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Film Show 033: Rita Azevedo Gomes
An interview with the Portuguese filmmaker about adapting Rohmer for her new film 'The Kegelstatt Trio', meeting Jean-Marie Straub, the beauty of language, and more
Rita Azevedo Gomes
Rita Azevedo Gomes (b. 1952) is a Portuguese filmmaker who has spent over 30 years constructing works that draw from literature, music, theater, and painting. Her films are often interested in language, with characters reciting poetry or referencing literary sources in a manner that expands the classical compositions she employs. Her projects have spanned various mediums, from opera to the visual arts, and she is is currently a film programmer and curator at Cinemateca Portuguesa. Her debut film, The Sound of the Shaking Earth, arrived in 1990, and she has since received international acclaim for works such as A Woman’s Revenge (2012) and The Portuguese Woman (2018). Herlatest film, 2022’s The Kegelstatt Trio, is an adaptation of Éric Rohmer’s 1987 stage play of the same name, and finds her exercises in language finding root in music: namely, the Mozart piece that is the film’s namesake.
Azevedo Gomes’ films will be screening at the Harvard Film Archive throughout the month of September and October. Details about the series can be found at their website. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Azevedo Gomes on February 5th, 2022 via Zoom, ahead of The Kegelstatt Trio’s premiere at the Berlinale. The two discussed her new film, meeting Jean-Marie Straub, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), and more.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: It became clear to me when watching The Kegelstatt Trio (2022) that you have this immense love for language. To me, every different language has its own personality, and when you switch between languages, you go into a different mode of speaking, of being. What does the Portuguese language mean to you compared to, say, English?
Rita Azevedo Gomes: Speaking of the phonetics and the sounds—if you don’t understand the language you have only this music. I don’t understand Russian but I feel the air and the music of the words. In that way, I believe it’s very expressive. If you listen to Portuguese, or if you listen to English, English is a much more polite language. It’s like the people are well-to-do in life and behaving properly. The sound of the language calls to mind the temperament of the people. I was in this city once and everybody around me was speaking this language I don’t understand at all. I was listening to all of them, talking, talking, talking. Sometimes it sounded to me like little shells on the sea. Very cheerful, in a way, just the sound.
I decided to do this film, O trio em mi bemol (The Kegelstatt Trio) in French, which is not my first language. It’s always difficult to stay so close to the text, but I think this text, the Rohmer, works better in French. The translation is something else. But the way he builds the text is not innocent. I believe Rohmer listens to the words in French and he makes this kind of musical thing with repeating words and repeating sentences. It sounds so different in French or in Portuguese. “For the moment” in French is “pour l’instant.” In Portuguese it is “por enquanto” and it’s not “pour l’instant.” It’s not the same. There was also a reason that I have a French actor and a Portuguese actress. She doesn’t speak French at all, but it’s better to try to make her speak French than… it would be absurd to make Pierre Léon speak Portuguese from a French text. So it’s French. And I like the text in French.
With the French language, there’s a forcefulness, each syllable has impact but in a subtle way. That gets at the spirit of what’s happening in the film, but there’s also the Mozart piece. I’ve played piano a lot of my life, and I’ve played that piece before.
I didn’t know before. Otherwise, I would have asked you to play for us (laughter). I didn’t have money to pay for the rights so I had to ask someone to play all the piano in the film.
In that piece, you feel the power of every gesture, every time your finger hits a note. In your film, there’s that same impact where every individual word, every expression from the actors, though it may be quiet and subtle, has great impact on the way they are viewing their relationship.
