By Perle Petit.
Miguel Gomes’ third feature film takes its name from F. W. Murnau’s 1931 Polynesian epic Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931). Released in 2012, Gomes’ sumptuously filmed black and white drama takes reference from the silent film genre to create a unique variation on Murnau’s classic, which has recently been re-released by Masters of Cinema as both a ‘completely uncensored and fully restored’¹ DVD (2007) and Blu-ray (2013). Gomes not only took influence from Murnau’s title, but also the theme of the socially destructive power of forbidden romance. Therefore both films are, at their most basic level, love stories. The hopeless romanticism both evince seems to be provoked by the ‘foreign’ locations the characters find themselves in. These settings, however, are overwhelmed by an encroaching colonialist order, which imposes itself upon the pre-existing cultures.
Tabu, a Story of the South Seas was Murnau’s last film, and the first in which he seemed to have reconciled himself with the guilt-feelings that stemmed from his self-conscious European morality². The film sets itself apart from his previous efforts because of its images of an ‘anti-west’, the kulturfilm idea of a documentary-style showing a differing and disappearing mode of life. The actual film process was an arduous one, with a lack of investment repeatedly halting filming. This was not helped by the collaboration between Murnau and documentary director Robert J. Flaherty, which became an increasingly uneasy partnership. However, this collaboration meant that Tabu became part of the mock-documentary ‘wave,’ as Murnau’s expressionist style and Flaherty’s documentary prowess was ideally suited to the exposing of an unexplored and ritualistic culture.
The narrative is split into two titled sections: ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost.’ The first follows the blossoming relationship between young couple Reri and Mahati, till the neighboring islanders pick Reri to be their virgin priestess. The lovers elope, much to the consternation of the villagers, for Reri had been named tabu, (meaning that ‘man must not … cast upon her the eye of desire’ under penalty of death). ‘Lost Paradise’ is about the lovers’ new life on a nearby island, where Mahati’s adeptness as a pearl diver, but lack of awareness of the concept of money, make the pair the target of exploitative westernized natives. In one scene, Mahati returns from the pearl beds in triumph and treats the villagers to champagne and music, not realizing that the papers he signs are bills placing him further and further into debt. The villagers dance to European-style music, and a low-angle shot focuses on the steps of the dancers. The still camera shows a revolving set of feet, some shod in high heels, some bare-footed, emphasizing the clash between cultures and the assimilation of western popular culture. Mahati and Reri then perform a traditional dance, demonstrating their untainted, or innocent, way of life. Parts such as these are a testament to Flaherty’s reputation as a documentary filmmaker, for the plotline is simply superimposed upon his footage of the natives. Though filmed ‘authentically’–almost exclusively on the beaches of the Polynesian island of Bora Bora with only islanders as actors–this manner of creating a film conflicts with the apparent message of Murnau. For although the film appears to disparage the incoming western ideals forced upon natives and seems to favor their simple communal life, it is actually highlighting the European settlers’ lack of awareness, by forcing a western interpretation, or ‘fantasy,’³ onto a non-European world.
Miguel Gomes’ Tabu is set in both modern Lisbon and colonial Africa. These two settings recreate the diptych-style of Murnau’s film, including identically titled–but inverted–sections. After a short prologue, the film begins with the section ‘Paradise Lost,’ which focuses on three ageing women experiencing isolation: middle-aged spinster Pilar, and her neighbours, the elderly Aurora and her African maid, Santa. Pilar is concerned with Aurora’s deteriorating mental health and the apparent indifference of her maid. Shot in starkly contrasted black and white 35mm, Lisbon appears dark and overbearing, unfriendly to the characters who live in the isolating high-rises. Ill, Aurora falls into nostalgic reverie and asks for an old and forgotten lover. Taken to hospital, the flickering lights that illuminate her face are reminiscent of silent cinema, which inspires the next chapter of the film. This stylistic technique builds up to the quasi-silent second chapter of the film titled ‘Paradise,’ which recounts Aurora’s misadventures as a 1960s ‘liberated’ colonialist in Africa, predominately featuring her adulterous relationship with her aforementioned lover, Gian Luca. Now elderly, he narrates the story of their liaison in a gentle first person omniscient voiceover, digressing regularly to tell us the circumstances of both their arrivals to the ‘foothills of Mount Tabu.’ Filmed in grainy 16mm stock, this part of the film focuses on the nature of memory and storytelling. Gian Luca’s is the only voice we hear throughout the rest of the film, for the characters’ interaction passes by without audible dialogue. Although we see them converse, we only hear the diegetic sounds which surround them. We can then ask ourselves, since the entire second part is being narrated to us in hindsight, whether the lack of dialogue is to emphasize the unfocused and idealistic nature of memory and suggests that what we hear is more powerful than what we see.
