Film Review: Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl

<i>Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl</i> is almost as seductive as its title suggests.

Cool and spare, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl marks the 48th—but not the latest—feature from 101-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira, who, by the way, has an even newer film currently making the festival circuit rounds. Apart from the inspiring fact that the Portuguese-born director is able to make a film, any film, at such an advanced age, Eccentricities is good enough to attract more than art-house cinephiles. This mesmerizing little tale is mysterious but straightforward enough to win over any audience.

De Oliveira’s screenplay, based on a short story by celebrated fellow countryman Eca de Queirós, concerns a young man, Macario (Ricardo Trepa, the director’s grandson), who tells a tale of woe to a sympathetic stranger on a train (Leonor Silveira). Macario relates the recent events that occurred while he was a bookkeeper working in a Lisbon shop for his strict uncle (Diogo Dória).

In his story, day after day, Macario becomes drawn to a beautiful blonde, Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein), he sees at a window across the alley from his upstairs office. Through a mutual friend, Macario arranges to have a formal introduction to the young woman. The meeting, at an elegant salon, goes surprisingly well. But just as Macario tells his uncle his wish to marry Luisa, his uncle angrily fires him.

Without a job, and feeling he needs money in order to propose marriage, Macario takes a position in another city. Upon his return, he asks Luisa’s mother for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Luisa accepts the offer but, simultaneously, one of Macario’s friends involves him in a bad business deal and he loses all his money again. This time, Macario’s uncle saves the day by giving him his old job back. Yet an unexpected event throws the upcoming nuptials into complete jeopardy.

De Oliveira’s individual signature is apparent in Eccentricities, though the tone and narrative recall parts of Claire’s Knee, That Obscure Object of Desire, and even a little Vertigo. Thematically, de Oliveira slyly criticizes the oppressive nature of capitalism on the human condition. Balancing dark humor and romanticism, he creates a lovely but cutting recession-era allegory.

At a brief 64 minutes, Eccentricities never wastes a moment of screen time. The still-shot long takes lend a Zola-like naturalism to a story best described as a fable. Except for a diegetic harp solo, there is no music in the film and de Oliveira makes great use of sounds. For example, the distant train noises during the flashbacks suggest the past and present aren’t so separate. The lack of close-ups also keeps the emotions in check (don’t expect any kind of Hollywood melodrama) and the “twist” ending disappointed me at first but became resonant, even haunting, the more I thought about it.

My only real dissatisfaction was with the “eccentric girl” herself. Unless de Oliveira wanted the viewer to witness an obsession completely from the objective outside, he should have cast someone more mysterious and attractive than newcomer Catarina Wallenstein. The actress performs acceptably enough in a role that is sometimes literal window dressing, but it is hard to understand Macario’s excitement over this pretty but vapid person the way Wallenstein portrays her. Imagine Nabokov’s Lolita the way she is seen at the end of the novel as the Lolita we are introduced to at the beginning and you will know what I mean. The film requires an actress on the order of either Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina in That Obscure Object of Desire. Perhaps as intended irony, de Oliveira ensemble regular Leonor Silveira, as the patient train passenger, exudes more depth than Wallenstein or the “girl” of the story. The very final shot suggests this was deliberate on de Oliveira’s part—as is everything else about this interesting film.