It’s very curious what you are talking about. I asked myself, “Why did Rohmer write a theater play?” It’s the only theater play he wrote in his life, and O trio em mi bemol is based on Mozart… why? He’s very musical, Rohmer, and he played as well. He even has a book on music, which is called The Depths of Music, or Le Profendeur en Musique (1996). Once I was at home, I was editing here, exactly where I am now at this little table, and it was very bad. I was not happy, nothing was happening. It was really one of those days when you doubt everything. I thought maybe I should stop, so I decided to listen to the trio once again. I had heard it before lots and lots of times but I said “Okay, let’s listen to the trio, and enjoy the trio.” When I listened, it seemed so obvious to me. I discovered that the clarinet is in fact Adelia. The piano is the music, or Mozart is music, the Muse. And the viola is Paul. Listening to the trio, I was even seeing the first tableau, second tableau, third tableau, because it’s a long piece. The trio lasts thirty minutes or more. I saw all the moods of the film, of these three characters, and I wondered if that was what Rohmer discovered in this trio, which was maybe the first time they used these three instruments together, right? It was really Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven opening new ways for music. All these made for another possible truth in the film when I was editing it.
I love that story.
When you listen to the tune again, now that you know music and you’ve played it yourself, there are moments where the clarinet and the viola are sewn together and then they split, and the clarinet flies away somewhere, he lives his own life and then he comes back, and it’s really the trio. Maybe it’s a fantasy.
There usually isn’t so much music in your other films. And maybe there will be a scene with music that’s all the more impactful because it’s such a rare occurrence. There’s an obvious sense of curation, a desire to not let music fall into the background, or to feel unimportant in your films. What is your relationship to music, personally?
I just like music, it’s very simple. I don’t know much about it, I just like it. Sometimes I listen a lot, sometimes I don’t listen at all—it’s not a daily thing. I’m not the kind of person that is going to put music on in the background to work, or to clean the house, or to read, no. When I’m listening to music, I stop and I listen. It distracts me; I cannot concentrate if there is music playing somewhere. There are periods where I listen, and what happens to me is that I listen to the same thing I like hundreds of times. I don’t mind repeating just one thing. When I had LPs, I remember even when I was young, 13 or 14, when we closed ourselves in our bedroom—when we closed the door and had our moments—I had a player in a little suitcase that you opened.
For one year I was listening and listening and listening to the same three things: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions, Chopin’s Nocturnes—I was thirteen years old, so of course the Nocturnes—and Maria Callas singing La traviata at La Scala. The music finished, I’d put it on again. The music finished, I’d put it on again. It takes me very long to get in the music. I have to be very familiar. The more I listened, the more I liked. Then, out of curiosity, I wanted to know what it was about. But I always go off… It’s a bit like Adelia, where for me the music is more important than the men who made it or the history of the music. In the film, whatever you use has to be evolved. It’s not only to make something beautiful or pleasant. Sometimes music is not pleasant, it disturbs the scene, but obviously it has to have a position, otherwise it’s no good. So yes, it becomes like another character, another presence.
I have nothing against music and films. Like Straub. I understand him, but I would not be happy in a world like that, you know? I like what he does very much, but it’s not my world. I’m not so severe (laughter).There is one film that he made that, for the first time in my life, Straub made me cry. It was in Sicilia! (1998). I broke a little bit and dropped a tear. He’s a genius, I like him very much. He’s the most generous and kind person, Jean-Marie Straub.
Do you mind sharing any memories you have of your time with Straub?
When I was about 20, it was close to the revolution. We had the exceptional director of the Goethe-Institut in Lisbon which was [Curt] Meyer-Clason, who gave us the most wonderful years of cultural things in the Goethe-Institut. Once he made a retrospective. Straub was coming, and we were seeing Jean-Marie Straub’s films for the first time. It was not in a cinema, it was in the Institut in a room with some chairs and a projector. It didn’t matter. I saw Moses und Aron (1975) and I didn’t understand anything, but I loved it so much. And then there comes this guy with his red hair and a cigarette. I could understand him immediately. When he’s severe with you, he’s not trying to smash you. On the contrary, he is trying to say, “Come on boy.” He’s trying to provoke you to make you think, to make you wake up. I lost the fear completely in ten seconds. He was smoking—we could still smoke in cinemas, those were happy times (laughter).
