In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, the narrator says, “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?” Memory, as subjective and imaginative as dreams, serves to inform our present emotional slant and tell us where to travel to next, yet can hinder our ability to perceive an untainted future. In the same vein, when you look cinema, it can be boiled down to simply one’s own projection of the amalgamation of memory and feeling onto a screen, asking the audience where a dream ends and one’s own past begins. And with his new film, Tabu, director Miguel Gomes has crafted a stunning and poignant drama that tell the story of two words separated by time.
Shot beautifully on black and white film stock, Tabu has an ethereal quality that haunts—not feeling quite of this time but distinctive from the past. It’s an absurd film with fantastical exoticism and characters unique to modern screens. Like an ode to a bygone era, Gomes’ work shows the mastery of someone who has embedded himself in the language of cinema and its rich history, but with a style that speaks to his own peculiar affinities as a filmmaker. The first half of the film is in the present, telling the story of a kind-hearted but restless retired woman, Pilar, who involves herself with neighbor Aurora—a senile older woman—and her maid. After Aurora’s death, Pilar finds a love letter amongst her belongings, thus ushering in a flashback that serves as the second half of the film. Set in Colonial Africa, the flashback speaks to Tabu being a film of juxtapositions—passionate and restrained emotions, the passage of time and the immediacy of a moment—exploring the dream-like quality of memory and how it lives inside of us all.
A few months ago during the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Gomes to discuss what’s missing in contemporary cinema, the ephemeral nature of paradise, and the vanishing of film.
The film feels so timeless, as if it exists in some cinematic world of its own. Was there an initial image or idea that inspired you?
There were two things, one was the fact that in my previous film In Our Beloved Month of August, I came across a song and I found out the song was made by a Portuguese band in Mozambique. So I talked with them and they were showing me photos of them in white suits, and told me stories about picking up girls and playing Elvis Presley songs. It struck me that these guys were engaged with the Colonial system, but I thought what they were missing most was their youth. There was another thing, which was someone from my family telling me stories from a certain moment in her life about her neighbor. The neighbor was a senile old lady who had this strange relation with her maid, who was African—what you get a little bit in the first part of the film. And I was interested, maybe for the first time in my life, in these kinds of characters and these kinds of stories, you know? Very small-scale stories about people that have ordinary lives, like the opposite of what you see in the second part of the film and the opposite of the stories that the guys who have this band in Africa were telling me. They had these adventurous lives, or what they thought were adventurous lives, and these kinds of characters were almost the opposite. For the first time I was interested in these kinds of characters and these kinds of stories which I thought they were kind of pathetic and funny but moving—in a way, maybe that was not able to interest me like some years ago. Maybe that means I’m getting older.
Perhaps just more mature in your ways. But you’ve called Tabu a film of oppositions—can you explain that?
Yes, that’s one thing I miss in contemporary cinema—that means, in mainstream cinema but also in art house cinema. I think there was something that existed a lot in the youth of cinema, like in Morneau’s films for instance. In F. W. Murnau’s films, you have all these contrasts: country side and city, day and night, all these oppositions that are quite simple. And nowadays, because of a more psychological approach of constructing the characters and everything, cinema has a little bit abandoned this kind of opposition. And I wanted to get them back. And so to have the first part: an older women, loneliness, ordinary lives, lots of dialogue, cities, very winter version of Lisbon, a dark city, an aged city and then in the second part it’s everything the opposite of this: young people, love stories, adventurous lives, exotic things, cinematic things.
It was also very lush in the second half, whereas before it was stark, which echoes the internal states of these characters as well.
Yeah, we even do the transition in a mall between the two parts where African is coming. It’s a mall that exists, a shopping center that exists a little bit outside Lisbon, and it was made by people that returned from Africa. I guess in a way, it’s like a kitsch way of recalling this world—the trees and the animals, it’s a kitsch version of it. There’s a giraffe in the first part of the film, and I remember that my sound engineer who is a deranged man—most of the time in a good way—but is a little bit crazy, he said, “Okay, and now we are filming these statues of giraffes and these shopping malls with trees and turtles. So in African, what will we shoot—streets of Lisbon?” But yeah, these are things that make the connection, but most of the structure is made of opposition. But like I was saying, people talk a lot in the first part; Aurora is introduced with a monologue in the casino sequence, telling the story about the dream she has. Maybe it’s an excuse for just explaining why she is in the casino, but she talks a lot. In the end, Aurora, in the second part of the film, does not talk. We cannot hear her dialogue and the only time we hear her is like the letter that she wrote to her lover with the voice of the old actress, not the young one.
