2 ou 3 choses que je sais de Monteiro (et de Malick)

This post constitutes an afterword to Wait and see, published on João César Monteiro some months ago. It is a self-interview, as 2 ou 3 choses que je sais de Malick, although it is not its continuation. Malick is secondary in what follows, but some important themes explored in relation with his cinema (particularly in My Dear Wife) are mentioned. Knowledge of the older posts is required.

The blog insists on the similarities between Monteiro’s work and Malick’s.
An early intuition that the two were condemned to be studied in parallel proved to be right. Although it first seemed that it would be mainly Monteiro to illuminate Malick, the American can help us to understand the Portuguese’s mirror too. The analogies between their works are often incredible. The difficulty is not to efface their particularities. In this kind of critical exercise we often tend to reduce everything to the same idea.

Both directors share a great number of references.
They do. Not to strange. They were born with few years of difference and they were both members of the same civilization. They started to film more or less at the same time too. And because they wanted to, not as a job, much less as a way to get rich. Two sons of the Nouvelle-vague. Of course Monteiro had a turbulent and precarious life – sentimentally, economically, mentally – typical of a poète maudit in many ways. His family and upbringing were diverse too. But what matters to us is their interior world. Looking to their art, first thought the major difference is the presence on the screen. Monteiro seems to confuse himself more with his characters, although this is basically an erroneous impression.

The problem of incarnation.
Yes, God the Father and God the Son. When Monteiro does Recollections of the Yellow House he knows he is giving his body to the screen in a dangerous way. But that was all the point, really to enter an abyss of abjection encompassing all his being. Total exposition and nothing else. Come and Go goes to the point of self-immolation, as it was said. But let us not forget He Goes Long Barefoot That Waits For Dead Man’s Shoes (and what follows). In that film, his double had a different image, but the confrontation with the audience – and with the mirror, of course – was already direct. Much more direct than in Eustache, for example, one of the film’s inspirations.

But there is a notable difference from Kit in this early experiment. The character has the director’s voice.
He has. And what’s that? In Monteiro’s next film (The Holy Family) his double is called João Lucas. That is Portuguese for “Jean Luc.” Typical self-parody. Monteiro, who had made nothing more than two cheap movies, insinuating himself as the Portuguese Godard... But the crucial question of madness – deliberate madness – also lives in this name. “Lucas” can be a popular euphemism for “louco,” mad. “Fazer-se Lucas”: to play mad. So, João le fou, a mad Godard. And what would be such a thing? Was not Godard a little mad himself? Could that madness be more explored, more extreme? In what film he was madder?

João le fou confronting the camera as a kind of sphinx with pig's face.
According to you, in Vivre sa vie (My Dear Wife). In the famous portrait he painted of his wife.
You arrived to the answer. This is nothing but the painter painting a portrait of his wife in his magic mirror.

The Fall of the House of Usher. Painting Madeline... or Madeleine.

With great artists things like Monteiro dubbing his character happen first unexpectedly and rather innocently. The disturbing meanings they will find are incomprehensible at first. Vertigo, Vivre sa vie, Persona: an essential trilogy to consider Monteiro’s mirror. You know, Madeleine’s profile, Madeleine’s ghost reappears in God’s Comedy, when Monteiro is transforming Rosarinho, putting her the yellow ribbon, a cinephile fetish.

She wore a yellow ribbon…
Yes, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Although the game is more obsessive (and boring) in Malick, the ribbon is not so different of Holly’s red hair, Kit’s riffle, Cato’s chicken and so on. Monteiro show us brilliantly how his mirror – his spiral – absorbs, vampirizes a chosen creature. Malick tries to go to the point of doing it with his very anonymous spectators.

From Come and Go: “Stay out of other people’s lives if you don’t want to end there.”
Good warning. It reminds me of the immense labyrinths that artists like these two create.

It is Monteiro’s answer to the man who tells him that pigeons don’t eat liver.
The pigeons are an important presence in his work. They appear briefly in Recollections of the Yellow House, Conserva Acabada, The Last Dive, again in God’s Comedy and receiving the offer of Monteiro/Prometheus in Come and Go. Probably they might be associated to the tapestry opening Snow White too, the girl feeding the chicken. Violent provocation to the audience is permanent in Monteiro’s films. His way of confronting society takes that form. There is of course an old tradition of provocation to the reader/spectator, very intense and often violent since Dadaism.

In the end, Monteiro’s “NO” is the perfect synthesis of the conflict between the poet’s inner world and society.
Of their total incompatibility. Walser’s Snow White accepts, says YES to everything she is told to be able to live with her family – in society, after all. So the show could go on she had to say YES. She had to abdicate of her own world and her own truth. Monteiro says NO. And he says it to us straight in the face: “N-O!” This NO, one of the most radical moments of the cinema, is a “YES” to his Snow White, his inner world, definitely associated with death in the two final films.

