(director/writer: Manoel de Oliveira; screenwriter: Agustina Bessa-Luis; cinematographer: Renato Berta; editor: Valerie Loiseleux; cast: Michel Piccoli (Michel), Irene Papas (Irene), Leonor Silveira (Leonor), Rogerio Samora (Rogerio); Runtime: 95; Gemini Films / Madragoa Filmes; 1996-Portugal / France)
“The film appeals to the intellect to answer its questions about love, but fails to be appealing emotionally.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira takes a sarcastic look at two couples who are international jet-setters, he does this while examining an obsessive flirtation between an aging Lothario and a beautiful, much younger, married woman.

On St. Miguel island of the Azores, the wealthy Rogério and Leonor celebrate their ten years of marriage with a garden party in their splendid villa. They invite a large group of people over, most of whom are strangers to Rogério invited by his wife. The hosts sit with Michel (Piccoli) and Irene (Papas). Michel’s a witty, impertinent seducer of women, who thrives on his wicked reputation, while she’s an aging Greek actress, once famous for playing Electra, who is now Michel’s lover.

An unlikely attraction occurs between the very tall and attractive twentysomething Leonor and the short, portly, middle-aged Michel, which prompts them to get away from the others and head for a view of the sea on the mountainous rocks that are out of sight from the party. Here, Michel tells her of the maddening love he has for her. She is enthralled by his love, but all we are able to determine is that they talk about it and don’t act on it. Meanwhile, at the party Irene and Rogério chatter away, confessing what love means to them, which all sounded rather superficial. When Michel returns with Leonor, the jealous husband tells Michel to leave his house just as a strong wind ends the outdoor party.

Five years later, upon Leonor’s insistence, they get together for a dinner in Rogério’s museum-like house. The couple are avid collectors who like to pretend they care about culture but really have these objects only to impress others. Bon mots easily fly off all their lips as they converse about the differences between men and women, what is happiness, and offer their opinion about anything under the sun. It is raining hard and Irene calls the rain insidious, as Michel openly says he loves Leonor and she tells him she thought about him every day for the last five years. They disappear from the room, leaving Rogério and Irene time to chat. Rogério expresses disillusionment with his wife for ridiculing him in this way; while, Irene says, “Only in despair do I find happiness.” She explains the absurdity of the world by saying, “The world belongs to lunatics like Hitler and Mussolini — they’re the ones who are most noticeable.”

There’s a surprise ending, which nicely resolves this little love conundrum. The clues to the outcome are hinted at from a quote Rogério made earlier on, when talking about his wife to Irene: “There’s virginity in the enigma of life.” The film was just too chatty and the characters always seemed to be symbols, too unapproachable to be considered as real people. But I’m a big fan of Michel Piccoli and Irene Papas, and I found their performances to be stimulating–which is reason enough to see this art house film.

REVIEWED ON 12/19/2000 GRADE: B-