Gomes plays with narrative techniques throughout, making us re-evaluate our role as spectators. Notable instances are when we find ourselves uncomfortably reminded of our position as voyeurs when the ill-fated couple stare directly into the camera, as though our presence is known to them. Another example is Pilar, who has similar trouble placing herself within the narrative text of the film. In what we could call an establishing shot, we realize that the short introduction is a film Pilar is watching in the cinema. Like us, she watches the film’s prologue, the short tale of the intrepid explorer whose travels are prompted by the chasing specter of his late wife. She is as much a spectator to this character’s plight as to her own empty life, for any effort to change her situation goes unheeded.
Gomes’ characters in ‘Paradise Lost’ skirt around darkened apartments, are trapped in close-up shots, penned in caves and on protest stands, constantly cornered by the boundaries they set themselves. Though this is of their own choosing, they are unhappy. In ‘Paradise,’ the characters find themselves in vast open spaces, but once again, the inviting darkness of the indoors becomes a place of self-entrapment, like when the couple lie together in the haze of mosquito nets and dusk. This demonstrates the long-running idea of the impropriety, or dishonesty, of the indoors. Aurora initially serves lemonade to Gian Luca in the garden, for fear of breaching proper prudish etiquette, and indeed later their first encounter takes them from the bright porch to the darkness of his house. Conversely, the inside tends to claim honesty, for this is where they love each other, for instance where Aurora writes her heartfelt letters. Outside, they are at meetings and parties keeping up the pretense of simple friendship. This is reversed in ‘Lost Paradise,’ where the inside becomes the place for lies. For example, it is where Pilar puts up her friend’s painting in order to pretend she likes it. Correspondingly, it is outside that this friend declares his love for her, and where Gian Luca finally tells the story of Aurora’s past.
On the other hand, Murnau’s Tabu seems to be the polar opposite of his other works, his expressionistic shadows replaced by sun-bleached frames. There are still moments where his touch can be seen, for instance a discarded headband is dominated by Mahati’s stretching shadow. As the fated romance between Reri and her lover overshadows all other themes (such as the corruption of the European expansion), and is the most basic of universal themes, it removes any sense of differentiation between the two cultures, whilst at the same time naming the former an archetype of positive ‘uncivilisedness.’ It is the same in Gomes’ Tabu, in which the expressions of love are of the most clichéd sort, just as in the rapture of infatuation, and the anti-colonialist resistance becomes simply a background story. In accepting the overwhelming romanticism of both films, we can say they express the feeling of saudade, the indefinable Portuguese expression for a kind of longing for that which is unattainable. Murnau is attempting to capture an unknown culture, but the film cannot help but be tainted by a western perception of the unfamiliar. Gomes, whilst not perceptibly attempting to pass across such a potent message, is instead defining an era of lost people. Therefore, both are, in essence, films of cynical escapism, passing as delicate and tender époque pieces.
Perle Petit is a recent Cambridge graduate and contributor to Sight & Sound, currently based in Amsterdam.
¹Masters of Cinema release notes.
²The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (Lotte H Eisner, 1952)
³Shot on the Spot: Primitive Film (Assenka Oksiloff, 1999)
F. W. Murnau’s Tabu was released by Eureka Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray, as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Miguel Gomes’ Tabu was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Lorber Films.