Monteiro equated Snow White with Susana. And they lived happily ever after.

Pygmalion sculpting his bride. Stoichita remarked how some manuscripts of the Roman de la Rose play with the symbolism associated of the gisant. In this case, the hands of the statue cover the sex (or shall I say rosebud?), instead of resting over the breast, or other common solution. The hands are usually found in such way when the statue is naked (with incorrupt body or not). I find this detail most revealing.

The scene of the funeral?
The extraordinary scene of the funeral. The author as revenant. Monteiro coming from the dead to take possession of his wife’s body. It is a replication of the movement of Recollections of the Yellow House towards What Shall I Do With this Sword? Great authorities have pronounced the “death of the author” (in the sequence of other “deaths”, of course). After Warburg, many would argue that nothing really dies, but that things survive, survive to themselves, that they have an afterlife. A spectral, phantomatic life.

It is all about leaving our little mark, that primitive desire to project, to escape oneself.

Haunting the living...
Yes, in some sense. Here again there is obvious similarity with Malick. We find in the funeral something of the arrival of the telegram in The Tree of Life (or vice-versa). Both artists tell us by cyphered and perversely playful means: « cherchez Hortense! » They both know of our shock and try to include that future in their work: “wait and see.” What we see surrounding the coffin? Society, sullenly gathered around Monteiro’s creation. Its scandal before his delivery to his dead wife, his Snow White. Of this fetishism of the moving images there were insinuations a long time ago. For example, there is a 1979 short called The Two Soldiers that ends with a frontal shot (a kind of signature) of his double wearing a gas mask, obvious allusion to Les carabiniers. There is another allusion to this film in Hovering Over the Water when Monteiro lifts the girl’s skirt with the riffle. I think we have already talked around here about his protagonist’s vacations in Mexico... 

Scenes from two marriages.

As in Malick, this seems to go back to the beginning of the oeuvre.
At least to the second film. Already in 1969 Monteiro talks about filmmaking as a self-imposed destiny. Latter he tried to say that he did not liked cinema that much, that he would have preferred to be a writer, or to do absolutely nothing. That it was a post 1974 decision, etc. Don’t really believe it. This is, he could hate cinema, but just in the exact proportion he loved it. A romantic relation. After all, his total identification with the cinema – “I am the cinema. Creation is absolute and absolutely inconvenient.” – not only send us back to Louis XIV, but at least also to a certain English novel where someone says about his love: “I am Heathcliff.” Cinema as power – lonely, absolute, sovereign power – and passion, total empathy with the object of desire.
Wuthering Heights: Alejandro opening Catalina's coffin.

Such passions can produce destructive, evil consequences.
With Monteiro I think everybody knew he was not trustable. Buñuel and Pasolini are evoked to understand the male character of Hovering Over the Water, the man who came from the sea. We would definitely have to add Hitchcock. He reminds me especially of Hitchcock’s Cary Grant (Suspicion, most of all). You never know about him. His plans and reasons are totally obscure, totally in the dark. He carries all kind of secrets. A guy you can’t trust. He is obviously presented as another double of the director. It is curious that Monteiro would portrait himself in such a way.


The Green Room, marriage necrocinéphile: “The dead only belong to us if we agree to belong to them.” There is Hitchcock all over it: what a nice profile, no? (In the middle, Psycho.)

What the Nouvelle-vague would say of such sons? There seems to be a rather great distance from these works and their privileged source of inspirations.
Nouvelle-vague is a very “vague” term. It encompasses many different experiences. But probably we would agree that its protagonists searched something rather different of Monteiro’s mirror and Malick’s spiral. As you know, Monteiro wanted Jean Pierre Léaud to play the gelato’s critic in God’s Comedy, who is called Antoine Doinel. He wanted him as a kind of symbol of the Nouvelle-vague, so he would answer to your question: « c’est de la merde. » It is nothing but a provocation to the French fathers. Monteiro had excellent critical acceptance in France. It seems a way of telling: I am all alone with myself. It is funny, the new film by João Lucas also tells us « Je suis là pour vous dire non et pour mourir. » (“I am here to tell you no and to die.”, Adieu au language) Monteiro must be smiling.

Both artists seem to me rather (self-)condemned to be expelled from respectable cinephilia. In Monteiro, décadence d'un petit commerce de cinema where he had place no more. For Malick, just pretend that she is an allegory of the American film industry.

