Veteran Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira transplants the 19th century into the present in THE VALLEY OF ABRAHAM, a loose rendition of Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary. This is Oliveira's 13th film, but the first to be distributed to a US audience. Born in 1908, Oliveira is
one of the few living directors whose career reaches back to the silent era--his first film, HARD LABOR ON THE RIVER DOURO (1931), was a silent documentary.
The narrative recounts the life of Ema, from young girlhood through adulthood to death. The defining experience of the young Ema (Cecil Sanz de Alba) is the intoxication experienced while standing on the veranda in her white dress and causing car crashes with her astounding beauty. On her way to
meet two veteran society women, she catches her reflection in a mirror and is mesmerized. The women size her up and determine that she will be dangerous. At age 14, she meets the respectable doctor Carlos de Paiva (Luis Miguel Cintra) while dining with her father, and is not impressed. Several
years later, she marries him and enters a life of bourgeois drawing rooms, convention, and the boredom of leisure.
It is in this social environment that the mature Ema (Leonor Silveira) begins to feed insatiably on the power her beauty exerts over men. She drifts from affair to affair and becomes increasingly estranged from her husband and two daughters. Her lovers range considerably in age and social status,
the only prerequisite being that they desire her. None of these relationships proves to be either fulfilling or even remotely interesting. Her independence and alienation trouble family members, who are ultimately helpless in the face of her desire. Through the years, she periodically returns to
the estate of her first lover despite his absence. It is here that her heavily foreshadowed death occurs when she falls through two weak boards on the pier.
Director Oliveira has said that this film is about how a woman's poetic outlook leads systematically to her ruin, but Ema's outlook is never firmly established as poetic, and bears closer resemblances to severe narcissism. Like her counterparts in the 19th century, she lives through men--their
status, their gaze, and their desires; her only resistance is domestic sexual transgression, sighs, aloofness, and silence. As a portrayal of a woman, the character is oddly displaced in the 20th century and even inappropriate, and the film never clearly establishes a reason for this gesture.
In the tradition of the 19th-century novel, the film is narrated by an unnamed male, and like Madame Bovary, it offers a distinctly male and modernist interpretation of women. If there is a poetic vision represented in the film, it is to be found here, in the romanticism which extols the
fascination, mystery, and unbearable beauty of a woman--a description that never quite seems to fit the Ema presented. When one of the men in the film compares Ema to Flaubert's character, she disagrees, but unfortunately this is not pursued.
At over three hours in length, the film lingers with painstaking detail on a social class characterized by boredom and pretension. A great deal of screen time is devoted to the false intellectualism and forced mannerisms of dinner party conversations, as Ema listens intently with studied grace,
self-consciousness, and feminine poise. The one moment of relief is offered when husband Carlos loses his composure and yanks a purring cat from the lap of his sensual wife and throws it violently at the camera, momentarily exposing the stifled anger and patronizing misogyny lurking behind the
pedestal. (Sexual situations.)
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