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With: Ricardo Trêpa, Catarina Wallenstein, Diogo Dória, Júlia Buisel, Leonor Silveira, Filipe Vargas, Miguel Seabra, Rogério Samora
Written by: Manoel de Oliveira, based on a short story by Eça de Queirós
Directed by: Manoel de Oliveira
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Portuguese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 64
Date: 18/03/2013

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl (2010)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Fan Club

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Currently active at age 101, the legendary Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (I'm Going Home, A Talking Picture) continues to deliver wonderfully thoughtful, reflective movies at the rate of one a year, even if their distribution in America remains spotty. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl is my ninth Oliveira, and it's perhaps the sleekest and simplest of all his films, which is not to say that it's a trifle. Even at a pleasant 64 minutes, it savors classical beauties, reaches tremendous depths and comes in with a satisfying bite.

This time Oliveira has chosen to pay tribute to the Portuguese author Eça de Queirós (1845-1900), who is perhaps best known for El crimen del padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro). Oliveira has taken a punchy little short story and framed it with two characters speaking on a train. Ricardo Trêpa -- Oliveira's grandson -- plays a distraught young man, Macário, who decides to unburden himself to the stranger sitting next to him. She's played by Leonor Silveira, Oliveira's favorite leading lady over the past two decades.

From there we flash back to the young man's tale. He works as an accountant for his uncle's fabric shop. While looking out the window, he spies a gorgeous blond girl (Catarina Wallenstein), a lock of rich golden hair falling over one eye, holding an ornate Chinese fan. He's instantly smitten, and manages to get an introduction to her. They wish to marry, but the uncle (Diogo Dória) forbids it. Macário quits and attempts to find work on his own, which leads to a series of fortunes and misfortunes. Oliveira manages these twists in the best cliffhanger tradition, cutting back to the train, with Macário warning his companion: "you'll never believe what happened next."

The film takes place in the present day, which we know because Macário's desk comes equipped with a computer and he speaks of money in terms of euros, but otherwise, the story has a timeless appeal. There are no cell phones or other electronic eyesores; the clothes and décor could come from any time period of the last century. Watching the story is like getting lost in time and realizing that this tale of love and obsession and deception is a universal human mating ritual. It has always occurred, is occurring now and always will occur.

Oliveira's camera setups are simple and mostly motionless, and his cutting is faultless. During a crucial confrontation, he watches two characters walk all the way down to the end of a city block, out of earshot, and only cuts to the close up after a moment of reflection and trepidation. Likewise, having recently completed his tribute to Luis Buñuel, Belle Toujours (2006), Oliveira still has a little Buñuel on the brain and adds in a few quasi-surrealistic touches, such as a poker chip falling to the floor and disappearing, or a mysterious man looking for his hat.

Overall, Oliveira's storytelling is old-fashioned, to be sure, but it also comes with a condensation of the wisdom of the ages; it's familiar and strange at the same time. It's the work of a master, but not inaccessible. On the contrary: it's purely enchanting. It plays June 24-27 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

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