It was a very special period in my life. That’s where I met Jean-Marie Straub, and then I met him again in the Cinematheque when he was coming. And once I was preparing Frágil como o Mundo (2001), and I didn’t know who could make the camera I was looking for. I wanted to work with [William] Lubtchansky. So Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet were there and I asked them if by any means they could help me to reach Lubtchansky, and they did it immediately! I had a long talk with Mr. Lubtchansky in a phone booth in Paris, with all the coins. He was leaving Paris, not working anymore obviously. But it was a very, very important conversation I had. Half an hour with the coins in a telephone booth in Paris. Putting coins in, dropping coins, I was afraid the coins would run out. So Jean-Marie Straub is not what you imagine the person behind those films is like.
Earlier, you said that time in your 20s was a very special period. What made it so special for you? Is that the period you look most fondly back on?
It was a special period in my personal life. The period of the revolution was very strange. We were all young, all together. Being young in a period like that is something… At a certain age, not too young, not 10 or 70, but 20. You already maybe have another way of participating in what’s happening around you. And for me, I was discovering… It was a period of immense love for cinema. I was seeing so many films. Everything happened and I cut my film. It was this period of really huge energy and things happening so intensely. Disasters, happiness, discovering things, and then the revolution. But the Straub retrospective at the Goethe-Institut was before the revolution.
Did you always have a love for cinema? Was your family very interested in cinema?
My mother loved cinema. She took me to cinemas a lot, to matinees. She took me to the things she liked. But I didn’t have the consciousness that I needed to have a special love for cinema, I just liked it. Somehow, I knew cinema always created a unique impression on me, almost like a person, and more than a person because it’s already ghosts, but I was very contaminated. My life was changed for a week if a film was really touching me. I was not out of the film—I was living the film for 15 days. I had to see it again. Silly things, waking in the middle of the night thinking I was the character. Since I was a little kid I wanted to believe them. I really believed in the fairy in Cinderella, she was mean and I saw her in the corridor. I was maybe five years old. I went to the toilet, in this corridor that was all dark and I was scared as hell. I was very afraid of crossing it in the dark, and I would just run to the door of the bathroom. And then I opened it and I saw her there (laughter). It was really traumatic.
I would live with them. I was about 13, I believe, when I saw one film that really touched me. It was Splendor in the Grass (1961), Natalie Wood. And for a week I could not speak about the film to anyone because I was sure nobody was in the same... I thought what I felt was really so unique that I could not express the feeling. Saying, “Oh she was so great. She’s so nice. Blah blah.” I could not talk about it. I saw it with all my friends, and I was very astonished that after the screening we came out—I was with a few girlfriends from school—and they were normal. They said, “Come on, let’s go get an ice cream,” and I was thinking, “How can they live their lives normally after this film?” As if it was nothing! (laughter). I remember this, we were walking on the street and they were all talking, talking about fashion and silly things. And I said, “Jesus Christ, but we just saw this film.” It was very lonely. I thought I was the only person who felt like that.
So cinema makes me like this, and, in a way, now why do I make films? It’s also the same question. I don’t know. But maybe I live when I make them. Maybe when I’m not making them I just function. It’s not that you choose that. I don’t think I chose it. Maybe I would prefer another life, to live with a man, a nice man, to have someone next to you that puts an arm on your shoulder, shares with you, that is close. Maybe it was my dream, the charming prince. No, not the charming piece, but the partner. Maybe that was my ideal of life. But I mean, my destiny was to be here.
Sometimes it’s very difficult, this presumption that I’m able to do a film. It takes a lot from lots of people, the people in the film. It costs a lot of money—not this film, that was very cheap—but normally it does. I respect that. And I’m very happy in the end. If someone finds it interesting it’s really comforting. Somehow, you’ve made your films because you want to make them, so it’s inevitable that it happens. And this film happened, it really happened. In the confinement where we were, there was an urge to do something. It was so strange in 2020. Now, it still is, but that impact on situations across the world was not predictable at all. It was completely out of our horizon. It was very sudden, “Off!” And from one day to the other, the world stopped. Good. I missed that. I was terrified, because for months I was in a kind of bliss, a secret happiness, looking at the indefinite. I was thinking, “What the hell’s happening?” I wanted to go out so much, but I couldn’t. So the film was a way of doing something.
