Pedro Costa describes his Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (2001) as “anti-Straubian. It’s the opposite of the way [Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub] do things.” (1)
And yet the movie, indeed, is also about “the way the Straubs do things – and maybe the best movie ever made about making movies.” (2)
It’s obvious Pedro Costa loves the Straubs. Jean-Luc “Godard seemed very old to me, suddenly, when I saw […] the films of Straub. They were the fastest, the furiousest, the most beautiful, sensual, ancient, modern.” (3)
But one might not sense this, watching Costa’s first movies. The “sharp” colours (as he calls them) in Casa de lava (1995) and Ossos (1997) may derive from seeing the Straubs’ Dalla nube alla resistenza (1979), and John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), “very, very stoned.” (4) But rather than the Straubs, Costa’s first three features evoke Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Jacques Tourneur, Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Godard, Kenji Mizoguchi – and centuries of paintings. And even though Costa’s canvases evoke tradition, he wants everything to look new, “like the first things in the world”, in his words. (5) Indeed, his movies burst with the thrill of making cinema. And all three were filmed with all the panoply of traditional production: dozens of people, trucks of equipment.
Which was a problem.
I saw only about 20% of the things that I should have been seeing every day because my eyes were attracted to the guys in the crew or whatever; the means and the ends weren’t thought through correctly. So I thought to myself I had to do things another way. And this led me to think that the normal way of making films is all wrong. (6)
So, for his next movie, No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000), Costa reduced his panoply to a small video camera, some reflectors (rather than lamps) and a soundman. For a year, he went every day to a Lisbon slum, Fontaínhas, which was being razed, and lived with the people there. “In a certain way it’s my first film, because it’s the first time that I found the possibility of a family.” (7) He recorded 130 hours of his characters enacting scenes and conversations drawn from their own lives at the moment.
This was freedom, but art needs restrictions. So Pedro Costa never moves his camera and most sequences are a single shot, in a small, confined space – a suite of Lumières, composed for his camera, without reaction shots, like Hawks. And even though neo-Lumière is “anti-Straubian”, because the Straubs, seeking clarity, construct scenes out of many shots (and reaction shots), it can also be “Straubian”, as Jean-Marie explains in Où:
There are those who stick close to reality and do not put their imagination in there, their limited imagination of limited creatures. And then there are those who distort reality for the sake of the so-called wealth of their imagination.
Straub disappears behind the doorway; comes back:
The result is […] that the imagination is much more limited in the work of the second family than in that of the first. Because there is less patience in the work of the second family and, as someone once said, genius is nothing more than a great deal of patience. Because if you have a great deal of patience, it is charged with contradictions at the same time. Otherwise it doesn’t have the time to be charged. Lasting patience is necessarily charged with tenderness and violence. […]
There’s a temptation to show a mountain. […] Then one fine day you realize that it’s better to see as little as possible.
You have a sort of reduction, only it’s not a reduction, it’s a concentration and it actually says more. But you don’t do this immediately from one day to the next! You need time and patience. A sigh can become a novel.
In Costa too, as also with Ford, looking at people looking is richer than looking at what people see. And in Vanda’s Room, Costa is dedicated to letting the person come forth, in contrast to his earlier Bresson-like attempts to snatch people in fragments.
And there is a fresh emphasis on clarity. Whereas to be “clear, intelligent, and interesting” is the Straubs’ goal, Costa’s wont is to be intelligent, interesting and challenging – challenging the spectator to find the connection between one shot and the next. Are we in the same place? The same year? Is this the same person? Male or female? Only the right connection will make sense – maybe. If the plot of Costa’s latest, and most Straubian movie, Juventude em marcha (2006, “Youth on the march” or Colossal Youth, assembled from 340 hours recorded over fifteen months with Vanda’s people), is not readily “clear,” it may be because one does not understood Portuguese, it surely is because Costa wishes to challenge us, and because the hero’s consciousness is surreal, and because (in contrast to Costa’s celluloid movies) we rarely see faces clearly, and almost never eyes.
