When writing about Miguel Gomes 2008 film, Our Beloved Month of August, the temptation is to clarify the film, normalize it, and make the movie seem less strange than it really is. Every description of the film that I have read has this effect and it is inimical to the way an audience actually experiences the movie. In the first shot, we see majestically combed roosters clearly agitated by something -- as the shot continues, we see that a little fox has entered the chicken coop and is eyeing the roosters: the image is magisterial, at once, strange and suspenseful, shot from a peculiar angle as if to mirror the perplexity of the big, bright roosters. In the second shot, we see that the fox is separated from the chickens by a wire-mesh. But the mesh is inefficacious and the fox bursts in among the chickens -- the film, then, cuts away to a pavilion where someone is crooning in a soft-rock pop song; it is night and the weight of the summer is palpable in the scene, an erotic humidity and warmth and, while the singer performs, gradually couple gather on the dance-floor, entering, however, from an unexpected angle. At the end of the film, Gomes castigates his soundman, a figure that we have been watching throughout the movie, for recording in nature sounds that can't possibly be present -- pop tunes, apparently, picked-up by the soundman's microphone on its lance-like baton. Each member of the crew berates the soundman who maintains that he didn't do anything wrong -- on the soundtrack we hear forest sounds, birds chirping and the wind in trees, gradually supplanted by faint pop song that grows in volume. While crewmembers are berating the hapless soundman, their names and roles in the production are shown on-screen. When the sequence is over, the film's final credits are projected and the movie ends.
Much of the movie follows the logic, or illogic, of these sequences. Only gradually, after about an hour, does the audience sense that there are actual characters in the movie, people extruded above, as it were, the documentary milieu -- as soon as we become accustomed to the fact that we are watching a lyrical documentary designed according to associative and poetic principles, suddenly, we are confronted with fact that there is, in fact, a story, that the story becomes increasingly melodramatic, and, ultimately, seems to seize control of the film, turning the movie into a family melodrama with some kinky attributes, a bit like a film by Fassbinder or Douglas Sirk. The narrative seems wholly improvised -- at first, we don't know that we are seeing any kind of narrative at all. The pleasure that film yields is that aspects of the picture that we initially perceived as purely documentary become assimilated into the improvised story. For instance, we have seen a red fire-truck somewhat incongruously touring the mountainsides of the Portuguese forest where the film takes place. These seems are vaguely comical and we can't quite make any narrative sense out of them. Later, we are introduced to two girls who work at a fire-tower, one succeeding the other with regard to their sentinel duties -- these girls are fire-watchers atop a high mountain in the forested range. The girls gradually become central characters in the narrative and, at the end of the film, there is a wild-fire that has the melodramatic function of ending a bitter family argument and, in fact, reuniting characters who had disavowed any further relationship with one another. (The fire clearly stands for sexual love-- the fires of passion.) Here is the question that film poses: did this imagery of fires and fire-fighting drive the narrative and yield, through improvisatory means the narrative or was the film maker cunningly foreshadowing narrative events by concealing in plain sights, as it were, this theme within the documentary aspects of the movie. I don't think this question can be answered and therein lies part of the charm of Our Beloved Month of August.
