In its obsession with images and shot composition, the 102-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s 2009 effort Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is a feast for the visually-minded viewer. A brief but moving depiction of a short-lived romance, the film presents one impeccably wrought scene after another—several of which find de Oliveira’s actors engaging in a sort of unspoken dialogue with the artwork that hangs on the walls around them.
05:42. This conversation between characters and the art that surrounds them begins just a few minutes into the film, as our first glimpse of female lead Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein) finds her backgrounded by a portrait of a proper and stolid middle-aged woman. The painting’s subject is a clear counterpoint to the youthful approachability embodied by the film’s “blonde-haired girl.”
The contrasts between the painting and the actress are striking. Luisa wears a vibrant blue dress with white polka dots; the woman in the painting is outfitted in a plain black top. Luisa playfully leans on the windowsill, cooling herself with an old-fashioned fan; the woman in the portrait can only observe, resigned to the fact that her days of girlish whimsy are long past.
10:11. Looking out his office window, Macário (Ricardo Trêpa) first discovers Luisa by accident; he minds the books at his uncle’s fabric store, which is directly across the street from her home. “Commerce shuns a sentimental accountant,” Macário declares at one point—and should he ever need to be reminded of this, he need only look at the wall next to his desk. There hangs a painting of a wholly unsentimental-looking man. Judging by its pride of place, it might be a portrait of the industrious gent who founded the family business. The man gazes down at the lovelorn bookkeeper, reproaching Macário for devoting himself to love at the expense of his work.
46:46. Later, Macário, seeking permission to marry Luisa, meets with his would-be bride’s mother (Júlia Buisel). In this scene, he’s seated before a painting of a lush green countryside.
The pastoral beauty of the picture is suggestive of the tranquility and bliss that might await the young couple. It’s hard to believe that this juxtaposition of character and background art is anything but the work of a director attuned to every visual detail.
54:01. Soon Macário finds himself discussing his marital plans with his unyielding uncle Francisco (Diogo Dória). The men stand face to face, and between them hangs another portrait of a no-nonsense older man. As Macário bends to kiss his uncle’s outstretched hand, it’s easy to imagine that the man in the painting might’ve once had a similar interaction with a younger, approval-seeking male relative.
1:01:03. As Eccentricities closes, its ultimate arresting image finds Luisa in the room where Macário sought her mother’s blessing. She passes by the countryside painting before sinking slowly into a big armchair. Luisa’s mood is growing darker by the minute, and the contrast between her emotional state and the room’s vibrantly-colored décor conjures an evocative portrait of emotional desolation. This shot, the film’s last, is a worthy of a painting, in a film replete with such imagery.