Friday, February 3, 2012


The Brazilian writer and poet Mario Peixoto directed his only film, Limite, when he was very young, and he never made another film. Limite thus remains as a romantic one-off artifact, an often forgotten and neglected avant-garde work. The film has a simple and iconic scenario, in which two women (Olga Breno and Tatiana Ray) and a man (Raul Schnoor) drift on a boat, their clothes worn and torn, their food supply nearly exhausted, their expressions downtrodden and miserable. As they sit in the boat, aimlessly floating on the tranquil water, they remember their pasts and tell their stories to one another. One of the women is an escapee from prison, and the man was involved in a tragic love triangle that ended with the loss of his lover, but their stories aren't the real focus of the film. The flashbacks are elliptical and abstracted, with very little true narrative content. The only intertitles appear, jarringly, in a brief stretch late in the film, during a conversation between the man and a rival suitor (Brutus Pedreira), both of them mourning their lost love. During this conversation, the film unexpectedly veers into the territory of the traditional silent melodrama, with Peixoto filming the charged glances that pass between the men while the titles relate the few lines of tense, angry dialogue that constitute almost the entirety of the film's verbal content, though there is also some onscreen text from a newspaper that relates the story of the woman's jailbreak.

These snippets of text are Peixoto's only concessions to narrative momentum. The rest of the film teeters on the edge of abstraction, and the narratives, such as they are, are vague and simple. Peixoto seems less concerned with conveying tangible details or telling particular stories so much as exploring iconic situations. He's interested in emotional content in its raw form, so the stories related through the flashbacks sketch out only the outlines of these characters' lives, emphasizing the pain and anguish they feel rather than the particular events that brought them to this state. Peixoto relies on the viewer to connect the dots, to be swept up in the emotional poetry of these often-empty natural landscapes, melancholy small town streets, overcast skies and ocean waves.

Unfortunately, it can be a challenge to do the work required by Peixoto. The film often feels as empty and uneventful as its landscapes. The film is relentlessly slow-moving, and often dull, especially in the first half when Peixoto holds many seemingly endless long shots of people simply walking, shot from multiple angles and sustained for several minutes at a time. The abstracted narratives and stark, patiently paced imagery can be trying, as there is often very little context for any given shot, and thus very little cause for the emotional investment that Peixoto demands. He's reaching for visual poetry rather than narrative, but too often I just didn't feel the poetry of his images, I couldn't access the emotions he's expressing. The imagery is generally too plain, too static and repetitive, to hold up the film in the absence of any other content.

Which is not to say that the film is entirely disappointing. Its best sequences are poetic and moving in mysterious ways that are difficult to articulate, and for every aimless shot of someone walking along a country road, there's an image of startling emotional immediacy. At one point, one of the women, upset about something, goes out to a cliff overlooking the sea and the curving shore below. The camera, looking over her shoulder, begins to sway and shake in sympathy with her mental turmoil, turning in graceful arcs from the shore out into the water, and then beginning to spin rapidly, the whole scene turning upside-down and tracing 360-degree circles. This disorientation perfectly reflects the mental state of the woman, who is wracked by a mysterious despair that drove her to this desolate outcrop.

In another sequence, the man recalls his love affair in a methodical progression of shots, most memorably a closeup of hands clasped together as he walks along a jetty with a woman, surrounded on both sides by water. The man and woman go bathing together in a lake, and afterwards he carries her out of the water like a groom carrying his bride across the threshold — is this a romantic image, or did she die? it's not quite clear — and then Peixoto inserts a montage of natural images. The whole sequence is then repeated with the man and the woman fully removed: their footprints are visible in the sand on the jetty, and then Peixoto shoots the rest of their walk with the figures absent, ending with a shot of the footprints being washed away by the waves washing up on the shore. It's a beautiful and simply powerful evocation of lost love, an affair ending, all traces of its romance being erased as it fades into memory. At moments like this, Peixoto's imagery is direct and evocative, economically stating a strong and familiar emotion with a few elegantly montaged images.

At other times, Peixoto's less direct visual poetry can be equally affecting, as when the film climaxes with a few minutes of waves crashing against rocks, frenetically collaged together with rapid editing far more jagged and fast-paced than anything else in the film. There's a literal dimension to this sequence, as a representation of the stormy seas that ultimately wreck the boat at the end of the film, but more importantly it's an entirely abstract emotional climax, a peak of frenzied feelings and desperation, the turmoil of the water standing in for the turmoil in the minds of the protagonists. The film has some excellent sequences like this (a meta scene in which a laughing audience watches a silent movie is another) but they're spaced out by long dead stretches, patience-trying sustained shots and slack pacing. Limite is not quite the lost classic of avant-garde cinema that it's often held up as, but it's definitely an interesting experiment, and in its best moments it achieves a stark emotional purity and simplicity that is very appealing indeed.


Lutz Eitel said...

Somewhere early in the film the guy sits in the boat behind a shock of dishevelled hair that makes him look almost like a Sunrise quote, and that made me wonder if high end production wouldn't have helped. If the camera didn't wobble so much and there were a true calmness to the stills (also a better state of preservation of course), a deeper focus / or deeper out of focus. As it is, the surface sort of rejects contemplation. Let's do a shot for shot Hollywood remake and watch what happens ...

Ed Howard said...

You may be right there. I had a hard time pinning down why this didn't quite work for me, because I generally do like slow, contemplative, abstract cinema. It might just be that the images here are often too plain, too rough, to really convey the poetry that Peixoto is trying to get across.

DavidEhrenstein said...

One of the most fascinating of all one-offs.

Ed Howard said...

Whatever my problems with it, it certainly is fascinating.