Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012) is about the remembrance of desire. In a section titled ‘Paradise Lost,’ Aurora (Laura Soveral), a dying woman, asks her neighbour to find a man named Gian-Luca Ventura. They were lovers once, and in her final moments, she yearns for his company. We then venture into ‘Paradise’, a memory of Mozambique in the 1960s (narrated by Gian-Luca), where we learn of their illicit affair. This section is silent — sounds are evoked through music and the environment, and the only voice is that of Gian-Luca’s reflective and unreliable narration.
Remembrance is a tricky thing. By dwelling on something too long, you lose sense of what it was. Often times what we fight to remember most are sensations rather than incidents: the feeling of a kiss, anticipation for a meeting and the sense of being possessed. If we can’t put something into words, it can be as if it never happened. This feeling is emphasized with private or secret moments. If you can’t even dare to say them out loud, how could they ever be real?
The confines of early silent cinema limited sex to subtext. In spite of not being able to depict it, silent cinema was ideal for sex. It relied on faces rather than words, gestures rather than proclamations. A fleeting touch was amplified because it became central in communicating emotions and story. Some of cinema’s greatest depictions of sex come from the silent era, including the inspiration for Gomes’ Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931).
F.W. Murnau’s film is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in the South Pacific. Part documentary and part fiction, A Story of the South Seas draws on the exoticism of the location to draw up an impossible romance. Gomes’ twists this vision, loading Tabu with postcolonial thoughts. His romance is not innocent and idealized, but selfish and destructive. His white Portuguese “heroes” fall deeply in lust — but is it love? Their desire for each other is at the expense of those who surround them, the treatment of their love affair is ironic rather than romantic. This is especially apparent in the village sequence late in the film that compares the white fiction of Gian-Luca with the documentary reality. These two conflicting versions of truth is at the heart of the film.
If we return for a moment to “Paradise Lost,” we return to a dying moment and a dying wish. The memory of Mozambique and this affair lingers only because it was fleeting. The intensity of their sex brought them closer to living, an escape from the mundane. Is it really so different from Aurora’s passion for hunting? A false illusion that she has control over death? The strength of Tabu lies in how powerfully sex is captured, offering aural and visual textures that inspire sensorial memories. The black and white imagery of beautiful people making love behind layers of mosquito nets is a beautiful vision. The sex looks good, feels good, but it’s still just sex. But the nostalgia for this moment of time is unreal, rooted in a nostalgia for a broken system and a broken time.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.