The Envelope and the Message, by Scott Nye
For all its creepy implications, the story of a man obsessed with a dead woman is not terribly unfamiliar. One need only look to one of the greatest films ever made – Vertigo – for one of the definitive explorations of this, and Otto Preminger explored it more superficially in Laura. Unfortunately, it’s not simply a matter of comparison that leads me to believe The Strange Case of Angelica hardly measures up, as it too often fails to even stand on its own.
The film’s most-mentioned attribute is its director, Manoel de Oliveira, who at 102 years old was actually making films in the time of Hitchcock and Preminger. Oliveira brings what might be called an old man’s attitude to his film, a sort of undying fascination with life in its various forms – laborers preparing soil, a cat gazing at a canary, the way the light changes in a room with a new bulb. And it’s not a slight to the rest of the film when I say these are its most magical elements. They really are quite delightful. But it may speak to how little magic its fantastical moments contain.
The story revolves around Isaac (Ricardo Trepa), a photographer who is called out to a wealthy estate to photograph Angelica, a young woman who has recently died. At one point, when looking through his viewfinder, she opens her eyes and smiles at him. He is naturally shocked, especially when it becomes immediately clear that nobody else saw this happen. In the days and weeks following, he becomes increasingly obsessed with what he saw, and more specifically, who.
There are a lot of topics worth exploring within this framework, beginning with the state of one’s spirit after death and ending somewhere around the way we attach meaning to events we can’t explain and characteristics to people we hardly know. It’s easy to believe a woman could save us from ourselves if we have no earthly clue what the reality of that woman is, and Oliveira is as willing to indulge in the fantasy as Isaac is. For all the discussion of how Isaac has completely lost touch with reality and suggestion of potential connection to a living, breathing person, none of his interactions with the perceived spirit of Angelica are treated with anything less than transformative reverence.
If you start to watch many foreign films, you’ll start to wonder if you have the capacity for calling out a bad performance. After all, you don’t understand the language, so how suited are you to picking up the nuances of line readings or the emotions a single word can convey? I take no pleasure in saying that The Strange Case of Angelica effectively removes any doubt that I had this ability. The performances are flat and unmotivated; the dialogue isn’t helping them along at all, but the problem seems to stem more from a lack of direction. Oliveira’s eye for composition is the result of someone who has been working in cinema as long, and lately as vigorously, as he, but his work with actors is that of an amateur.
I’m not loving beating up on an old man, and part of me is sort of smitten with the film for even mentioning the themes it seeks to explore, but the film has none of the craft to satisfyingly express its concerns. Dwight Macdonald, a writer and film critic, once wrote, “An idea does not exist apart from the words that express it. Style is not an envelope enclosing a message; the envelope is the message.” Oliveira’s message is a well-intentioned one, but his words fail his ambition.