Speaking of dreams, that appears to be something you were very interested in when making this. Dreams are a place where you can go back to your past and go back to your memories—is that something you wanted to touch on?
Yeah, I don’t think that it was clear to me from the start—which means that maybe I’m not very intelligent or I am not that aware of rational things, it’s more of a very instinctive approach I have. But there was a moment that I thought, Okay, this film is dealing with memory, and this is why I want to start with the first part in the beginning of the film and have the contemporary part and then you get back. It’s like if memory is the drinking part, you start with a hangover and then you get to the drinking part, which are memories. Someone told me a long time ago once that paradise can only exist in one’s memories.
Is that something you believe?
Well, I tend not to believe in paradise from in heaven, I’m not a believer so yeah. I think the guy that told me that has a certain point, that things that are not there anymore that exist only in your mind are the paradise that you have lost.
Because you always long for that which you’ve lost, even if at the time it seemed far from paradise.
People say something like, “When I was living this, I didn’t understand it was so great and now it has gone away I miss it,” and this relates somehow with cinema and memory.
And with youth and being idealistic, that’s a paradise of one’s own, but then when you grow older and become disillusioned, the paradise falls away.
And this idea of thinking that what the characters are missing—more than the loss of the Portuguese Empire or the land loss of the land—I think its their youth. I think that cinema, also, in a way is missing its youth. Back then in the youth of cinema, the viewers would be more available, there would be a larger ability to believe in things. It’s like the process of aging as you were talking, there is a moment when you believe in Santa Clause or whatever and then you grow up and see—no, it does not exist. But in a way, cinema can restore this belief even if you’re believing in unbelievable things, which is I think is far more moving to believe in unbelievable things. So you know it’s fiction, it’s a lie but somehow it gets you back in time into the moment where you believe these things. I think that, for instance, people that were seeing these 1920s Morneau’s films, maybe they had a larger ability to believe in these vampires and these love stories. Because cinema is now more than 100 years old, it’s much tougher to believe and we are much more aware of things. This is a problem for us to believe in a very direct way.
The film is incredibly beautiful and feels as once very delicate but powerful in it’s strong aesthetic. Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white and how did you establish the film in terms of style?
Maybe in a very intuitive way, a very instinctive way. While making the film it, I thought that the film is dealing with this time and memory issue, and so you have this woman that will disappear and will die and this will give birth to a society that’s also vanished, and in that part I’m trying to connect with a certain cinema that’s also gone—silent film. Also, classical American cinema—the mythology that was created by Hollywood and American cinema about Africa. So I thought the only honest proper way to do it was to also use something that was on the verge of disappearing too, which was film stock, and black and white film stock because the film is dealing with things that are already gone and only exist in memory or are on the verge of disappearing.
Why did you choose to include the out of time pop songs?
As I said earlier, these guys I’ve come across, the Portuguese, they were singing the hits at that moment in the 60s. So in the case of Mozambique even in the film, it’s like an abstract ex-colony, but it was close to South Africa, so they very influenced by Anglo-Saxon music. One of the Phil Spector songs I use in the film, which is actually “Be My Baby,” this version I’m using is a version recorded in Madagascar in 1966 by a band called Les Surfs. They were a little bit like the Jackson Five, they were brothers and sisters and they made this version of the Phil Spektor song because it was a song from the Ronettes. So people thinks this is a very imaginative approach but that’s really the part which is more next to reality.
It also harkens back to the opposition of things if you’re thinking it is an inventive choice. And for you, what’s the significance of the melancholic crocodile?
I tend not to give symbolic meaning to things. For me, it’s very important that a tree is a tree, a girl is girl, a gun is a girl—things should stand by themselves. So a crocodile is a crocodile. But in this case, I was saying, well I like crocodiles. I remember in Berlin they were starting to talk about the meaning of them and I was always saying, I like crocodiles, I don’t know why not crocodiles if I like them? And then I started to be sick of answering this all the time and it popped in my mind, something like: crocodiles, they look so old, so prehistorical, maybe they came in the beginning of times. And so, they must remember things that people have already forgotten. And then I realized that maybe the crocodile has a connection with time, maybe being a witness of love affairs that start the finish, the passions of people, the empires that rise and fall down—the motion of the world and melancholically, they are witness to the motion of men.