[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Tabu.]
I enjoyed the last hour of Tabu. There's a question about the moment desire turns to love. It's done in an unconventional and yet intriguing way. We have voice over from a nostalgic lover recounting the events. None of the voices of the actors are heard during this second hour, and yet we hear all the other sounds of this African landscape. It's a striking formal constraint -- think of it as a blend of imperfect memory, novelistic first-person narration, and silent film.
And then I was won over by a pool party scene in which a 1960s rock band inexplicably plays The Ramones's cover of "Baby, I Love You" (1980). The guests at this party are a bunch of affluent Portuguese eccentrics; ones does French martial arts, the other plays with a gun. At this point, Tabu is an absurd philosophical melodrama drenched in colonial guilt, just as the hype and the blurbs described.
It's just a shame about the painfully boring first hour of Tabu.
Tabu is broken into two sections, three if you count its short introductory prelude. This intro is a silent film one of the characters is watching, which recalls some of the exoticism of F.W. Murnau's 1931 film Tabu, though African than Polynesian. There are natives and pith helmets and the stilted movements of pre-talkie actors emoting. It's followed by the film's first section, "Paradise Lost," which takes place in present day Lisbon. We meet an elderly woman named Aurora (Laura Soveral) who suffers from an unspecified dementia. When she passes away, a man from her past named Ventura (Henrique Espirito Santo) shows up and recounts their time together many years ago. That introduces the second part of the film, "Paradise," a pseudo-flashback which takes place at an African estate at the base of Mount Tabu.
This division of narratives makes sense structurally, and also flips the structure of the Murnau film. Gomes plays with presentation to establish a distinct sense of time, place, and mood. The "Paradise Lost" section is shot in clean 35mm and is meant to recreate the plodding nature of real life. The "Paradise" section is shot in grainy 16mm and presented as a dialogueless film with narration -- a silent movie but not quite. The look of "Paradise" is the look of the intro to Tabu and the Murnau film Tabu, and the omission of dialogue plays on how we can forget particulars but remember the scope of our lives. We may not remember the words spoken in a distant memory, but we remember the feelings -- think of a reconstruction of events similar to the process of writing a memoir. We also get things wrong while remembering because memories aren't perfect, and recreating memories means the chance of fulfilling some sort of dream through misremembering. That's where an anachronism like the Ramones version of a song works into the film, or even the Portuguese Phil Spector songs.
But while I can appreciate all that at an intellectual level, the problem is Tabu made me feel nothing but boredom for at least half its run time. This disinterest even spills into the "Paradise" section, which took me a few minutes to warm up to. It's the same way you might feel a little sleepy after just waking up.
"Paradise Lost" goes on far too long, with very mannered, artificial moments. If the "Paradise" section focuses on a kind of magical past in a silent film setting, "Paradise Lost" is the mundane present in an indier-than-thou art movie. Think Jim Jarmusch but without the charm, humor, or humanity. The moments that Gomes makes us observe are at first meaningless and then only slightly meaningful on reflection (more on that later). The present-day Aurora's maid, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), asks about leftover prawns. She eats leftover prawns. She then reads Robinson Crusoe out loud for a bit. She goes to an adult education class. On film, it's just as riveting as my description. That's preceded by the elderly Aurora recounting a dream that she had. In real life, listening to someone recount one of their dreams can be tedious; Tabu succeeds in recreating this tedium and then magnifying it.
I think the audience in the "Paradise Lost" section is meant to feel concern for the old Aurora through Pilar (Teresa Madruga), one of Aurora's neighbors, but it was difficult to feel concern for anyone. I found myself nodding off a few times during this first hour because the film just didn't give me anything to hook into. Once we get to the torrid love of young Aurora and young Ventura (Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta), suddenly there's a sense of illumination to the whole picture, even the boring bits. I understood that the present was a degraded form of the past -- Aurora living in a dream world of regret, and Santa a sort of vestige of colonial domination. Aurora grows old and becomes a pathetic, doddering old woman, but in the past she was a gorgeous, capable young lady, and a good shot with a hunting rifle.
But is this illumination enough? It got me wondering why the "Paradise Lost" section had to go on so long when its revelatory material isn't especially moving. The second half of the film could function just as well without the first half, or if the first half was cut in half. I think I was meant to feel a deeper sense of tragedy about Aurora's passing from the knowledge of her love and her loss, but I would feel that solely from "Paradise" without "Paradise Lost." Even in the "Paradise" section, little dispatches from radio news suggest a loosening grip of Portugal's colonial strength. Paradise is bound to be lost, in the same way that, as Neil Gaiman put it in Sandman so many years ago, if you keep a story going long enough it will always end in death.
Boredom in art is a tricky thing to play with. I'm rarely too bored in real life because there's always something to do. My bouts of boredom are mercifully brief. In fact, the only time I get severely bored is when I'm watching a movie or reading a book that becomes boring in order to convey how boring a situation is. Yes, I get it: boredom = boredom. Also, red = red, 2 = 2, and "=" = "=". It's not profound. Tautologies are simple, and tautological boredom is aggravating. Sure, there may be something conceptually interesting about how a confrontation with an aesthetic experience of boredom is even longer and more boring than the boredom I experience in real life, but it's really not that interesting. Only the idea of intense aesthetic boredom is interesting, and only interesting to talk about. The art that represents the idea is just boring. (Again, boring = boring.) What's more interesting to me is how filmmakers can make boredom interesting, or how they can make those listless moments in life feel more alive. These are the kinds of aesthetic experiences in film that make movies worth watching, or at least the movies I like to watch worth watching.
My friend Steve at Unseen Films said in his review of Tabu: "I freely admit that I left 90 minutes into this 118 minute movie so that I could get back to my day job. Let me say that again, I would rather be at my desk going over never ending streams of names and numbers on a computer screen rather than seeing how the film came out." When we talked about Tabu a couple days after the screening, we were both a little baffled by the acclaim. He mentioned Guy Maddin as another filmmaker that Gomes might have been channeling along with Jarmusch and Murnau. It's odd that someone can channel filmmakers I like into something so unengaging. But maybe it's just a matter of taste when it comes to the nature of aesthetic boredom. I say that because there were quite a few people at the screening who were completely enamored by Tabu. In fact, the movie's received raves from so many people.
One review for Tabu I saw online quotes the following line from the film: "Cinema bored her to death." Sometimes I know that feeling well.