Dir. Miguel Gomes. Starring Ana Moreira, Carloto Cotta, Teresa Madruga
I was watching Thor: The Dark World with my wife the other night, and within fifteen minutes both of us were disengaged, disturbed by the literal and tonal brownness of the images on screen. The longer the movie went, the more it felt like it had taken pieces of movies which predated it and then cobbled them together into a cinematic casserole not unlike that leftover parfait from Malcolm in the Middle. An opening ripped from Fellowship of the Ring, a (seriously adventurous) choice to mirror a love scene with Natalie Portman everyone hates from Attack of the Clones, a plagiarism of a plagiarism scenario where a forcefield bubble lifts like it does in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. In any event, this was already at the top of my mind in that funhouse mirror way, because a couple days before that I watched Tabu for the first time. There were very few movies I felt worse about excluding from my (as yet unfinished, I know, it’s embarrassing) list of the top 100 movies from last decade, given that Sight and Sound voters called it the second-best movie of 2012. As it was, I don’t think I needed to worry about it too much. Tabu is ravishing, symbolic enough to appeal to all of us with English degrees, formally inventive enough to stand on its own two legs. The choice to flash back midway through the movie and never return is not so unusual, but to essentially rid the back half of the picture of dialogue (like Murnau’s Tabu, natch) and replace it with narration from an aged Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo) is a good one. There are plenty of sounds throughout, but no voices except for Ventura’s as he thinks back, recalling the story of his aimless youth given a horrible purpose in falling in love with the married Aurora (Moreiro). Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d seen this done better in multiple places. Unlike Thor: The Dark World, though, Tabu predates the movies I’d seen outstripping it on those other fronts. It stands at the center of a microstyle of sorts: the black-and-white movie which aims to tell a story of the nation’s history, typically its dark past. Where color was a choice from the beginning of cinema through the 1950s (and as much a financial choice as any other), for most directors since the 1970s, black-and-white feels like the more aggressive choice. I’ve written somewhere before that I think a movie ought to have a reason to be in black-and-white, given that color is basically a default now. I shake my head a little bit at that now; a movie should have reasons to be in color as much as it should have reasons to be in black-and-white, and for a host of reasons (as much for financial reasons as for any other), most directors and cinematographers and studios and so forth choose color. Tabu, thanks to Gomes and his DP Rui Poças, is a beautiful black-and-white movie, and to be the latter is as much a choice as the former; the question of why it is the latter, though, is one that is probably more directly answerable by looking at its place among (mostly better) movies which make similar choices in terms of cinematography.
To belong to this group, the movie has to have been made during a time when black-and-white no longer meant journalism and instead signified “old.” (In the interest of keeping this coherent, it also means that the point is not to do a pastiche of the past so much as a kind of recreation. This means The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coens’ most direct noir homage, The Artist, a movie which is mostly silent except for the arm farts I can’t help but hear emanating from its premise, and God help me, Mank, aren’t going to come up here again.) In the past fifteen years or so, there have been a number of movies from many nations which follow this general line. One might well start even further back, with Europa or Schindler’s List in the 1990s. Janusz Kaminski has said that they choose to use black-and-white photography for Schindler’s List because it would give the movie a “timeless” look, but to read that uncharitably, it’s because black-and-white would signify history. After all, when we see the people who Oskar Schindler helped save place stones on his grave alongside the actors who played them, they are in color, and their moments are no less prepared than the movements of the players on screen. It’s more than history that Schindler’s List is after: it’s after historicity, which is to say that it’s after authority as much as anything else. Something similar is happening in Good Night, and Good Luck, a movie which doesn’t have quite the same kind of authority that Schindler’s List has gained and, to be fair, isn’t looking for nearly as much. In part, I think it’s on much the same wavelength as Mank or The Man Who Wasn’t There; all the same, I think it is trying to mirror, y’know, TV news. Those close-ups of David Straithairn during his newscasts, who already bears a remarkable resemblance to Edward R. Murrow, are meant to make us feel the recreation of the moment but also of the medium. So too does the black-and-white of Good Night, and Good Luck reflect the right-and-wrong ethos of McCarthyism, as it obviously does in Schindler’s List as well.
