It begins with an image. Walking past an André Kertész photograph published in an issue of the weekly French magazine Vu, Mário Peixoto saw the picture of a women’s face, her head encircled by a pair of male hands, handcuffed and clenched in fists. It was an enigmatic impetus for the young Brazilian poet, and the result was Peixoto’s debut feature, his only completed film, Limite. The photo was inscrutable and transfixing; the scenario for the 1931 film born from this impression was, according to Fábio Andrade, “more a collection of visual reminders to the director than an actual script.” Peixoto had every intention of playing the lead role in his formulated feature, whatever its aesthetic constitution, but when he proposed the work to filmmaker Humberto Mauro and Adhemar Gonzaga, as Andrade points out, “both thought it was too personal to be directed by anyone other than him.” So that’s what he did, reluctantly, paying for the production with family funds and hosting a “small crew throughout the following year on the coast of Mangaratiba, a village about fifty miles away from Rio de Janeiro where his cousin owned a farm.”
It begins with a story. Inspired by the “exquisite corpse” party game — a surrealist concept where participants draw a portion of an illustration and pass it along until all involved have added their own contribution and the subsequent work is revealed as a composite, often absurd whole — Mysterious Object at Noon (2000) takes a simple narrative impulse and expands the breadth of its fundamental basis, evolving the entirety as it transpires from there. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul travelled across his native land, interviewing those he encountered and prompting them to pick up a story where a prior subject had left off. The continuing consequence of this densely layered documentary of sorts is a variable, embryonic yarn, a treatise on the process of narrative as well as an engaging national sketch.
Following a most appropriate opening title — “Once upon a time…” — testifying to the storybook nature of the film’s formation, Weerasethakul launches Mysterious Object at Noon (also his debut feature) with a traveling shot taken from the front seat of a truck as it winds its way through narrow streets. When it comes to a halt, a woman in the back emotionally recalls the time when she, as a teenager, was essentially sold off by her father. “Now, do you have any other stories to tell us?” asks an off-screen Weerasethakul, adding, “It can be real or fiction.” What she chooses to relay involves a wheelchair-bound boy and his teacher, Dogfahr. One day, Dogfahr, who is at various points played by various actresses, leaves the room and passes out, after which an object rolls to the floor, seeming to come from under her dress. Alongside glimpses of Dogfahr in her daily life — getting groceries, caring for her ailing life — what happens next in the story is recalled with unique variation by the film’s assorted applicants. With no evident resolution, the chronicle is spun by an elderly woman, some young men, a group of schoolchildren, a theatrical troupe (acting out the ongoing account in song and dance) and two girls, who use sign language. The elements of the tale likewise vary, making it so that another boy appears in the story, falling from the sky, emerging from the object or — according to one contributor — turning into the teacher when the student becomes saddened by her absence.
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Abstract and disjointed, the narrative of Mysterious Object at Noon is progressively piecemeal, and what occurs in Limite is even more inconclusive. Driven primarily by imagery, as its pictorial genesis suggests, Peixoto’s film is a mosaic of seemingly incongruous details, beginning with a body of water, glistening in the sunlight. The beauty of the sparkling current is countered by the lethargy of those adrift upon its surface, a depleted trio known only as Woman #1 (Olga Breno), Woman #2 (Tatiana Rey) and Man #1 (Raul Schnoor). They are unnervingly still, apparently short on food, their clothes are in tatters and one of the women lays prone on the boat’s wooden flooring. Glimpsed in intermittent flashback, little of what develops in terms of backstory is even remotely obvious, certainly not upon first viewing. It does seem, however, that Woman #1 has escaped from prison and worked as a seamstress, Woman #2 had been in a troubled marriage to a silent film pianist and Man #1, a widower, had been carrying on an affair with a married woman.
Quite rightly described as “one of a kind” by Martin Scorsese, Limite advances with what the venerable director terms a “dream logic,” a “succession of moods and states of being.” Certainly, the ambiguous narrative signposts noted above scarcely materialize as entirely substantive features, and their significance is left open to diverging analysis. Instead, Peixoto, who also served as Limite’s producer and editor, works with cinematographer Edgar Brasil to craft a sensational work of avant-garde expression derived almost solely from camera positioning, movement, montage and tone. Peixoto’s restless camera grasps for a stable point of focus. The vacillating vantage is obscured, twisting and turning, swiveling, gliding, positioned on its side, extremely low and soaring overhead like a bird in flight. The harsh photography encompasses scenic inserts and bewitching and bewildering snapshots; the image freezes, switches to the negative and is repeated in ecstatic bursts of visual power.