To help yourself not to go crazy, I suppose.
No, I was not close to going crazy. Not at all. But I thought it was so concentrated, all this silence around us. I don’t know. It was like, I had to deliver something, the film. And when everybody said they would come for free, it was very nice.
Obviously in the film, you have Rita Durão and Pierre Léon, both of whom you’ve worked with before. What’s it been like working with the same actors again on this film? How do you feel your relationships with them have changed and developed with this film?
Yes, we are friends. But friendship doesn’t have to do with the things we do, I think it goes beyond that. With Rita, I think our work together is not finished yet. She’s aging extraordinarily well. She’s a mother, she’s teaching, she has a crazy life. Each time I make a film with Rita, she’s bringing other layers to her understanding of things. And Pierre, I had already spoken with him about this once before, maybe two years ago or more. I said, “Maybe you could make this,” and he said, “Yes, I’ll do whatever you want.” So this was an idea. But it’s also a personal thing, because I like Rita and I like Pierre, in a special way. They are two people that have a great position in my daily life. It doesn’t mean I talk with them every day. No, not at all. We don’t see each other. We don’t talk so much when we don’t work. But we are there, you know, it’s like we are together. They don’t know each other very well, because they only made one film together with me, The Portuguese Woman (2018). Pierre is the old servant, Rita is the Moorish servant. They didn’t have the time to get close, but I had the feeling that they would like each other, that something would happen if I put them together. I believed they would create something, Pierre and Rita.
Did you first learn about Rita from her work in [João César] Monteiro’s films?
Yes, I know Rita from Monteiro’s films but I think that I knew her before that. We’ve known each other for a very long time, I don’t know since when really. But she’s extraordinary in Monteiro’s films. There is a kind of connection, a richness that grows between two people. And we are still growing, we can still do things. Why choose another actress when I think she will do it perfectly? Even though she didn’t speak French at all, I don’t know why she did it. She had a couple of weeks to prepare. For me, it’s a demonstration of a great will to do this. Probably like mine: “I will risk this.” It was a great risk for her, tot to know the text, not to speak French. She’s very brave, and she said okay.
I think that, in a way, is in the film. That gap, that area between the actor and the character. It’s kind of half-done scenes and half repetition. We see the actors are not completely at ease with all the texts. Sometimes it’s rehearsal, this building of the thing is very interesting. I wanted to keep it in the film. And when I was making a scene that Rita had told me the day before, “I’m not ready for tomorrow, I don’t know the text, I don’t know!” And I said, “Don’t worry, you can use the script.” And afterwards, during the morning, they were working and she was ready. She said, “I know the text, now we can do it.” I said, “No, but I want the rehearsal!” We were kind of like, “No, but it’s silly, if we can do it, why would we….” I was trying to stand in the middle, like in theater, when you are making the first approach to the text and actors are starting to read mechanically. And then they start to make experiences of doing this or that or trying, and they are still trying. For some moments, they have it, and then they don’t have it, and then they have it (laughter). I like that.
Also the cinema, what’s happening with cinema today. With the digital thing, we are in a new realm of making films, and sometimes it’s between one thing and the other. There was a huge jump. I think when we weren’t classifying films, when we started to talk about documentary films, fiction films, there are genres, which is another thing. “Gay films,” why? Now it’s “women [films]”… okay (laughter). I can’t stand this. When [festivals] invite me because it’s women this, women that, I think it’s the wrong way of solving that. If there is a solution, it has to come from below and not from dictated rules. If you talk about equality of gender, it’s not because you make it like a rule. It shouldn’t be, “Let’s try to do this.” No. The other way, you do it from below, you start winning the same salaries, having the same respect in society, having the same duties, having the same obligations. When there is a label for me, it’s already… I’m sorry, I’m going on…
I think it’s good that you’re talking about this because in your films you depict what it’s like to be a woman in society. You have so many period pieces, where it’s clear that the struggles and the horrors that women have faced are still relevant to audiences today.