The first movie that I can think of that really considers black-and-white photography an aesthetic choice to better understand a soiled national history rather than a cynical grab at historicity is, a little surprisingly, animated. Persepolis is, of course, adapted from the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, who codirected the picture, and for that reason I’m almost inclined to place it in a category of its own. Satrapi’s comics were always in black-and-white, and adapting them into color would have been a bold departure from the original material. Keeping them in black-and-white is a wonderful choice, though, and Persepolis pulls out a palette that’s occasionally close to monochrome in order to depict a world that changes as Marjane grows up. As a child, when there is still some wonder in the world, still some magic in her grandmother and still some time to have it out with God, the black-and-white gives us the sense of something historical. It is old, but the reason this works so well for Persepolis is because, given Satrapi’s distance from the events she’s depicting, her childhood feels old. It feels long ago. She has been through so much (and Iran has changed so completely) that it’s hard not to look at what happened through this black-and-white lens that makes this seismic shift that occurred when she was preadolescent into something much older; she remembers comparatively little of a time before Khomeini, and this approach to the events that happened before you were old enough to get zits is at least relatable. Once she gets into her young adult years, which were spent primarily in Austria, the black-and-white starts to mean something else. No longer does it feel old so much as it feels bleak. Her time in Austria includes stints of homelessness and substance abuse; when she returns home to Iran, she returns to a repressive and antifeminist regime.
That shift in signification is exciting; the text is expressly polysemic, asking us to evaluate and reevaluate the use of black-and-white as the story changes beyond the purely practical measures of adapting a set of black-and-white comics. Tabu, although it does something similar in recalling distant memories, for Ventura’s memories of a younger Aurora cross a greater gulf of years than Marjane’s memories of her child self, does not have that level of complexity to it. When the movie follows Pilar (Madruga) as she becomes increasingly worried about Aurora (Laura Soveral), it’s in its stylish black-and-white. When the movie shifts and we see the young Ventura (Cotta), it’s still in black-and-white. Despite an enormous change in continents, decades, political situations, Gomes does not find a reason to change his palette, and more importantly, the meaning of that black-and-white cinematography is clearly not linked to a time or place. By starting his movie off in black-and-white in the present, Gomes has begun with a statement opposite of that in Persepolis: it’s not about time, and even if the meaning of that black-and-white shifts from present to past, I think the shift is less effective. In Persepolis, we go from old to bleak, which I think does well in situating the movie’s cinematography choice. In Tabu, beginning with the present and working toward the past, we go from sad to sad in the past. Narratively, I think it’s the only way the movie could go. In terms of photography, it’s a choice that feels practical before it feels like anything else. In a movie which has a single time in which it lives, like Roma (or Schindler’s List), that old-and-bleak goes with black-and-white well enough that one does not much question it. There’s nothing wrong with Tabu being more like Roma, but it has more in common narratively with Persepolis, and Persepolis explores the space more.
Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is one of the several movies that Tabu predates in this microstyle, and there is no movie that came to mind faster for me as an example of a movie of this ilk doing the job better than Tabu. Like Tabu, Embrace of the Serpent has a nonlinear plot centered on a small number of recurring characters (two for Tabu, one for Serpent). More importantly, both of them are about colonialism. Both of them, I think, make ultimately perspicacious choices about using black-and-white photography to shoot typically exotified areas. Both of them are gorgeous movies which accept this challenge of not taking the “easy” route. Think of The Lost City of Z, which is set in the Amazon like Embrace of the Serpent and which uses Darius Khondji’s cinematography to project the mystical loveliness of the Amazon. Tabu and Embrace of the Serpent both refuse this grab at beauty, and in doing so I think both reject the stereotypically Western version of some unknowable place which exists to be discovered by white people and changed by them once they’ve got a little dirt under their fingernails. The shared cinematography in these movies is probably the closest Tabu gets to matching the quality of Embrace of the Serpent on the question of colonialism, because from there I struggle to find anything that Tabu does better.