Eyes, indeed, are almost everything in all the moviemakers Costa loves (and figure prominently in his earlier movie). Think of Chaplin’s popping eyes; Ford’s mania for eyes. The Straubs even teach their actors how to look down at the ground and still let us see their eyes, Costa has them tell us in Où. But in Où itself, we see Jean-Marie only in dimly lit long shot, and Danièle’s eyes almost not at all.
Costa and his assistant, Thierry Lounas, spent six weeks recording 150 hours of the Straubs in their editing room at Le Fresnoy, where the Straubs had reluctantly agreed to submitting in 2001 to the French television series, Cinéastes de notre temps, but without lights. (8) Le Fresnoy is a multimedia art centre near Lille. The Straubs made five cuts a day, said Costa, “no more, and they worked from 10 to 5”. They were editing there because they got the room free, plus a print, in exchange for a seminar. “On the first day [there were] 30 people, the second 15, the third 5, and by the end only two.” (9)
For Costa, it was like being in Vanda’s Room a second time – another confined space. And just as Vanda Duarte and her friends were “projecting something beyond their four walls […], Jean-Marie and Danièle had this dream, and now they are editing that dream.” (10)
And so, while one side of Où is a portrait of a remarkable and fascinating couple, the greatest moviemakers of the last quarter century, and an analysis of their æsthetics, the other side of Où is a movie by Pedro Costa which, like all his work, is in many ways “anti-Straubian”.
Costa, for one example, creatively combines images with sounds taken separately, as moviemakers have always done. The Straubs, no. Filming a conversation in a moving train, for example, and cutting between characters, they refuse the easy solution of recording train sounds to mix in later, so that the train sounds will stay the same through the scene. Instead, they set themselves the impossible task of matching the train sounds from shot to shot.
Mixing, Straub explains, creates a “soup”, a broth that submerges everything together. No element retains its authenticity. Yet reality is richer than our imaginations, and we only impoverish our art when we just dump everything into a soup.
The task of editing is to clarify, the Straubs demonstrate: by a consistent geometry of camera angles, for one thing; by cutting on motion, for another; or by watching a character before he speaks, which brings out his psychology. Do we need 35 extra frames, or 36, to notice that hidden smile? The Straubs argue for hours, which is why there is time for only five cuts a day. But the result is clarity.
Costa, in contrast, uses cuts to challenge the spectator.
Again with actors, the Straubs’ aim is to clarify. Like Costa, the Straubs lived with their actors. And the Straubs talk about their efforts to kindle actors’ enthusiasm for doing 30 takes after long days at their regular jobs. The Straubs tell us how they teach their actors to take time, after the clapboard hits,
to collect themselves, concentrate, think, meditate, and be one in their body. […] Things don’t exist until they have found a rhythm, a form. The form of the body gives birth to the soul. I’ve said it a thousand times.
Freedom comes from mastering the mechanics. Huillet compares their preparation of their actors’ recitation to a classical pianist who practises passages over and over, until every nuance is etched, (“Spontaneity? Bullshit!”), until they pour out their soul in musical verse, not just with voice but with their entire body, focused into the eyes. Emotions shoot from eyes rays from the sun
or like lava from a volcano.
Shot after shot, eyes pop out at us.
In contrast, although Costa’s portraits are stunning, conjuring Jan Vermeer in light, colour, air and use of doors; conjuring Huillet-Straub in sheer sensuality; nonetheless,
Costa’s people are often disembodied, zombies, never quite here. Jacques Tourneur, not Straub. Does Costa instruct his actors not to think, meditate, or be one in their body? Vermeer’s and the Straubs’ people dominate their space; Costa’s are visitors. They are shapes, figures in incredibly beautiful compositions. Casa de lava is a suite of wonderful plays on depth-of-field and foreground, with a flirtation ballet by lovers with their backs turned – figures, even when there are faces.
And even though there is plenty of wide-open staring eyes in Casa (in contrast to the video movies), even now Costa denies us entry to his characters, all the more to show us how few are the points of contact between people, even as lovers – like in Antonioni. Costa’s actors do not recite like the Straubs’, so that a special entry is offered to us, a clarity obtained in practised rhythms, voices as musical instruments. Costa’s lines are sometimes flat, delivered in short bursts, and often elliptical and inscrutable, like the dialogue in Antonioni’s English-language movies – another challenge to the spectator. Yet, nonetheless, we can feel a Straub-like sensuality of people infusing the space around them deeply, overwhelming it with their vibes, even when they are merely visiting somewhere. Indeed, in Colossal Youth, even when Ventura leaves a shot, he is still there, somehow.
