By Katherine Connell
Chronicling the life of the legendary Rio de Janeiro drag performer, hustler, and street fighter, Madame Satã (2002) announced Karim Aïnouz as a filmmaker attuned to the conceptual richness and subversive potential found within liminal spaces: individuals who fluctuate between seemingly fixed identity categories, and whose fullness of life outside the social hierarchy threatens to destabilize it. Adapted from Martha Batalha’s 2016 novel, the Brazilian director’s latest (which won the Prix Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes) furthers this line of inquiry as it maps the forcibly diverged lives of Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler), two adult sisters in ’50s Rio. Though it is only one sibling who is invoked in the title, both Eurídice and Guida embody different refractions of invisibility: to be unseen and to disappear entirely, both of which are all too possible under the insidious eye of patriarchal authoritarianism.
Occurring outside of narrative time and space, the film’s opening sequence evokes the spiritual bond that tethers the separated sisters as it transforms the verdant, dripping jungle of Rio into an imagined, surreal plane that Eurídice and Guida wander through while calling out each other’s names; as Guida’s responses soften into silence and Eurídice’s calls become panicked, the foreshadowing sense of dread is atmospherically underscored by a sweeping grey fog that congeals into a chemical pink. In the story world proper, this symbolic separation is initiated when Guida fails to return to the family home one night, then later telegrams to say that she has eloped to Athens with her Greek boyfriend. Left behind, Eurídice—an aspiring pianist who had long dreamed of travelling to Europe herself to continue her studies—instead falls into a marriage with the macho Antenor (Gregório Duvivier), leaves her parents’ house, and, despite her attempts to avoid pregnancy, is soon saddled with a daughter. When Guida returns home unannounced, unmarried, and pregnant, the women’s conservative father, Manoel (António Fonseca), shames her, immediately excommunicates her from the family, and compounds his cruelty by lying that Eurídice is studying music in Vienna. With their mother sworn to secrecy by Manoel, Guida and Eurídice proceed to spend their entire lives apart whilst in the same city, convinced they’re separated by an ocean rather than a neighbourhood.
Given that the fallout from this deception sets in motion a decades-spanning series of episodes marked by high emotion and the pathos of agonizingly near-miss connections between the sisters, Aïnouz has not inaptly labelled Invisible Life as a melodrama. However, despite the story’s epic scope and multiple, intertwining subplots (including that comedy of errors that unspools from Eurídice hiring a private investigator, or the dynamics of Guida’s newfound family), the director proves himself less interested in narrative mechanics and causal logic than in the use of affect as an integral mode of perception, and its translation into expressionistic, emotionally charged, sometimes shocking images—a strategy he already indicates in the film’s figurative opening.
On the one hand, this leads Aïnouz to return to the aggressively corporeal manner of Madame Satã—a focus that, in this case, underscores the brute reality of a male power that is equal parts pathetic and cruel, and in both ways detrimental to women’s bodies and selves. Eurídice’s wedding is an alternately hilarious and horrible spectacle of viscera—she vomits, falls into a bathtub, and laughs at her new husband’s penis—that culminates with Antenor forcing her to have sex on a hard marble floor. Unsurprisingly, Antenor’s grabbiness and violence carries over into the couple’s married life: he gropes Eurídice while she’s studying piano and ignores her pleas to not ejaculate inside her, which sends her rushing to the bathroom to futilely attempt to wash out her vagina. Guida’s experiences are no less terribly vivid in their physical detail. After kicking her out of the family home, Manoel forcefully scales a fish, his long knife sending up a shower of jagged flakes. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart coarsens the images to draw out the bodily dynamics of Guida’s exile, as she undertakes communal living in a poor neighbourhood with an older sex worker, Filomena (Barbara Santos). The scene of Guida giving birth is an abject, painful experience of sweat, tears, and other bodily fluids bathed in harsh fluorescent light; afterwards, she bandages her formerly swollen belly and gives a hand job to a stranger at a night club.
Countering the intensity of the film’s somatic strain, however, is a more contemplative aspect that manifests itself most visibly in the film’s treatment of temporality: scenes occurring many years apart bleed into each other with an almost mesmeric seamlessness, our verbal and visual markers for the passing of time reduced to snippets of dialogue, the absence of older characters, or the ages of children. Further tempering the sometimes fierce physicality is the way that the film attaches itself to Guida’s subjectivity through her voiceover recitation of the yearning letters she sends to Eurídice via the family home, in the hope that their sympathetic mother will forward them to Vienna. Here, the immediacy of suffering gives way to the tenacious longing that creates imagined realms of possibility (“I haven’t lost hope that you’ll return to Brazil and that we’ll meet, by chance. On a weekday. Crowded, hot, noisy in the middle of the street…you a bit taller, and with music coming through your eyes”). As per the director’s own generic descriptor of his film, Guida’s florid, expressive ruminations crank the machinery of melodrama by building expectations of an eventual reunion of the sisters, and then emphatically (and affectingly) shutting them down. Invisible Life’s most taut scene occurs midway through the film, when Eurídice and Guida are almost brought together at a restaurant as their children unknowingly begin playing together near a fish tank; however, when Guida glimpses Manoel, she makes a swift exit before she can spot her sister.
Despite this scene’s literal rendering of how a punitive patriarchy controls the actions and constrains the desires of women, Aïnouz more often, and more truthfully, illustrates how it infuses itself into the banalities of everyday life by layering Guida’s epistolary narration over footage of Eurídice going about her day in the domestic sphere. In placing Guida’s voice in close proximity to Eurídice’s body, this formal manoeuvre conversely reinforces their separation.
If ideology thus makes its power invisible—spectral and diffuse, but always felt—Aïnouz attests that the same is true of the imagination, which remains a force of hope throughout the film. “When I play, I disappear,” Eurídice tells Antenor, and when she finally auditions for the Vienna conservatory we see where she disappears to: as soon as she begins to play, she imagines meeting Guida in a garden, where the two of them smile, embrace, and dance. For Guida, meanwhile, her one-sided fantasies of Eurídice’s life in Vienna become a coping mechanism for a break that cannot be resolved in her waking life.
The film’s ending makes a massive flash-forward to the present day, as the aged Eurídice—now embodied by none other than Fernanda Montenegro, the grande dame of Brazilian cinema herself—finds Guida’s letters locked away in her late husband’s safe when going through his belongings with her now-adult children. There’s no narrative explanation as to why Antenor now possesses these letters, but this is hardly the point, as the scene connects the film’s men as symbolic co-conspirators in overwriting the trajectory of Eurídice’s life and, in turn, to foreground the craterous emotional impact of this discovery. Eurídice immediately rushes to the return address written on the envelopes, where she mistakes Guida’s granddaughter (also played by Julia Stockler) for her lost, now long-deceased sister—a conclusion that, like the stark ending of Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007), crafts an imagined reunion that is simultaneously resonant and too neat in its symbolic and narrative closure. Then, in the final shot, comes a moment of piercing acuity: Eurídice reading Guida’s letters next to an empty chair, her sister’s simultaneous presence and absence evoked one final time. The imaginative plane opens up again, and both sisters—young again—stare at one another. This isn’t closure at all, but the image of its inversion: the portrait of a woman who must now reconceptualize her entire life, the insidious foreclosure of her autonomy by the men around her, and the haunting trauma of estrangement.