For years it was like this, and it still is a little bit. We should not classify films in those artificial presumptions. Because if the film is good it’s good, if the film is bad it’s bad. But if the film is dealing with the subject of so and so, a beaten woman or the violence in a domestic home or refugees, because it’s [a hot topic], it seems it’s already a motive to be accepted to festivals. I think it should not be like that. Festivals sometimes dictate those kinds of fashions. It’s absurd because I’m for the changes, and corrections, and for justice…
It feels very reductive to classify these films as, for example, woman’s films, it can diminish them in some regard.
I want to propose a cycle in the Cinematheque, a huge cycle, called “Man’s Film,” “Man in Cinema” (laughter). It’s so paternalistic in a way, I feel a bit insulted. And when I was in Berlin, with A Woman’s Revenge (2012), everybody who was talking with me was saying, “This is a feminist film.” If you want, I don’t know. I never thought of it like that, but if someone thinks about it as a feminist film… This year in Berlin, I don’t know if you have noticed, but the slogan of the festival is “40% of the films are woman’s films.” I said, “Jesus Christ.” And I immediately said, “Don’t tell me that’s why my film is here! I thought it was for the film.” I said, “Okay, but are the films good? Are they good?”
This is Berlin that dictates this. They make art exhibitions because it’s women painting. I think it’s very necessary that we talk about all these women that were silenced—writers, poets from everywhere that now have finally appeared—yes, yes. But you don’t have to use the slogan. Just do it. Show the paintings. Show the films. Bring them to light.
I really enjoy hearing you talk passionately about all this. With Splendor in the Grass, with the music you listened to as a child, I get a sense that you need to go deep with these things, which I really appreciate. I wish I was like that.
We all want to be something else.
Do you feel like you’re an obsessive or passionate person when it comes to the romantic relationships in your life?
Yes. I get tired of myself, of dealing with myself. I’m completely devoted to what is happening to me. Sometimes it’s difficult to deal with because I’m obsessive. Living it over and over and over. And cinema has that impact on me. All the life around me is connected to that. When you are doing something, things are centered there. That’s how it happens. I believe my intuition opens. I don’t know if it’s intuition, because intuition is a very animal thing. It’s a kind of mix of intuition and faith, if there is a word. Belief. Something that whispers to me, “go… go….” What happens is you get in this open field. Things get another shine, light, sound. And so accidentally, things that are happening in life very easily go into film. To give you a precise example, there was another moment where I was stuck editing. I stopped and I had a message on Facebook. I went to see what it was. I saw someone had posted Danse Bacchanale, the Hoffman, and I listened to it. Immediately I didn’t even think about it, it clicked into the film. I reopened the project, and I brought in the music, and then it never got out of there. It was in the beginning of the editing, maybe three months in. I was sure, I don’t know why. Maybe I’m trying to catch something. Now while I’m talking to you, I live a little bit because I’m very silent, I don’t talk to anyone. So I get very talkative. I hope that I will be alive, soon, somehow, that maybe I can make a film. Because this period before festivals, they break me. I feel completely like a rat in a cage. “Ta ta ta ta ta ta ta,” I do nothing useful. I have lots of things to do, and I’m waiting. Because there will be a room full of people seeing Trio. And what will happen? I don’t know.
How important is it for you as a filmmaker that the intent that you have in your films comes across to the audience?
Absolutely. I mean, it’s all a question of love. Love for life, love for love. That happens when I’m there. I hope a little bit gets to people. And love brings all the rest with it—it brings hate, rage, vanity. But it also makes you feel lost. It’s very curious. It makes you feel lost, like in films, making a film. I always feel a little bit lost. But I’m convinced that I have this thing that says “go, go, go.”
