I walked into the screening of Tabu expecting to see one of my favourite films of the year. If you follow any pre-release chatter on blogs or Twitter, you’ll likely have heard of this mysterious Portuguese object – a work praised for its originality and eccentricity, by a new auteur Miguel Gomes worth our serious consideration. I was reminded of my similarly hushed anticipation for The Artist, another film I thought I’d cherish. Regrettably, similarities did not end there: my own sense of deflation watching the former mirrored my experience of the latter, as Gomes’s film faltered for the same reasons as did Hazanacicius’s.
Tabu succeeds The Artist in depicting a faraway and idealised past from the vantage point of a fault-strewn present and in a storytelling vernacular drawn from silent cinema. The Artist itself was knowing enough to chart the silent era’s demise silently. European colonialism in Tabu is also put forward with the restraint of a muffler: a dying woman’s bygone romance in an unnamed Portuguese colonial outpost (whose scenery, however, can easily be associated with Mozambique) proceeds like a silent Hollywood romance, with all the requisite outsized, melodramatic emotions and grand musical accompaniment. The two pictures float the canny observation, together with a finger-wagging reminder, of how our mental images of the past can create a kind of dust-speckled interior cinema, internally projected to smooth out the uncouth edges. the silent pastiche-leaning elements of both films blot out more urgent truths about early Hollywood and European colonialism in each case. However, Tabu perhaps goes further in fully warning against this dual association, with its contemporaneously-set opening segment portraying a Portugal struggling to exorcise its colonial ghosts, sketched at this earlier point with an uncomfortable, but arguably more necessary realism.
However, like some of The Artist’s most praiseworthy responses, the biggest admirers of Tabu draw attention to the film’s more aesthetically and sensually pleasing qualities, which won’t have the same effect on everyone’s filmic preferences. I watched the film carefully, soaking up every element of its bifurcated construction, and its mix of glossy 35mm and papery 16mm cinematography, but I couldn’t reconcile its novel structure and provocative propositions into anything that struck either my head or my heart.
An unflattering familiarity proves Tabu’s strongest downfall. The legacy of colonialism has been an extremely rewarding topic for much contemporary European cinema. My slightly underwhelmed reaction possibly derived from having recently taken in a repertory screening of Claire Denis’s masterpiece Beau Travail, a film also with some deep-seated DNA of pre-sound cinema, yet utilised in a format that suggests something blazingly new, rather than seeking only to evoke the past. Wrenching pain in Tabu comes more from the indignity of eventually thwarted love (although believe me, you’ll find some deeply felt varieties of that in Denis’s film too) than from the hypocrisy of colonial attitudes. Tabu is singularly nostalgic about this romance nestled in the African ‘Paradise’ (the subtitle for its respective segment in the film), which stands to blindside the haunting spectre of the territorial divide, providing plenty of hearty passion but little expansive insight.