Maternal imagery is also very important and rich in both artists. Any significant analogy in this respect?
Not only maternal, but paternal. Monteiro’s relation with his real parents is omnipresent in his oeuvre. In Come and Go this is simply fascinating, although I never read any deep analysis of his cinema from this point of view. (Someone out there interested?) In Malick (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder) the question is vampirization, how a certain fictional project can swallow a biography. In this respect, the present impression is that they are different. But both directors (with many others) equated cinema with the maternal. Monteiro went to the point of saying that he learned all about the cinematographer in his mother’s womb. Afterwards it had been all about unlearning… It might be a good starting point to think Snow White. Nobody has yet understood well that “don’t forget that one day also you will be mother.” (God’s Comedy) This said, in Monteiro, Mother can also be motherland (a certain political-economic-religious realm) and with that one the relation is mainly of abjection, although there are ambiguous moments too.

The fugitive nature of John of God's encounter with his mother seems indebt to Pickpocket, as the interrogation in the police station. The dialogue with this picture starts in the second work. Its poster will appear in Vuvu's house in Come and Go

Monteiro playing Mother... «Moi en toi, Toi en moi» ? (To the Wonder; see John 14:10)

About this: if, according to you, Malick could say he was just one thing, an American, what about Monteiro? Could he say: I am, have been, and will be only one thing – a Portuguese?
Take notice of this: Monteiro links the genesis of He Goes Long Barefoot … to his return to Portugal, to his asshole country. But to this artist his works do not simply rebel against the surrounding cultural environment, they are not only a door to something else. There is probably a great deal of identification with those somehow abject creatures populating What Shall I Do With This Sword? Monteiro’s cinema is one with a fall into a kind of vicious mental state, an exhibitionist impotence inseparable of Portugal. Something like to be Portuguese to the limit of abjection. In this respect, the “eternal return” is one of the key concepts to consider his films. Recollections… is about returning, Come and Go is about returning. The theme of the circle is brilliantly explored by Monteiro.

Is there an author or a film as important to Monteiro as Hitchcock and Vertigo are to Malick?
Probably, no. And it is important to stress that in Monteiro literature has much more relevance. Writers are as fundamental to think his work as film directors: Céline, Joyce, Rimbaud, Sade, Dante, Camões, many others. He portrays himself as the dead Walser, for example. And there is Pessoa. Persona, persona non grata. With Pessoa the identification is very deep. The allusion to Campos mentioned in Wait and see is made in a scene filmed in a coffeehouse frequented by the poet. He loves these kind of secrets.

For the record: Monteiro played one of the convict exiles in Oliveira’s 1979 absolute masterpiece. «There is a secret that one can only know in the grave. Will we see each other? I am going away. I abominate the fatherland, I abominate my family. All this soil is to my eyes covered with gallows, and all those men who speak my language I believe I hear them shout the executioner’s imprecations. In Portugal, neither freedom with opulence, nor, by the way, the realization of the hopes your love gave me, Teresa! Forget me and fall asleep on the breast of nothingness. I want to die, but not here. Let the light of my eyes go out; but the light of the sky, I want it! I want to see the sky in my last glance.» (C.C. Branco, Doomed Love) Above, Snow White

Anything to conclude?
One thing. I often wondered in a label to Malick’s cinema. Could his work be satisfactorily defined in a simple expression or word? I am not in advertising, but I felt this need. Now I think I found a really good hypothesis, one with the necessary violence. I especially like its Biblical resonance. Monteiro said once he was not a cinéaste of abjection, but one of abomination. It can’t describe it better: Malick, the cinéaste of abomination.

So Malick is the cinéaste of abomination? Not Monteiro?
There are abominable things and Malick did them in such a way that we must grant him the title. Malgré tout, we can’t avoid some true sympathy for Monteiro. Towards his later work I fell somehow like that doctor in Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir. The one who brings the masked man to his home. The dialogue with Personamask – makes me think about it. Also Le Plaisir seems not strange at all to the beginning of Recollections..., including to the appearance of the flute (important presence in this director’s films) in the soundtrack (have also in mind, of course). Monteiro’s appearance as an army officer is certainly a mask where many things concentrate, including autobiographical elements. Wait and see mentioned some of its references.

We could add Eça de Queirós, a writer with whom Monteiro shares a great deal, in order to think it. But whatever we see in his eccentric agitation, about what John of God covers there is not great discussion. His transformation in the barber shop somehow brings the memory of Death in Venice (a film this director despised, I believe) to Recollections. And this insinuated vulnerability distinguishes Monteiro and makes him sympathetic. Even if he does not search for our sympathy at all.

Le plaisir. The second episode is about “codfish” (morue), a matter of great importance in Monteiro. In Recollections... we hear the confessional “I want to smell your codfish!” God's Spousals was filmed in a palace jokingly called bacalhôa (female cod) after the nickname of one of the owners. A fact not to despise having in account a certain vision of John of God.