“It was a low, late afternoon light … that only spoke of distant things.” And so it is that a film seems to perfectly encapsulate itself in the delivery of a single line of dialogue. Those words are spoken by the protagonist of Vítor Gonçalves’ The Invisible Life (2013) in a typical moment of reflective voiceover as he traverses a dimly lit hallway. This is a film that clearly has ambition to expound poetically about existential malaise and deep-seated loneliness; but it’s all fustian, amounting to little more than its muted brown hues, some strikingly elegant compositions and vague discussions of things too remote for them to ever drift into clear focus. Drifting is the apposite word.
This is not a film that is driven by any narrative or thematic concerns, but which instead moves at a gloomy glissade. The Invisible Life is Portuguese director Gonçalves’ first work in over 25 years and has much in common with A Girl in Summer (1986), the debut for which he is known. Nostalgia – in this case, unquantified – permeates the milieu of a man wandering through a mournful ennui. Hugo (Filipe Duarte) has just learned that his older colleague, Antonio (João Perry), is to go into hospital for surgery. This inspires an hour and a half of soul-searching somnambulism from Hugo punctuated by cuttings from Super8 home videos of Antonio’s – whose relationship to Hugo sorely lacks context – and stilted discussions between Hugo and his ex-girlfriend Andriana (Maria João Pinho).
Where the scenes between the former lovers could be used to glean insight, they arguably just obfuscate further, but not by reaching in and actively muddying the water – they are more like a languid hand idly disrupting the reflection on the water’s surface. Even these scenes between characters with intimate history remain at arm’s length, observing them in wide shots from across the room and scarcely venturing closer than a mid-shot let alone ever trying to get beneath their skin. Fortunately, Leonardo Simões’ photography remains pleasing to the eye and evocative of personal solitude despite feeling as though film might have served it better than digital does. That’s a minor quibble, though, and Simões’ framing proves a saving grace amidst periods of ponderous meditation that remain frustratingly inert, throughout. “You seem lonelier,” says Adriana in one of their meandering conversations that are inflected with an oddly theatrical and artificial tone. When Hugo asks her how she knows, she replies “I can feel it.” Sadly, that’s the kind of emotional response that those watching might be hoping The Invisible Life will illicit, but which it sadly lacks.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson