By Jaclyn Bruneau
Karim Aïnouz has created a decadently frustrating, and thus accurate, study of longing, which begins as what seems like a coming-of-age story about two sisters in 1950s Brazil. One evening, Guida (Julia Stockler) asks Euridice (Carol Duarte) to cover for her so that she can slip through the back door to meet a Greek sailor; tucked into a string of puerile pleading is an offer to forge their father’s signature so that Euridice, something of a piano prodigy, can apply to take a Royal Conservatory exam. Euridice is reluctant, though quickly comes to realize her sister, a black-haired beauty with mournful, even blacker, eyes, is going to leave regardless. “You look so beautiful in that dress,” Euridice says finally, before finding her way to her timeworn piano bench to mask the sound of the secret departure. Invoking a similarly distressing, although much more insidious, sisters-get-separated narrative as Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang, such shifts between cursive grace, fierce self-possession, and dutiful obligation characterize the trajectories of both women suppressed by the pre-second wave feminism state of things, though in staunchly different contexts determined almost entirely by their father.
The piano, as played by our title character, becomes the soundtrack for a much more protracted absence than Guida’s purported 1am return—but the persistence of the piano across the film’s 139-minute runtime is not merely a score, but also a hallway to Euridice’s interiority: a respite from her classically misogynist husband who is personally affronted by her relationship to it, a transgression against her father who disapproves of her ambition, and, perhaps most importantly, a site for her to grieve. The literary acumen that augments the piano in this way extends across a crushing series of undelivered letters written by both sisters, read out in voiceover throughout the film—a successful edging device for the omniscient viewer. Though the title would seem to suggest there’s a single face we’re following (which may have been true of Martha Batalha’s novel, which the screenplay was based on), it’s actually hard to say who the protagonist is, which deepens our commiseration by doubling it.