Tabu - not the 1931 F.W.Murnau film of the same title, though to that it owes considerable debt, but the 2012 Miguel Gomes directed sprawling romantic fantasy - didn’t win the grand prize at Berlinale this year, but many thought it should have. Upon seeing it, and falling somewhat for its considerable allure, it is not difficult to see why. Gomes’ film is one that - like another recent festival favourite, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist – takes cinema’s rich history under its wing and rides it for all it is worth. Thankfully, whilst Hazavicius’ film had little to offer of its own merit beyond the supporting spine of classic cinema, Gomes’ film does more than enough to stand on its own two (crocodile) feet. Tabu is unlikely to convert festival buzz into commercial success to anywhere near the degree that The Artist managed to under Harvey Weinstein’s disturbingly influential hand; but perhaps critical appraisal will be a satisfying substitute? Probably not, but as a critic-turned-filmmaker, Gomes ought to find some solace in fond words as he is unlikely to find it in box office revenue.
To discuss Tabu in commercial terms would be to somewhat miss the point however, as it is a film with a decidedly arthouse sensibility. With its lush black and white cinematography, shot in turn in 16 and 35mm and presented in academy format 4:3, it has that feel of a filmmaker making a consciously artistic film. The director insists that the film was created at a much more subconscious level, and while the lyricism and metaphorical quality that lies behind this otherwise fairly straightforward melodrama story support his claim to a degree, its hard not to see Tabu as anything but choicefully and purposefully artful. Regardless, it is hard not to fall for the look and feel of the film, every aspect of it immediately as the work of an auteur very much in control of all aspects of mood and tone. The later Africa set parts of it, shows a vibrant, exciting world drained of all colour but not of any beauty and the Lisbon set first part shows a less exciting one that looks like it would have been just as grey and lifeless were it not presented in monochrome, and both look wonderful in their own way. Importantly, despite the jump in continents, there is a visually consistency on display that is necessary for such a wandering film.
Tabu follows the story of a young and beautiful daughter of empire Aurora and her troublemaker of a lover Ventura who have a tumultuous, disastrous affair in unspecified Portugese African territory (referenced geographically only by the fictional Mount Tabu it stands beneath) before splitting and lamenting their separation for years to come, and if that sounds like very standard Hollywood melodrama then that’s because it is. The story is made slightly unusual through the format - the familiar, classic film invoking, melodrama coming later in the film, after a modern day segment surrounding an older, cantankerous Aurora who recalls her past lover on her deathbed, as well as a mystifying prelude that establishes the spiritual presence of the omnipresent poster-adorning crocodile - but the film’s appeal is not so much in the freshness of its narrative. Tabu’s quality is in its presentation, its inventiveness, its poetic handling of clichéd material, its simultaneous and contradictory air of melancholy and joy, and its overwhelming dreamlike sensuality.
If this all makes Tabu sound like a drearily weighty film, then it is important to note the film’s meritably contradictory nature. The seriousness of the subject matter, and the seriousness of the presentation of it (in three parts, prelude, paradise lost and paradise, yes in that order) are contrasted, or rather complimented by a definite whimsicality, not least in the playful tone of the narration of the second part. Gomes interjects his fundamentally tragic narrative with constant snippets of eccentricity and humour, most notably the Aki Kaurismaki-esque musical interludes that see Ventura play in a tuxedo-wearing barbershop quartet, ensuring that the sense of the fantastical that his crocodile introducing prelude establishes is not lost. The whole thing is wrapped with a sense of mysticism that its central pursuit of the idea of memory and its unreliability mirrors. It’s never really based in any reality, even the more bleakly realised modern day segments are tipped with elements of absurdity and lightness, before it all gives way in the sweeping romp of a second segment, but the central evocation of the heaviness of memory and baggage feels very real. Yes Tabu mixes classicism with inventiveness, uncovering the ghosts of cinema and exercising them in a more modern fashion, but above else, it is a hugely enjoyable film, an affecting story, and a film with a real charm.
Charm is a dangerously vague term by which to describe a film, but for Tabu little else is appropriate. Like The Artist, this may be a film that receives a good deal of backlash after an initial way of popularity. Tabu’s critics may call to its supposed lack of depth, but unlike Hazanavicius’ film, Gomes’ won’t deserve the wave of rejection it may recieve. It is certainly all a tad vague and wandering, and the charm and lightness of the presentation may initially mask it, but there is definitely a substance underlying Tabu, that sense of the melancholic, of loss and the lost, being the thing that lasts. The humour and affectation never fall into Wes Anderson level tweeness and whilst the film has the history of cinema in its debt, it does not fall upon simple homage. Rather than referencing films by point, Gomes immerses his whole film into the world of cinema and leaves his film touched with the sense of it all, rather than pointed specifics. This immersion creates a film with an unmistakably cinematic feeling enchantment.