Magazine article Artforum International

Still Lives: James Quandt on the Films of Pedro Costa

Magazine article Artforum International

Still Lives: James Quandt on the Films of Pedro Costa

Article excerpt

THE SINGLE MOST SHOCKING INSTANT in any film at Cannes this year was not Paul Dawson sucking back a sluice of his own cum in John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, Sergi Lopez suturing his freshly flayed face with a home sewing kit in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, or the assorted sub-Borowczyk provocations in Gyorgy Palfi's Taxidermia, including a hard-on that doubles as a blowtorch, a speed-eating contest that ends in voluminous puking, giant cats devouring the entrails of their exploded owner, and the autotaxidermy that serves as the film's flesh-abasing finale. None of those scandalmongering moments could match the sheer disorienting power of the sudden shot of a painting--Rubens's Flight into Egypt, hanging in Lisbon's Museu Calouste Gulbenkian--in Pedro Costa's Juventude em marcha (Colossal Youth). Interpolated late into the film's seemingly endless succession of conversations declaimed in dim, decrepit rooms, the startling appearance of this Dutch Baroque masterpiece in its hushed, luxe setting packed a visual and tonal wallop--shot transition as sensory assault. (Maurice Pialat was a pro at such vertiginous edits.) But the multitudes who had fled the press screening an hour earlier during the film's first extended monologue were not there to savor Costa's formal coup, Youth being the kind of measured, demanding work to which Cannes is increasingly inimical. Compared with Costa's film, much else at the festival was pandering and blandishment.

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The forty-eight-year-old Portuguese director could hardly have been surprised by the critical scorn; his supporters have long been sneered at as glum cultists, po-faced devotees of his particular brand of Lusitanian pornomiseria. Costa fits less comfortably with such celebrated compatriots as Manoel de Oliveira andJoao Cesar Monteiro than with the pan-European band of miserablists that includes Hungary's Bela Tarr, Germany's Fred Kelemen, and Lithuania's Sharunas Bartas. Divergent in vision, they nevertheless share a propensity for the long take and tableau structure; a fondness for desolate landscapes and haunted, life-battered faces; and a Dostoyevskian sense of existence as hell.

Costa took some time to arrive at his stringent style, leaving behind the romantic poetics of his impressive feature debut, O Sangue (The Blood, 1989), a black-and-white Traumspiel with music by Stravinsky and traces of Les Enfants terribles, Night of the Hunter, and Spirit of the Beehive in its hermetic tale of two brothers on the run with a kindergarten teacher, and the Jacques Tourneur-influenced reverie of Casa de Lava (Down to Earth, 1994), set largely in the Cape Verde Islands. But in Ossos (Bones, 1997), the first film in the trilogy that Colossal Youth concludes, this dreamy, allusive approach gives way to a Bressonian arsenal--elliptical editing; lack of establishing shots; little nondi-egetic music; inexpressive nonprofessional actors delivering uninflected line readings; sound employed to replace image and to suggest an offscreen world; and a precise, materialist treatment of objects, bodies, and space--which Costa applies to a decidedly un-Bressonian subject and setting: poor, forlorn lives in the suburban slums of Lisbon.

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The very title, Ossos, shorn of even the article that O Sangue employed, suggests something of the skeletal austerity it strives for. Long before the Dardennes' L'Enfant (2005), Costa tells the tale of a baby born to a suicidal teenage mother whose equally young, blank-faced boyfriend uses the child as a prop for begging and then tries to sell it--first to a nurse who has shown him great kindness, and then to a prostitute. (He stashes the sweet-natured baby under the bed when he has sex with the hooker.) So insistent and condensed is the film's sense of desperation, it reminds one of the bleakest of Gyorgy Kurtag's Kafka Fragments, in which the heroine sums up her existence in six words: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life. …

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