Saturday, March 26, 2011

Film Review: The Strange Case of Angelica

"The Strange Case of Angelica" ** (out of ****)

Manoel de Oliveira's "The Strange Case of Angelica" (2011) was a movie I greatly looked forward to seeing. When it was announced to be played as part of the line-up for the 14th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, I was excited. Sadly, the film did not meet my expectations.

Those of you who read my reviews on a regular basis, know of my great appreciation for the work of Manoel de Oliveira, regarded by some as the greatest living Portuguese filmmaker. He is also the world's oldest living director, at the ripe old age of 102. Yet the man has an uncanny work ethic. He churns out one film a year.

I've written on here before about de Oliveira. I reviewed his "Belle Toujours" (2006), a sequel to the classic "Belle de Jour" (1967) and "The Convent" (1996). Unfortunately Mr. de Oliveira is not as widely known in America as he should be. He is under appreciated here. A good many of his films, mostly his early works, are hard to come by. In the U.K. a DVD collection celebrating his 100 birthday was put together, comprised of all of his films. In America such a collection was never released.

On paper "The Strange Case of Angelica" sounds like a good match for Mr. de Oliveira. The film deals with themes of life, death, love and beauty. But only in the most abstract of terms. Or, at least it felt abstract. Mr. de Oliveira has been taking the Eric Rohmer route lately with his films, as they generally center on his musings on love. What makes someone attractive to another person? In "The Strange Case" Mr. de Oliveira is dealing with obsession and how the search for true love can sometimes be a dangerous one. But, no one could do these type of movies better than Eric Rohmer (full confession, Mr. Rohmer is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers). Mr. de Oliveira has made some accomplished films over his long career but his work of late seems to suffer in comparison.

In "The Strange Case of Angelica" a young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trepa) is sent by a wealthy family to photograph their recently deceased daughter, Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) as a last memento. But, when Isaac looks at Angelica through his camera lens, he swears she wakes up and smiles at him. Isaac has become captivated by her beauty. She consumes all of his thoughts. Her spirit visits him. He longs to be with her.

"The Strange Case of Angelica" bears a resemblance to Mr. de Oliveira's previous film, "Eccentricities of A Blonde-Haired Girl" (2009), which I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival. Both movies (Mr. Trepa appears in both of them) are about men who become obsessed with women they do not know. This would appear to be a theme running through Mr. de Oliveira's current films. "Belle Toujours" also had an element of obsession in it.

But where "Angelica" and "Blonde-Haired Girl" lose me, is there is nothing really to care about here. These characters are not fleshed out. I have no emotional investment in anything that is going on. Isaac is a strange character. In another movie perhaps in could have worked. Hitchcock had Jimmy Steward play a man who thought he was in love with a dead woman in "Vertigo" (1958), and while, it may have been a stretch for Stewart to play that type of character, we, the audience, are still involved in what is going on. A part of us sympathize with him. There isn't that level of involvement in "Angelica". Isaac doesn't grow on us.

We also have to wonder what exactly is Mr. de Oliveira trying to tell us? Is their a point to any of this? Or is he just having some fun? We can see the themes at play and get a general sense of the underlying story but what does it all add up to? How are we suppose to feel by the end of the picture? What is Mr. de Oliveira's objective? Should we even try to read so deeply into the film. Is it simply just a whimsical story about love and our search for ideal beauty and/or our search for true love?

If that is the case I prefer several other films which have come before this one. "Vertigo" is one example. And what about "Laura" (1944). There too a man thinks he has fallen in love with the picture of a dead woman. As I said, Eric Rohmer has also given us films about male characters obsessed over women. Remember his classic "Claire's Knee" (1971) where a man has fallen in love with a women's knee and makes a vow he must touch it (it is not as creepy as it sounds). Or what about "The Aviator's Wife" (1981) where a jealous lover follows his girlfriend around Paris. These movies had more engaging characters.

"The Strange Case of Angelica" feels like a de Oliveira film. We can instantly tell it was directed by him. And, while I must admit, I didn't particularly like this film, somehow I'm glad I saw it. If only because I want to see as many films by this gifted filmmaker as I can. People should see de Oliveira's films. They aren't for everyone though. Many will complain his work is too slow, nothing happens, characters just talk. On the surface that is what is happening, but, it is the ideas presented in the films which I find interesting.

If you are unfamiliar with de Oliveira's work I wouldn't start with this movie. I'd advise you to watch "Belle Toujours", "The Convent" or "Abraham's Valley" (1993). Then slowly build yourself up to "A Talking Picture" (2003) and these more recent films.