TIFF 2022 | Will-o’-the-Wisp (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal/France) — Wavelengths 

By James Lattimer

Published in Cinema Scope #91 (Summer 2022)

João Pedro Rodrigues has always made shifting between disparate registers and genres appear like the most natural thing in the world, and his self-declared musical fantasy Will-o’-the-Wisp is another case in point. If the sort of musical numbers and transgressive flights of fancy already familiar from the rest of the veteran Portuguese director’s oeuvre are thus ready and accounted for, his slim yet surreptitiously substantial sixth feature adds some new genres to the mix to exhilarating effect. Apart from the science-fiction stylings of the film’s framing device, which exude a droll, lo-fi charm of their own, the true innovation here is comedy, which works like a charm, dovetailing with Rodrigues’ trademark eroticism to amusingly ribald effect while also giving structure to his free-floating approach to narrative. And, like in all the best comedies, the reason the punchlines land is because they actually mean something. 

Set in 2069, the prologue offers a taste of what’s to come. A little boy lets rip with a couple of irreverently juicy farts while playing with his toy fire engine next to the bed occupied by his elderly, terminally ill great uncle Alfredo (Joel Branco), a former king without means in a Portugal now apparently long since a republic (albeit not due to the 1910 revolution). The only visible evidence of the country’s former status and its accompanying worldview would appear to be the picture hanging behind the bed, Wedding Masquerade by José Conrado Roza, a racist, colonialist 1788 painting commissioned by the Portuguese imperial court that shows eight people of colour as obvious objects of curiosity. But these are not the only Black bodies to be seen, however, as the toy firefighters manning the fire engine just happen to be Black too, in another piece of judicious foreshadowing.

As the action jumps back to the present, the same painting now hangs in pride of place above the mantlepiece in the sumptuously panelled royal residence. Alfredo is now a callow, sensitive youth (Mauro Costa) studying the history of art, who is perhaps not as innocent as he might seem, given the hard-on he sports when admiring the magnificent arboreal specimens found in the royal forest, scene of the film’s first musical number. As these tumescent pines are threatened by climate crisis-induced wildfires, Alfredo decides to become a volunteer fireman to protect them, much to the chagrin of his self-absorbed, unworldly parents King Eduardo (Miguel Loureiro) and Teresa (Margarida Vila-Nova); at this point in time in this Portugal that never quite was, the monarchy is still alive and well. Alfredo’s naïvely idealistic decision is met with similar scorn by the commander of his fire station (Cláudia Jardim), to say nothing of its various buff firefighters, stars of an annual pin-up calendar. Afonso (André Cabral) would appear to be the toy firefighter made flesh, even if he’s also an erudite sociology student; when he’s assigned to break Alfredo in, their lingering handshake, shown first from one side and then the other for maximum romantic impact, is the first indication of the bond they will form. 

Rodrigues finds humour in almost every element of this setup, whether the parents’ ridiculous privilege, Alfredo’s impossible earnestness, or the firefighters’ outrageous sex appeal, with one-liners, sight gags, and lengthier comedic sequences coming thick and fast. For Teresa, a royal bitch can only ever be named Maria Pia, it’s only right to snuff out the candles to show solidarity with those fighting the wildfires, and Castilian or Republican are the snapped insults of choice, while Alfredo’s solemn, word-for-word delivery of one of Greta Thunberg’s speeches is first interrupted by the whines of a couple of restless Maria Pias before being completely ignored. When the firefighters find out that Alfredo is an art scholar, they put his knowledge of the canon to the test in a series of locker-room recreations of poses ranging from Caravaggio to Bacon, all jockstraps and dangling cocks, although Alfredo’s knowledge of art seems to start and end with Conrado Roza, just like the rest of his family.

The sense that a new laugh is always waiting around the corner provides the necessary forward motion to allow Rodrigues to indulge his more digressive and more opaque tendencies at will, in spite of the film’s limited running time, which barely exceeds an hour. A full five minutes are still happily given over to a lengthy sequence of the firefighters carrying out a training exercise, where the initial cheeky eroticism eventually gives way to rigorous, impassive process. The second training exercise, whereby Afonso saves Alfredo from a burning building that becomes progressively more eerie and abstract as it fills with smoke, exudes the same heightened, oddly ambivalent tone, as do the lingering shots of Afonso and Alfredo’s rippling reflections in water by night that accompany a post-coital crisis talk. Such sporadic drifts away from the plot’s already gently fantastical reality are perhaps just Rodrigues’ approximation of the musical genre, as the film otherwise only contains the opening number in the forest and an extended post-drill dance sequence, alongside the generous use of wryly chosen music employed throughout. In this context, the title makes perfect sense, as what else is a will-o’-the-wisp than a spirit of mysterious, mischievous distraction? 

There is also a nagging ambivalence to the film’s sense of humour, as there is hardly a gag that doesn’t also allude to real circumstances more agonizing than amusing. While Alfredo’s parents’ obliviousness to reality is pretty hilarious, it also encompasses the unrepentant racism required to keep giving such a work as Wedding Masquerade pride of place, not least in full knowledge of what it represents. When Alfredo channels Greta Thunberg, the camera pans across the faces depicted in the painting before cutting away to some of the other colonialist artefacts on display in the royal residence; Thunberg’s words are riffing on far more than just the packaging of contemporary environmental activism. “The eyes of future generations are upon you,” Alfredo says, and he’s also unconsciously alluding to his family’s unchanging gaze; if more than 200 years have thus brought no progress, the planet would appear to be doomed. And the raunchy parade of art-historical poses also doubles as a comment on the intractability of class, particularly in light of Alfredo’s ignorance of them: the intelligence of the “workers” and the ignorance of the elite still don’t prevent one from ruling the other.   

This ambivalence reaches a crescendo when Alfredo and Afonso’s attraction is consummated amid the ashes of yet another wildfire. The passion of their mutual masturbation session is spurred on by the wildly over-the-top racialized slurs they hurl at one another as they tug towards climax: “Spear in Africa,” “White Russian,” “Settler,” “Rebel,” “Imperialist,” “Cannibal.” The obviously plastic cocks they each jerk only adds to the sense of gleeful silliness, as does the jaunty soundtrack. If the resultant tone is clearly one of farcical fantasy, it’s a fantasy that comes with a purpose, with the cum that duly spurts representing the possibility of another sort of release: perhaps the way to force out ossified structures of looking is by speaking each of their ridiculous manifestations out loud. 

If this scene marks a climax in more ways than one, Rodrigues saves perhaps the biggest punchline for the very final scene, where the action has returned to 2069, and all assumptions are turned on their heads by the arrival of an unexpected funeral guest. Whether at the end of the film or the beginning, the world of this parallel future is never seen head on, but rather evoked by the sound of an unseen spaceship or the retro futuristic funeral garb. What precisely the eyes of future generations focus on thus also remains unseen, although there are allusions aplenty to fill in the gaps. For all the questions left open by the final turn of the screw, one thing seems clear: a science fiction born of transgressive fantasy is just utopia by another name.