Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl Review
Manoel de Oliveira was born in December 1908, made his first film in 1931 and directed Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl at the age of 100. Despite his advanced years de Oliveira has been astonishingly prolific of late making at least one film per year since 1990 and, since Eccentricities, has produced one more whilst another is in progress. Such is the workload that some have even been picked up for British distribution, although admittedly the gaps between them have been pronounced: 1993’s Abraham Valley, 1998’s Journey to the Beginning of the World, 2001’s I’m Going Home, 2006’s Belle Toujours. The latter was a loose ‘many-years-later’ sequel to Bunuel’s Belle de jour, retaining Michel Piccoli in the role Henri Husson and barely getting past the 60-minute mark. Eccentricities shares the minimal duration (with PAL speed-up it runs to a few seconds short of 61 minutes) and the sense that the film is a miniature; all the more so considering de Oliveira was once upon a time prone to making multi-hour epics such as the three-hour-plus Abraham Valley or the 410 minutes that made up 1985’s The Satin Slipper. Yet whilst a single hour’s worth of film may pale against these far lengthier excursions, Eccentricities nonetheless contains a great a deal of weight. This is no mere flight of fancy or lapse into insignificance, but rather an example of cinema pared down to its very essentials, both stylistically and in narrative terms. It would appear that, as a centenarian, de Oliveira has little time for embellishments and extensions; simplicity and a bare minimum of fuss are what appeal nowadays.
De Oliveira has sourced a 19th century short story by Portuguese writer Eça de Queiroz for this particular tale. Although updated to a modern day setting, Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl nonetheless retains something of its original period. As in the de Queiroz the story is framed through a railway journey as our protagonist relates his recent experiences to a stranger. What was once a common narrative device two centuries ago now comes across as both arch and rather quaint, yet de Oliveira clearly finds some glee in its mannered modern dress presence. Indeed, the whole film transposes its ideas, formalities and moral codes from this bygone age with barely a nod towards the incongruities or inconsistencies they produce. The effect is an interesting one, certainly to the point where it would appear not to be a fluke. Eccentricities feels at once timeless and out of time, arguably the principal reason as to why it becomes so beguiling.
The tale related during the train journey concerns its narrator, Macário (Ricardo Trepa), and his newfound employment as an accountant at his uncle’s clothing store. Whilst working in his tiny office he catches sight of the blonde haired girl of the title (Catarina Wallenstein) who stands idly on an opposite balcony evocatively clutching a Chinese fan. She remains wordless during these initial enticements - just a silent face with a comely set of lips to capture Macário’s attention each day and add to the air of beguilement - though we soon learn her name (Luisa) and that a friend of our narrator knows both her and her mother. Eventually, if such a word can be used for such a short film, the two strike up a relationship and intend to marry. Except etiquette must be obeyed and fortunes made before any engagement can take place.
These gradual enticements, interactions and blossoming relationship are all told in a series of rooms, each quite small though some more ornate than others. It is as though de Oliveira is continually reminding us that this is a miniature of a film with no aspirations to any kind of grandness, whether that be visual or in the statements it may choose to make. His camera takes the formal, unfussy approach opting for simple tableaux and long takes playing out as long as is necessary. Some of this also extends to the actors, particularly Trepa who is incredibly mannered in his delivery. Once again the effect is an interesting, at once harking back to the 19th century origins of Eccentricities’ narrative yet remaining close enough to modern sensibilities so as not to appear too strange or too ill-fitting. With that said, a certain amount of dislocation is no doubt intended. The moment in which Trepa breaks out into a little celebratory dance upon discovering he has a means of making acquaintance with Luisa, one that comes across as very 21st century, is a wonderful touch inasmuch as it jolts us back into the here-and-now and remains us of the game de Oliveira is playing. The other jolt comes with the film’s ending, another instance - which I won’t spoil - where this mixture of 19th and 21st century sensibilities results in a strange twist that some may perceive simply as a punchline.
Arguably, this kind of individual perception plays a significant role in responses to Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl. The critical reception to the film on its theatrical release tended to come down to whether its beguiling qualities won through or not. Some dismissed the film as slight and lacking in genuine involvement, other praised it for its quiet simplicities. (One review, from the Guardian, suggested that it was only de Oliveira’s name which had prompted it to be picked up for British distribution; had it been the debut of a young filmmaker, the review argued, it would never have seen the light of day.) Of course, the slightness hasn’t phased New Wave from giving Eccentricities both a theatrical and extras-free DVD release, so there is clear faith there - and, I would argue, a faith that has paid off. I can understand that some would see de Oliveira’s film as lightweight and insignificant given its unassuming and unfussy nature. Yet this nature is also a source for great pleasure as well as one that ties it to other ‘old auteur’ examples such as John Huston’s The Dead. This is cinema that pares back its narrative but doesn’t neglect the beauty or the charm.
New Wave have done full justice to Eccentricities of a Blonde Haired Girl in terms of presentation, but the disc is sorely lacking - completely deficient in fact - when it comes to additional features. The film itself is taken from a faultless print, retains its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio (anamorphically enhanced) and comes with optional English subtitles. There really is little to say other than it looks really quite beautiful and shows off Sabine Lancelin’s photography to fabulous effect. The soundtrack - available in both DD2.0 and DD5.1 - is similarly flawless and ably copes with both dialogue and score. However, the lack of extras is a particular sore point for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the scant running time of the film itself which practically begs to be accompanied by some additions or other. Secondly, there’s the region free Cinema Guild release from the US which did manage to assemble a welcome host of special features with a collective duration outweighing Eccentricities itself.