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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

When circumstances prevent you from making a film, make a film about the circumstances. This was the rough – and in large part fictitious – premise that served Miguel Gomes so well in his breakthrough Our Beloved Month of August (2008). It’s logical he should pick it up again when an extremely real obstacle, in the form of a global pandemic, halted progress on his Brazil-set feature Savagery. Maureen Fazendeiro, his co-writer on Savagery and life partner, shares directing credit on The Tsugua Diaries, a return to small-scale, whimsically intellectual filmmaking after such epic works as Tabu (2012) and Arabian Nights (2015).

Starting on ‘Day 22’, the film plays in reverse chronological order, with periodic title cards counting down the days one by one. Familiar uses of the device, as in Memento (2000) and Irreversible (2002), generate narrative momentum through successive cliff-hangers, continuously stoking the viewer’s anticipation of what will happen next (or before, as it were).

Nothing could be further from the case here, as we watch three young people – one woman and two men, that eminently cinematic triangle – spend summer days doing not much at all in a house somewhere in the Portuguese countryside. Early on there is a kiss between Crista (Crista Alfaiate) and João (João Nunes Monteiro), which upsets Carloto (Carloto Cotta), but it turns out to be the first of many non-sequiturs, since a potential rivalry is never elaborated.

The Tsugua Diaries (2021)

In the absence of an appreciable narrative, the intention seems to be of luxuriating in the sensuality of 16mm by capturing textures and the play of sunlight as the trio build a butterfly house in an orchard, or the vivid colours that bathe the garden at night, when a lamppost cycles through green, purple and orange in a manner reminiscent of the fluorescent tubes in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (2015).

And the carefully composed, gorgeously grained shots are indeed delightful to look at. A lengthy, drifting close-up of Crista moving through greenery and flowers while a melancholy guitar tune plays on the soundtrack, her face backlit and the image washing out whenever the sun shines into the lens, is pure seduction. The exercise does soon grow indulgent, though, and that’s when weird things begin to happen.

A delivery man wearing a surgical mask arrives, revealing not only the existence of a gate, and therefore that the characters are on an enclosed property, but also that they’re likely in quarantine. If so, who is the woman who later enters the frame, right after the characters have exited, and tests the hinges on the door of the butterfly house?

More unexplained presences creep into the background until, all at once, a whole group of people enter the dining room and join the main characters for breakfast, without the slightest surprise on their part. The others turn out to be a film crew and thus The Tsugua Diaries switches gears, from fiction to (pretend) documentary, becoming a film about its own making. 

The Tsugua Diaries (2021)

It also becomes very funny. The absurd shooting conditions imposed by Covid fuel squabbles among the crew, including a reprise of the finale of Our Beloved Month of August, with sound recordist Vasco Pimentel this time getting chastised for ignoring emails about protocol. And the days running backwards serve to set up punchlines, like when Gomes is shown triumphantly riding the back of a tractor in slo-mo for no apparent reason, and following a title card he suggests the idea to Fazendeiro only for her to shoot it down as ‘stupid’. 

This tongue-in-cheek commentary on their own experiment is elaborated in a scene in which the actors criticise the film’s concept as opaque and directionless to Fazendeiro, Gomes and their co-writer Mariana Ricardo (aka the ‘central committee’, per the closing credits). Fazendeiro explains that they’re shooting the actors performing improvised tasks, so as to construct a film freed from the usual dictates of narrative: “Creating a trajectory is not what we’re after.” Sure, but what could be more linear and definitive than a countdown? On Day 5 we then see a white board with all the days carefully mapped out, giving the lie to the idea of spontaneity. Then again, we can’t know whether the white board was filmed on that day or simply placed there in the edit. More importantly, should we care? 

All this meta-waggishness is very self-satisfied, to be sure. And yet, through the thick blanket of irony gradually emerges genuine feeling, and the inverted chronology builds to a celebration of community that is heartfelt and poignant after the experience of the last year and a half. The film is bookended by party scenes, both shot from the same vantage and both scored to ‘The Night’ by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. In the first, Crista, João and Carloto are dancing in the empty living room; in the second, the space is teeming with jubilant bodies. Only one of them triggers intense longing. 

Further reading

Film of the week: Arabian Nights Volume 1: The Restless One

By Tony Rayns

Film of the week: Arabian Nights Volume 1: The Restless One

Film of the week: Tabu

By Trevor Johnston

Film of the week: Tabu

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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