Thus, the Antonionian architectural spaces of Casal Boba, the new project to which the government is relocating Fontaínhas’ people – white, new and still blank – do not overwhelm Ventura.
The Housing agent may point upward, “The flat is full of light”; but Ventura remarks on the spiders. Nonetheless, this is the future, this is heaven. “When they give us white rooms”, Bete reflects, “we’ll stop seeing these things” – the creatures they imagine on their old, dirty walls – “It’ll all be over.”
Ventura lives partly in fantasy, which Costa makes real: past and present co-exist, the dead live, Lento dies twice, walls have creatures on them, things don’t connect. Ventura’s wife, he says, “had Clothide’s face but it wasn’t her”. This is much in the spirit of the Straubs’ Cesare Pavese movie, referred to reverently in Où, Dalla nube alla resistenza.
Nor, in Colossal Youth, do doors always connect, for neither the Housing Agent nor Ventura. “I’ve been having this nightmare for more than thirty years”, says Ventura. “Anxiety tormented me night after night. I used to get [the door] wrong all the time. I’d come back drunk from work and collapse into a strange bed. All doors looked the same back then.”
Colossal Youth has more doors than any movie in history –
– partly because of Costa’s anxiety while making Où. “It took me one month to even see the door [in the editing room]. When I [finally] saw the door and Jean-Marie going [in and] out of it, I saw the possibilities, the fiction, what was behind that wall.” (11)
In Costa’s movie, Jean-Marie never stops playing with the door. He starts a statement. Walks behind the door. Peeks in with a few words. Disappears. Walks in talking again. And so on. In and out. As, in fact, he does in real life. “The Alsatian James Dean”, Costa calls him. (12) He sings and flirts to camera, to the students in the room (whom we cannot see), and to Danièle, who plays to the camera in her own way by keeping her back to it and ignoring it.
Pedro Costa, in any case, has had a long romance with doors. He relates:
One day, a journalist asked Mizoguchi if he liked his colleague Ozu’s films, and he replied: ‘Of course.’
‘Because I think that what he does [filming doors] is much more difficult and mysterious than what I do.’
In Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame [Akasen-chitai, 1956], there’s a girl who closes a door and who looks at you, and the door is closed on you. […] It’s going to be so unbearable [that] a film is no longer possible. It’s terror […]
Fiction is always a door that we want to open or not. […] Fiction is […] when you see yourself on the screen. […] When [you really] see a film, it’s when the film doesn’t let [you] enter, when there’s a door that says, ‘Don’t come in.’ [… Then] you are outside. You see a film, you are something else, and there are two distinct entities. (13)
Not surprisingly, the painting that attracts Ventura’s attention in the museum is a flight into Egypt (Peter Paul Rubens).
A painting is also a door and perhaps Ventura sees himself. Mary and child would be Vanda and child, and Joseph Ventura. Their lives have always been flight, all of them. And like in Rubens, too, they are shapes more than faces. Costa does not even show us Zita’s flight at all, her funeral – she died during production, after being in Vanda’s Room – but (a bit like Ford in The Sun Shines Bright, 1953) Costa gives only the sound of a funeral and the people watching it.
And Ventura (paraphrasing Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine, 1938), elegises, “It wasn’t poison she took. It was all the poison taken for her before she came in the world.”
Everyone in Colossal Youth is looking for home. And almost their every step is framed in a door. Life is a door. On one hand, they are all rootless; on the other, they are all called papa or mama, son or daughter. Almost never alone, they sit together at tables and on beds.
Loss does not heal. Vanda thinks of her mother’s and sister’s graves: “It’s as if I were in mourning for myself.” Ventura relives Lento’s death with a bandage unravelling at his feet, reminding me of the death of Mary (Maureen O’Hara) in Straub’s beloved Long Gray Line (John Ford, 1955); and, thirty years later, stretches across Vanda’s bed echoing dead Lento on the ground.
