sense of longing – of deferred desire, and especially desire for youth. In Our Beloved Month of August music becomes the primary way that people share, communicate, and vent that longing. That’s very present in Tabu, but you also introduce another way for people to react to their longing – the cinema. We have this opening shot of Pilar watching the film in this abandoned movie-house, alone, looking back on this unreachable past. How do you think music relates to film as a vehicle for the expression, or sharing, of longing?
I think you’re a quite good viewer. I think that something is shared by music and cinema – and it’s that both are things we share and we need. We have this urge for fiction, for songs, for cinema. I think that the second part of Tabu is like a present given to the characters of the first part, who lead very ordinary, common lives. They need cinema. That’s why Pilar is always going to the theater to see films; that’s why Santa is always reading Robinson Crusoe.
Aurora is different. She’s always acting; she’s like an old Hollywood starlet, always trying to impress everyone. For instance, maybe she’s inventing this dream at the beginning of the film only as an excuse to be in the casino, but she really captured the attention of Pilar, this need to complement fact with fiction, in the same way that people in the Portuguese countryside need songs. They’re what link people in a community. People have to share something: songs, cinema, fiction.
Do you think all this could function, to quote a line from the title song of Our Beloved Month of August, as a way of “going back to paradise”? Your films have this fascination with the idea of the lost Eden, down to the “Paradise” title card in Tabu. Do you feel like sharing this longing for a lost paradise might help your characters overcome the longing itself?
Once someone told me that paradise could only exist in memory. Memory can be paradise; it also can be hell. In Tabu I think it’s both. But paradise is always something that we miss, something that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s like the personification or materialization of our desires, and of the things we’re missing.
Tabu’s characters are missing their youth, and cinema, after one hundred years of existence, is missing something of its youth, too. You have the memory of past films, from Murnau to John Ford to Hawks: brilliant films made by very good directors. But in those hundred years, cinema aged – and there’s a kind of innocence that got lost in the process. I think that the viewers of Murnau’s Tabu, his contemporaries in the twenties, were more available to be impressed by a film, to believe in things.
It’s like the process of aging. When you’re a child you can believe in, I don’t know, Santa Claus, or something – and then there is a moment when you can’t believe anymore. Cinema can provide this kind of fake space, like in F For Fake by Orson Welles, where you can be touched and re-believe, within the space and time of the film, in things you don’t believe anymore. Cinema can bring this back, this thing connected with childhood.
It seems as if cinema functions for the characters in Tabu as a sort of memory, with the final hour acting as both an extended flashback and a mini film-within-a-film. There’s this great scene in F For Fake where Welles muses about the cathedral of Chartres, which has stood for thousands of years, and suggests that his film might do the same. If cinema has lost its own youth, what does that mean for its status as a repository for memory, a way to make memory last, to make it permanent?
Well, I guess we have to invent a way to get back. I think it will be different for every film. Take a contemporary director whose work I really enjoy, Apichatpong Weerasethakul: he’s very committed to this idea of going back in time. All my ghosts, and his ghosts, they’re all the materializations of something that was lost in time. Cinema can capture that – and capture it in different ways. It’s up to every director, if they’re interested, and every film to reclaim these ghosts available by memory.
There’s this fantastic passage in Scott Eyman’s Film Comment piece on Murnau’s Tabu. He says that when Tabu was shown in Tahiti, all the relatives of the people in the film would gather together to watch Tabu because it was the only time they could see their grandparents again. Everyone in the film was long-gone, but the film remained.
I think Tabu is an incredible film, and very underrated in Murnau’s body of work. Sunrise might be more accomplished, but Tabu is like a miracle. It’s completely controlled, with masterful mise-en-scene – well-crafted, genius filmmaking. But at the same time, it’s a film completely available to the world. Its actors are the opposite of Hollywood actors, and really most actors in general: people who’d be amazed at seeing their own image moving on a screen.
Our Beloved Month of August felt like a very open film. It was constantly digressing; it dawdled, lingered in this beautiful way. InTabu, on the other hand, we find this halved structure in which the chronologically last half comes first. The characters are acting out this stock melodrama, and we know what’s going to happen – we’ve seen the Hollywood films! You still manage, though, to inject some level of openness into it, some level of availability. Can you speak at all about how you go about doing that?
It’s very hard after the fact to re-assemble all the pieces and all the moments we went into making the film, because it’s all a very organic process. It’s almost the opposite of what’s normally expected of a director, but I tried onset to lose control, and then try to regain it; not to close the set but to open the set, and see what happens. Sometimes, shit happens. But most of the time unexpected things will happen, and then you can profit from it. For instance, the Ventura voice-over was written while doing the final editing. We were at the end of the process, going through something that should have been in the beginning. There was no script in the African part; we made up the film there, while shooting.
There’s this miraculous shot near the end of Our Beloved Month of August. The lead character is tearing up at the departure of her lover, and the frame just stays on her in close-up and she starts breaking out in hysterical laughter. To what extent was that shot pre-planned? How did you get it at all?
The actress was not very collaborative. She had a new boyfriend, and he was jealous that she was playing in the film. It was a very small countryside, a very traditional area, so she was in a bad mood. It was not on the script that she was laughing, but I’d noticed that she was kind of nervous, and that sometimes she would laugh out of nerves. In this case, I thought it would be good to have both tears and laughing, something to do with the actress both being herself and at the same time being a character, the tears and the laughs. She wasn’t able to laugh and cry at the same time, so we just applied a product that makes people cry – it’s completely physiological. She was crying, and I just asked another actor to go behind the camera and do stupid stuff. She was not expecting it, and she started to laugh.