At first, we seem to be watching a documentary about some kind of musical festival occurring in a rural and mountainous region of Portugal. Bands appear on a dramatically lit stage, are identified by super-title over the image, and perform -- the music that they play is not some kind of European "roots" or traditional music; rather, it is ingratiating key-board and synthesizer-heavy Euro-pop. At first, the film plays as a kind of movie-essay, the sort of film that Chris Marker used to make -- there are some portentous voice-overs and we see lots of tracking shots of wooded and hilly landscape. A big motorcycle rally is underway and the narrow, winding roads on the mountain side are, often, blitzed by swarms of bikers -- near the start of the film, we see an immense campground where the bikers have gathered. There is a look-out atop one of the mountains, a statuesque ridge where giant wind rotors are turning, and some beautiful streams where people swim and sunbathe near a dam. Local people are filmed in their habitats telling stories about how the festival originally involved a testicle feast and one man recounts the story of ax murder. It appears that the film is documenting the Feast of the Lady of Conception and, at twenty minute intervals, there are images of long processions in which the people carrying sacred figures on litters going uphill meet and pass similar crowds descending the steep streets. Bands play in out of the way alleys and there seems to be a lot of feasting underway. From time to time, a man from Lisbon admonishes the film crew to get underway -- Gomes, who plays himself in the film, says that he has to record sound effects because he doesn't yet have actors. At the climax of the religious festival, someone -- apparently the town drunk -- will have to jump off a high medieval bridge over a ravine where the river flows. He isn't anxious to do this -- last time, he jumped he hurt his ankle. Frequently, we see the sound man recording in groves of trees or on the mountainsides -- of course, we never see the camera crew: the film's point-of-view is the camera crew and the reason we don't see any footage being shot is because the only camera on location is the one recording the various random, or seemingly, random snippets of film that comprise the movie. At one point, the villagers gather to see some rushes of a "terror movie based on Little Red Riding Hood" -- this may be the project the filmmakers have come to produce. An older woman appears in the clip of film, scary and formidable as a witch -- we later see her from time to time in the streets of the town, a heavy-set, jolly old woman nothing like her image on the screen. (The locals aren't fooled -- they laugh loudly at the horror scenes.) A boar is butchered and an old man climbs into a deer stand. Two girls try to get parts in the movie and are inexplicably turned-away -- the crew is more interested in playing quoits. Gomes is a very cunning and intelligent director and this seemingly random footage probably fits together and forms patterns that are not immediately apparent, but, nonetheless, meaningful -- in part, an associative principle connects the short sequences: while we watch a religious procession, a man talks about being healed by an encounter with the plaster figurine of the Lady of Healing; in the next scene, we see a man singing karaoke -- the song is about being saved by the Virgin Mary, although the tune and melody aren't sacred sounding at all, but more of the saccharine Euro-pop that characterizes the soundtrack. (Our Beloved Month of August, if nothing else, is a musical, featuring about 12 fully performed songs.) Gradually, we begin to notice recurring characters and, in the last hour, there is a story: a girl named Tania sings in a family band with her father, Domingos, and her uncle. The girl's mother has run away from the family to Lisbon -- it's not quite clear why she abandoned the family. Father and daughter have a close, almost freakishly close, relationship -- at one point, the villagers accuse the couple of incest. The lead guitar player in the band is Helder, Tania's 15 year old cousin. Helder and Tania fall in love. This leads to conflict in the family, problems in the band as well, and, ultimately, there is a showdown between the young lovers and Tania's father -- catastrophe is averted by a fire on the mountain in which the family members are trapped. The fire is a deus ex machina that resolves the major tensions in the film, although the movie has trouble ending -- I counted about six or seven separate endings.
Our Beloved Month of August is fiendishly clever but overlong. The story that is improvised out of all of the fragments of apparently documentary footage is melodramatic and slight, if pleasant -- young lovers (there is a subplot involving another girl Lena and her admirers) enjoying long lissome summer nights together. But the story isn't strong enough to sustain the film's length and, in any event, its clearly disposable -- something Gomes constructed out of bits and pieces and, then, improvised a few acted (or dramatic) scenes. The film's length is integral, however, to the very gradual development of the plot -- the narrative consists of a series of secrets disclosed to the audience only very, very slowly and with immense hesitation. If the whole plot were summarily presented, we would probably reject the film as banal and uninteresting -- part of the pleasure in the picture is fitting together the fragments to construct the narrative. I think it's a film that is probably designed to be watched several times -- some parts of the film have a meta-narrative aspect that is fantastically complex. In one scene, we see two men from behind at one of the ubiquitous mountain lookouts -- one man tells the other that he's concerned about the film makers. "They seem awfully disorganized," he says. The other man responds: "Well, it's just their method." The first man reveals, then, that he was the fellow who talked about being cured by our Lady of Healing -- "they recorded me without my knowing," he says. Of course, we are seeing the two men from behind and this begs the question of whether they know they are being recorded and filmed in this sequence. Both men are part of the film's narrative -- but how do we distinguish the narrative from the documentary aspects of the movie? Can this even be accomplished? In one scene, Helder masturbates, apparently to images of Tania's missing mother, someone called Auntie Rose Marie -- this sequence is clearly staged. A few minutes later, some Belgian dudes approach the girls who are swimming at the dam and try to pick them up -- this sequence seems completely documentary, although the scene plays a role in dramatic narrative. Was this scene staged or is it documentary?