What I really liked about Trio is that we know that this is a production—we see the cameraman filming the actors. And throughout this, there is this notion of love, of something you have to work at. You don’t know what it’s actually going to be like, but you need to have this mix of faith and intuition to keep going. I think that’s sort of captured in your film, just through the formal conceits and with the different decisions you’ve made.
In this peculiar film, I think love was there. It was a very special moment, the shooting. I was very conscious that I was risking too much, but I was not scared to risk it. It was full, what we made. But okay, we can make some foolish things sometimes (laughter). I didn’t worry about paying back money because there was no money. We were all there because we wanted to be there. That’s in the film, I think, I hope. In this strange building—I don’t even call it a house—sometimes alone at night, you had the feeling this was a huge seashell, or maybe a musical instrument. The silence was important. We were in a bubble and we were in confinement, the black. The world was in this moment of quietness. So we could listen to the air, and suddenly I realized the wind was becoming like a character in the film.
How did you find the location?
This film started by asking first if the actors would come, then [cinematographer] Jorge Quintela for the image, and then I needed a place. I thought of calling Alexandre Alves Costa, who had played the role of the Bishop of Trent in The Portuguese Woman, to ask him if he knew someone who has a house we could film in in the North, because he’s from the North. He said, “I have a beach house if you want to come and see.” And when I got there, I didn’t need to see anything else. That was the most unexpected one. So all of a sudden, the Rohmer play is on a boulevard in Paris, and I’m somewhere in a house. All these kinds of things that you call luck, it’s luck. All these kinds of things: the borrowed materials, the team, even Gonzalo García Pelayo helped with the production. Everything was helping to make it possible.
You’ve been making films for a long time. How do you feel like you’ve grown after having made all these films? What have they taught you?
I don’t know if they have taught me something. They help me. They make me live. It’s my destiny, and my destiny is not a man (laughter). I have a cat, and he’s an observer. But the dialogue is important and maybe the films’ dialogue are with me too. When I’m working I’m digging in, I read, I do things. It motivates me to do things that I like to do, and normally when there is not this need to build something, this possibility, things get more distant. Everything in your life—cooking, going out, reading, going to the cinema—when you know you are going to do it, it changes you and your experience of life.
But it doesn’t change us so much, does it? I am still very close to the little girl I was when I was eight years old. I am the kind of person who believes it’s more important to act, to do, than to think. Thinking comes after. Now I’m going to think about all the silly things I said here (laughter). Making cinema doesn’t change my life much, but the films I like, yes, they’ve influenced me a lot.
There’s one question I always ask every single person I interview. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
My nose (laughter). And I try to do the best I can in anything. Sometimes I don’t.
Where do you feel like you didn’t try your best?
I’ll tell you a very depressing situation. I was going to bring this film to [International Film Festival Rotterdam]. I like the people there very much. I like Gerwin Tamsma, and Olaf Möller, and everything was settled. And at the last minute, Berlin comes. I said “No, no, no, I am already committed to Rotterdam, I’m sorry, I’m not going to Berlin.” And from one day to the other, I changed my mind. I didn’t completely change my mind, but I made another decision, that is probably a little bit against what my inner justice was telling me to do.
I don’t like the power of festivals over films. I think it’s not fair game to come in at the last minute and steal films from Rotterdam to Berlin. Festivals are responsible for cinema, they dictate a little bit. Is that most important for me? No. I kind of abdicated my inner conviction. Everybody was explaining to me that it is better for the film to go to Berlin. I don’t know if it is. Let’s hope so. But it’s not about me and my friends, it’s about the film. So I had to take the place of the producer and act like one. I’m happy to go to Berlin, but I’m a little bit heartbroken for what happened because I know I broke their hearts. The cinema has these terrible moments where you have to go against your sentiments in order to protect the film.
Rita Azevedo Gomes’ films will be screened at the Harvard Film Archive throughout September and October. More information can be found here.
Thank you for reading the thirty-third issue of Film Show. Bring back the happy times.
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