Grand Tour: Miguel Gomes’ seductive, globetrotting ode to cinema

Miguel Gomes elegantly bridges 100 years of film history with an experimental, time-bending colonial-era story of a British civil servant trying to outrun his persistent fiancée.

Grand Tour (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. 

Combining the wistful retrospection of Tabu (2012) with the experimental freedom of Our Beloved Month of August (2008) and The Tsugua Diaries (2021), Miguel Gomes’ Grand Tour is another seductive ode to cinema by this most cinephilic of filmmakers. In a concept reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Gomes and his co-writers, Telmo Churro, Maureen Fazendeiro and Mariana Ricardo, conceived the script while zig-zagging across Southeast and East Asia together with the cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who also frequently worked with Apichatpong), collecting 16mm footage along the way. Their travels inspired a story of troubled romance, set in 1918. Edward (Gonçalo Waddington) is a British civil servant – the kind you might find in the pages of a Graham Greene novel. Stationed in Burma, he is expecting his fiancée Molly (Crista Alfaiate) to arrive from London so they can get married. While he waits on the harbour, in the company of a fluffy and splendidly horned ram (the first of many animals that appear throughout as uncomprehending witnesses to existential human woes), he gets cold feet and jumps on the first ship to Singapore. There he receives a telegram from Molly, who somehow tracked him down and is on her way to join him. 

And so begins their grand tour, with Edward fleeing from one country to the next and Molly always one step behind, the characters’ itinerary mirroring that of the filmmakers as they pass through Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and China. Except that, unlike the characters, Gomes and his crew never reached the final stop of the journey. The outbreak of Covid-19 forced them to return home from Japan and complete the Chinese chapter remotely, with Gomes directing the cinematographer Guo Liang from a computer in Lisbon. Though unplanned, this extremely 21st-century workaround adds to the film’s sophisticated approach to temporality, which involves a self-reflexive mixing of documentary and fiction. 

All the scripted scenes featuring actors were shot on studio sets back in Europe, assuming a look that recalls classical cinema (here Gomes’ regular cinematographer Rui Poças took over the photography). By alternating between the staged and documentary images, Grand Tour elegantly bridges a hundred years of (film) history, though without any pretence to seamlessness. When Edward’s train derails on the way from Singapore to Bangkok, shots of a train travelling through the jungle are followed by Edward sitting near a single wagon that is lying on its side in an obviously fake forest. In the cities, no effort was made to seek out old buildings and avoid evidence of the present day – the streets are teeming with modern cars, people use smartphones and skyscrapers block out the horizon.  

Gonçalo Waddington as Edward in Grand Tour (2024)

Unlike in Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018), the collapsing of past and present does not convey a political message – the effect is purely poetic. The story and its emotions might be anchored in reality, but they follow a logic that is exclusive to cinema. As viewers, we have no difficulty accepting the film’s many temporal and ontological discrepancies, which also include every character speaking Portuguese (though in seemingly arbitrary moments, they will speak the local language, sometimes with and sometimes without subtitles). 

Instead, we share the characters’ wonder at everything they encounter in each new destination – a wonder that is, presumably, also Gomes’ and which he communicates by joyously raiding the filmmaker’s toolkit. Techniques such as iris shots and superimpositions are used liberally; the extensive narrative voice-overs change speaker and language in every country; most of the film is in black and white, but at times it switches to colour, for example to admire a collection of neon signs or a sparkly elephant costume in a theatre performance. The choice doesn’t always seem conceptual, often the impression is simply that it would have been a shame to sacrifice the gorgeous colours of that particular image. 

The editing is a prominent player in the Grand Tour, and it makes sense that Churro should be both a co-writer and the co-editor (alongside Pedro Filipe Marques). In the first part of the film, which follows Edward, the movements of the camera and the rhythm of the montage merge in an intoxicating flow that conveys the unbridled excitement of exploration and discovery. At the halfway point, the narrative starts over, shifting the focus to Molly along with the emotional register. Whereas Edward’s escape was frivolous, Molly’s pursuit is poignant, with each step along her journey bringing her closer to tragedy. It all culminates in a miracle and, as with everything else, the fact that Gomes shows us the strings only adds to its magic.