by James Hansen
Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August is a lot of things at once: a blatantly reflexive formalist inquiry into the nature of filmmaking, a concert documentary featuring musicians from various locales in Portugal, a documentary about a filmmaker trying to make a film without funding or actors, and a cheerily dark melodrama about a young singer’s relationship with her uncle and cousin set to leave for France. Truth be told, it might also be none of those things.
Premiering in New York this week after two years in distribution limbo following its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Gomes’ film has the (constructed?) back story to match its methodical existence as a single work. The story goes Gomes had a large screenplay ready to shoot before actors and financing were completely pulled. Stymied but determined, Gomes went to the location anyways with his crew, a camera, and shot everything he could to complete his film with whatever and whoever he could find amid an August musical festival in rural Portugal. OBMoA gives the audience little reason to believe Gomes’s wild tale, although there’s also little reason not to. Regardless, the story functions as a kind of mythic fable built into the fabric of the film.
A key to thinking about this construction is the collision between the image and the soundtrack. OBMoA performs as a concert documentary, complete with titles identifying each different band, but the sound of music carries into each realm of reality into which the film seamlessly veers. If we see the sound being recorded and then “see” the sound where it isn’t, then how does the sound belong? How or why do we accept this? These questions are asked directly in the film’s coda – played after the end credits begin, naturally – but the question (and answer) comes across as hysterical (and rhetorical). It might be best if we take a cue from the lead actress who, after crying hysterically in one of the film’s serious scenes, bursts into laughter. There may be no rhyme or reason, but, if we stop and wonder why, then we are constructing the illusion ourselves and putting up a wall against the nature of the film. From Gomes’s fable forward, OBMoA shatters the illusion of levels of reality and demands the audience follows suit.
OBMoA winds the lines between truth, fiction, and fiction-reality into a ripcord before they dissipate into the film’s being. The question that would usually come up here is what is real, fake, or pre-conceived, but the question and those terms hardly seem appropriate. Rather, OBMoA uncovers that, as filmmakers enter into the process of creating films, and as the people we see on screen prepare themselves to perform for a camera, and as audiences finish the cycle by engaging with what we see on screen, the what is undeniably malleable and hysterically useless. (In this way, OBMoA functions as the antithesis of the torpid Inception whose realities are clearly defined even within dreams). Instead, OBMoA embraces the ambiguity and asks how we see and understand these levels of reality in life and interact with films. Before the opening credits roll, the terms are laid out by a film crew, the soundtrack, and a set of dominoes. OBMoA makes sure they linger throughout the film and far past the lights coming up. How do we react and interact knowing that our dominoes have already toppled?
Our Beloved Month of August is playing at Anthology Film Archives through Sep. 11. It can also be viewed online at MUBI.