Tabu gets a lot of mileage out of crocodile symbolism. Its prologue features a depressed explorer who commits suicide via crocodile, and the image of his far-off lover sitting with a melancholy crocodile is one of the film’s key ones. Later on, a crocodile that young Ventura finds in his bathtub and later returns to Aurora’s estate, where it had originally lived as a gift from her husband, is a kind of stand-in for their passion, eyes glowing floridly just above the surface of the water, small and weak enough to be killed by an attack. There’s a scene in which some African children bait the little crocodile, trying to get it to snap at a piece of wood, prodding it until it’ll react, laughing at its inability to cause them harm. Aurora is a brilliant huntress who brings down every animal she fires upon. A crime of passion that Aurora commits is ultimately coopted by some African revolutionaries and turned into an act which destabilizes the region. In her dotage, Aurora has a Black servant named Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso) who Aurora distrusts despite how reliant she is on her. Pilar is never quite swayed to that level of distrust, but the liberal, UN-protesting Pilar grows increasingly dismayed by Santa’s basic indifference to “her mistress.” There’s some level of critique here, but I’m a little dubious about how important the colonization of Africa or Portugal’s finally loosening hold on its overseas territories are to Tabu itself. Ventura and Aurora have their predictably torrid love affair in Africa and never interact outside that continent. There are not insignificant stretches of Tabu in Africa where no Africans appear. Aside from a lingering montage backed by the voice of an African leader claiming responsibility his group does not bear for Mario’s (Manuel Mesquita) death, Africa as a place where Africans live is basically nonexistent. Santa has more personhood in Lisbon than any African person has in Africa, where they are a nameless group. I wouldn’t say that Tabu is a bad critique of colonialism or anything like that, but it’s hard to know why the second half of this story takes place in Africa instead of like, the Mediterranean. Embrace of the Serpent, which reads colonialism through the eyes of Karamakate, who is the last member of an Amazonian tribe that has been wiped out. Both inside the narrative and outside of it, he is the author, and it fundamentally alters the way we read white characters. It is laughable to think of Embrace of the Serpent allowing space for two colonialist lovers to become the key figures in our understanding of a colonized space, given how rapidly Karamakate course corrects everyone who does not meet his standard of behavior either by physical action or mocking, but in Tabu, a few effective nods are still far from a full-throated critique. In this microstyle, Embrace of the Serpent simply does more with the material.
If Tabu does not meaningfully use its black-and-white photography as a way to establish polysemy, and if its black-and-white photography is not in itself a potent analysis of colonialist attitudes, then what remains is moodiness. (Tabu does not really have enough in common with The White Ribbon or November for their kind of surly, frightening moodiness to apply, but when we talk about moodiness in black-and-white movies of the past decade and change, I reach for The White Ribbon first and November not long after that.) After doing weird grad school cosplay up there, it may seem like that straight mood is a less-than option to me, but as always it’s a question of effect. Does the mood that modern black-and-white provides, so aggressively clean, so frequently filled with contrasts, so often elegiac or downcast, fit the movie? And on that front, yes, Tabu is successful. It’s good enough. But it is well short of greatness, because what Embrace of the Serpent does to the colonialism angle in Tabu, Cold War does to its romance. Pawel Pawlikowski has reinvented himself in his Polish movies, Ida and Cold War, both shot by Lukasz Zal (and the former with the collaboration of Ryszard Lenczewski) up to the very edge of what we can stand in terms of sheer beauty. It’s more than likely that it’s not Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta letting Tabu down so much as Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot lifting Cold War up, but for a romance that I’m supposed to believe is so deeply felt, so destructive, what Aurora and Gian-Luca have is not especially gripping. Amusingly, part of the reason we’re kept at a difference from the lovers in Tabu is because the camera keeps us further from them than Pawlikowski and Zal keep us from theirs. Cold War takes that black-and-white photography as a way to simplify the tortuous, mortifying passion that Zula and Wiktor cannot tear themselves away from. When she rips herself out of a kiss in the late twilight, choosing to remain on the cold side of the Berlin Wall, there is more longing and sex and romance in that moment than I think comes through in all of Aurora and Gian-Luca’s interactions period. The black-and-white minimizes the potential distraction of color, of anything else that might keep us from feeling what Zula and Wiktor do in that moment, a swirl of lust and need and fear. That Tabu cannot summon up an emotional reaction for all the starkness that it brings to the table is what keeps it as an attractive but, in the end, slightly cold curio.