Not too many people walked out of my screening of Tabu. A few people did, but compared to my screening of Joss Whedon’s tepid Much Ado about Nothing, where everyone except me and my party exited the cinema, not too many walked out of Tabu. That surprised me, because it is exactly the sort of film that you’d expect people to give up on. Tabu is a slow, plot-less meander through the past and the present, wrapped in impenetrable black-and-white cinematography, inside an oblique two-act structure.
This elegant, opulent film travels along at its own pace like a train driven by a member of the Australian swimming team (#topical). Its pace is a very languid one. Part One, titled ‘Paradise Lost’, revolves around the monotonous lives of three Portuguese women – the dull Pillar, her elderly neighbour Aurora and Aurora’s housemaid Santa. Plot-wise, nothing much happens in Part One: there’s a lot of walking around Lisbon and sitting around apartments. After Aurora’s death, her old friend Gian Luca tells Pillar the story of his love affair with Aurora in 1960s colonial Africa. This is Part Two, entitled ‘Paradise’ – a lyrical, expressionistic sojourn into Aurora’s past loves while living near the Tabu Mountain.
The first act will inevitably alienate people due to its skeletal plot, and that is exactly the point; the film wants to filter and hone its audience, explicitly inviting audience members to leave as to reward the cinephiles who continue watching. Part Two has no dialogue, in homage to F. W. Murnau’s silent film of the same name, and yet it is a rich and enthralling sensorial experience. The somnolent pacing of the first act is a gamble that, for me, paid off in dividends. Still, there will people who find Tabu about as riveting as a musical about the Australian Consumer Law composed by John Cage.
Director Miguel Gomes is fixated with crushing every filmic expectation that 20th Century narratology has established.
There are a lot of films in the last thirty years that have attempted to employ a postmodern, two-act narrative structure. Many of those films – like The Crying Game and Chungking Express – have a gripping first-act and a very dull second act, making the overall film an incoherent failure. On the other hand, Tabu does the opposite. Tabu’s first act is protracted and monotonous, filled with unsubstantiated plot-points that exist solely to enhance the film’s enigmatic mystery. It is this rhetorical question asked by Gomes – how exactly are all these characters and ideas linked? – that continued to spark my investment in the film.
The second act is brimming with originality. It is enchanting because of its action-packed set pieces – from sex to murder – and its pastiche of various ‘old movie’ archetypes – from the whimsical comedies of Charlie Chaplin to the sordid films noir of Billy Wilder. Part Two is melodramatic and sentimental, insofar as it is emotionally charged, but it is not sappy. It is about a love triangle, represented with an oneiric wistfulness that makes the film feel somewhere between a fairy tale and a dream.
Speaking of the film’s oneiric and wistful mood, Rui Pocas’ cinematography is distinctly unconventional. You would expect a film set in the rolling hills and sprawling plains of picturesque Africa to be photographed in vivid, widescreen technicolour. Tabu is shot in black-and-white with an aspect ratio of 1.375:1 – the standard aspect ratio in 1932, a contrast to the common aspect ratio of 1.85:1 employed today. There is a wry self-reflexivity to the film’s structure, as its structure is a comment on cinema itself. While the astute, silent, genre-driven second act is referred to as ‘Paradise’, the long and muted mumblecore-driven first act is referred to as ‘Paradise Lost’. Gomes clearly longs for the cinematic stylings of the past rather than the dull interpersonal interactions that consume modernity. He yearns for an era where square aspect ratios are the norm, not a cheeky play on the audience’s expectations.
Likewise, Gomes decides to ignore the horrors of African colonialism and other forms of xenophobia in order to enrich Tabu’s romanticisation of the past. Romanticising a bygone milieu that was, for many, an horrific period of time is a dangerous move. Nevertheless, Gomes justifies this decision by ensuring that the film is not about colonialism itself in anyway, because the characters barely encounter it. Instead, Tabu is about the past itself in a very broad sense of the word; not only the past lives of its characters, but the past of cinema itself. It is, at times, a patience test, but it is a film that is worth your patience.