Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)

Intricate storytelling has never looked so good.

Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)
dir: Raúl Ruiz

Ordinarily, I scribble notes when watching a movie. The work of the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, who died in August this year, demands a more flexible approach. In the case of his pen­ultimate film, Mysteries of Lisbon, I gave up on the note-taking and instead drew Venn diagrams, flow charts and curved arrows to keep abreast of: a) what was happening, b) which character had deigned to tell us about it and c) what their relationship was to everyone else in the film. Closely following the feverish jottings in my notebook, I should now be able to build a jaunty lean-to or a rocket to the moon.

Carlos Saboga adapted Mysteries of Lisbon from the 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, but I wonder if there wasn't a phalanx of uncredited scribes or script doctors behind the scenes. All the signs point to a crack screenwriting squad of Russian dolls. Stories nestle within flashbacks, which are secreted deep inside other tales. Voice-over is passed around the cast: man hands on mysteries to man.

The film is narrated initially by a sorrowful-sounding fellow looking back on his childhood at a Portuguese boarding school. We discover that he was an orphan and that his name is João. These apparent facts are then shown to be nothing of the sort. Identity and reality are provisional: many of the film's characters have two or more aliases, and the recurring motif of a toy puppet theatre (think Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander) invites us to remember that it's only a story.

The school's priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), introduces young João (João Luis Arrais) to the mother he thought was dead and then reveals in depth how he chanced on this privileged discovery. To recap: the adult João, who is not really called João, is recalling the time Father Dinis, who was not always called Father Dinis, told him the story of his parentage, which he learned when Don Pedro da Silva (João Baptista) told him (Father Dinis, that is) how he came to impregnate the marquis's daughter Ângela (Maria João Bastos). Do keep up.

That covers roughly the first 30 minutes of this four-and-a-half-hour film, which has been trimmed down from a six-hour miniseries. Not for the last time, we may gaze upon the counts, countesses, marquises and dons and feel some kinship with the scallywags stumbling around the boarding school in a never-ending game of blind man's buff.

The plot contains more forks than a cutlery drawer. Detours include a lengthy flashback to the hedonistic youth of an old monk and an encounter with a conspicuously scarred killer ("My name is Heliodoro but everyone knows me as Knife-Eater"). How do such things pertain to João? All in good time. Ruiz defers our understanding without dampening our interest. It's easy to get swept along by the storytelling, with its elements of fairy tale, soap opera, potboiler and bodice-ripper, or to forget that each subplot is part of a larger canvas, a whole tapestry, even, until Ruiz applies the last brushstroke, the final stitch.

Central to the picture's success is André Szan­kowski's cinematography. Vermeer interiors, Constable landscapes - he does the lot. Most hypnotic are the elaborate ballets that his camera performs to prolong the life of a shot, rendering almost redundant the editor's scissors. Where so many modern films suffer death by a thousand cuts, Ruiz and Szankowski favour the unbroken shot that weaves and dances around the actors. The fluid camerawork preserves the flow of real time and goes some way towards smoothing over the episodic plot.

There are also plenty of Ruiz's characteristic visual distortions - faces exaggerated by their proximity to the camera or an actor talking while the close-up that is rightfully his goes to his reflection in a cup of coffee. One startling effect leaves a crowded ball depleted as though the extras have been vaporised, the better to isolate the protagonists on the dance floor.

The connections between far-flung characters and events emerge over several hours without ever extinguishing the film's enigmas. The sen­sation Ruiz evokes can be compared to a suc­cession of pennies dropping individually, like a fruit machine paying out its jackpot one gleaming coin at a time.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

Getty
Show Hide image

As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.