Now Ventura’s wife is gone, his neighbourhood is being razed and he is retiring. Colossal Youth is about death. He seeks a new home in whiteness, tries to gather up the “children” he has ignored for years (Bete refuses to open her door to him at first), and reflects on the course of his life. Along the way, he discovers a bit of himself through a series of encounters, somewhat as Stefano does in Sicilia! (Straubs, 1999); and through memories of dead Lento, the friend of Ventura’s youth, which he relives in his body of today. Says Costa,
One can imagine that Ventura is a double character. On one hand, we see him looking at young people, and on the other there is someone who isn’t he, who lives in the past, who could be a brother or someone else, his double. Ventura’s companion who plays cards, Lento, is Ventura when young. The same, with a bit of past, a bit of future.
[On peut penser que Ventura est un personnage double, par exemple. D’un côté n le voit qui regarde les jeunes, et de l’autre il y a un tpe qui n’est pas lui, qui vit dans le passé, qui pourraît être un frère ou quelqu’un autre, son double. Le compagnon de Ventura qui joue aux cartes, Lento, c’est Ventura en plus jeune. Le même, avec un peu de passé, un peu de future.] (14)
Everyone is balancing on edge. “It’s the life we want”, Vanda assured herself in In Vanda’s Room, when her life was addicted to heroin and her world was crumbling around her. But now Vanda is on methadone. She trembles in fear she will not make it through the next second. She trembles so much that she teaches her baby to sing, “Mama won’t raise her child. She’s sick.” Nonetheless, for the moment, Vanda has a home and family. “That’s life”, she says.
Vanda’s dinner setting is Versailles for the working class: chandelier, globe of empire, whiteness.
The television is never off, its sound flickers among their voices in place of the bulldozer noises in Fontaínhas. They stare at television the way they stared at Zita’s funeral. No matter, their dignity is colossal. All the same, it is extraordinarily funny to watch Ventura slowly realise his daughter is married to his son.
The white walls may not be theirs, for Ventura needs walls that are dark in order to imagine things on them. And Ventura may not gather in all his children, but for the moment he is babysitting in Colossal Youth’s last shot. Youth has a happy ending, however tenuous.
“In the houses of the departed there are many things to see”, remarks Ventura. Just before movie’s end, he visits dead Lento in such a house. “A white house,” says Costa,
which has lost its whiteness because it got charred. One imagines there was a fire, everything is black, there are figures that appear.
[une maison blanche qui a perdu cette couleur parce qu’elle a été calcinée. On imagine que c’est un feu, et là tout est noir, il y a des figures qui apparaissent.] (15)
Lento and Ventura smile at “the fear of death we had back then” – thirty years ago.
Costa frames them as colossi, low-angle. They are bound not just hand in hand, but by Lento’s “return” of the love letter that Ventura used to recite hourly and Lento could never remember. Colossal is the yearning enflaming the world, when for once Ventura’s stares with his eyes. “Goodbye, Lento.”
“We must see the fire that’s hidden in a person or in a landscape”, said Pedro Costa, citing Paul Cézanne in the Straubs’ movie (Paul Cézanne im Gespräch mit Joachim Gasquet, 1989). “We must strive for what Jean-Marie Straub describes: if there’s no fire in the shot, if there’s nothing burning in your shot, then it’s worthless.”
A Portuguese translation of this article is included in a forthcoming book about Pedro Costa’s work edited by Ricardo Matos Cabo.
- Pedro Costa at CalArts, 28 September 2006, in discussion with Thom Andersen.
- Costa, in Mark Peranson, “Pedro Costa: An Introduction”, Cinema Scope 27, Summer 2006.
- Pedro Costa, “Seminar at The Film School of Tokyo 12-14 March 2004”, in Pedro Costa: Film Retrospective in Sendai, transcription by Valérie-Anne Christen, English translation by Downing Roberts (Sendai, Japan: Sendai Mediatheque, 2005), pp. 130-49.
- The two versions of Costa’s movie – Cinéastes and Où – differ partially in the material used. Both versions are in French and are included on a Portuguese DVD (with English subtitles).
- Pedro Costa: Film Retrospective in Sendai.
- Costa, in Cahiers du Cinéma 619, January 2007, p. 78.
- Ibid, p. 76.