The resulting formal quality is almost musical in its sinuous variability, with vague, fitful close-ups, apparitions of past experiences with little to no context and a somber, melancholic ambiance. The atmosphere is disquieting and indefinable, with a transient hint of dreadful, looming danger; a graveyard confrontation between Man #1 and his lover’s husband (played by Peixoto) only adds to this haunting resonance. Meanwhile, a depicted screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (1917) reveals smiling spectator faces and provides some degree of levity. Peixoto even illuminates the romantic potential of a couple holding hands, walking along the beach and wading in the water. But these instances of illusory evocation are as abstruse as any other fleeting emotion. With very few intertitles throughout (scenes of verbal interaction are sparse anyway), Limite asserts its “poetic structure,” in the words of filmmaker Walter Salles; it is, he says, “non narrative,” eschewing linear signifiers.
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Compared to this capricious mélange of fantastic symbols, Mysterious Object at Noon is, at least on its surface, affirmed by a concrete, established reality, an urban milieu rendered in grainy, 16mm black and white. Mounting from Weerasethakul’s travels, from the landscape and those he met along the way, spontaneous collaborators inform this organic feature and its cultural consideration of ethnographic imagination and instinct. As something of a cinematic work in progress, then, Mysterious Object at Noon, according to Dennis Lim, “revels in the myriad ways a story can be transmitted.” The events of Mysterious Object at Noon are described at one point as a game, and Weerasethakul is even at one point told he should have had a script. Pulling back the curtain further on this deceptive dramatization, Weerasethakul occasionally pops in to give direction and is asked by one of the child actors if he’s finished shooting — the boy wants his Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even this scene, though, this apparent breaking down of the fourth way, was in fact staged.
Working for years on the film, alongside cinematographers Prasong Klimborron and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Weerasethakul said that while making Mysterious Object at Noon, he simply “shot this and that” and tried to “make sense of the memory.” The outcome is a “riddle,” per Weerasethakul, a haunting, mesmerizing, self-reflexive work teeming with the individual insights of its contributors and the peculiarly transformative vision of its gifted director. “Far from smoothing out the crazy-quilt chaos of a story with multiple authors,” Lim writes, “Apichatpong adds subtle derangements of his own, sustaining a willful confusion in the telling. The film often declines to signal whether we are in the nested drama or the framing documentary; in fact, with sound and dialogue from one plane repeatedly bleeding into the other, the border between the two remains conspicuously porous.” While it was a comparably minor release, Mysterious Object at Noon was just the beginning of Weerasethakul’s extraordinary international ascendency, leading to a career that has thus far shown incredible originality and an increasing allotment of acclaim and deserved notoriety.
By comparison, Limite was upon its release met with mixed reactions, limited availability and a subsequently mythic history. It was a singular work, literally for Peixoto and in terms of its inimitable aesthetic strategy, and its director rarely failed to promote and mystify his lone feature, mentioning shots, for example, that were never in the original scenario and, according to Andrade, were likely never filmed. With a resourceful legend thus “thickened by hearsay,” Andrade also points out that in 1965, Peixoto “publicized an article, allegedly written by [Sergei] Eisenstein, praising [Limite’s] ‘luminous pain, which unfolds as rhythm, coordinated to images of rare precision and ingenuity.’” When asked for the original article, Peixoto instead gave a translation in his own handwriting, “hiding the original source behind a cloud of contradictory information — at first, he said it had been published in Tatler, a British fashion magazine not known for articles on cinema; later, he said it was from an unidentified German magazine.” It was determined, however, that “the article could’ve been written only by Peixoto himself — probably as much an attempt to keep the mythology of the film alive as a gesture of poetic justice on the part of an artist who knew that reality had failed to welcome the grandeur of his own work.” When Peixoto passed away at the age of 83, in 1992, he left behind, notes Andrade, “a substantial body of literary work, unproduced screenplays and plays, and a stunning fragment of his second feature, Onde a terra acaba, never finished and mostly lost in a fire.” And yet, Limite, which Salles calls “a film of transcendent poetry and boundless imagination,” is somehow enough, its fusion of time and space a fluid and rebellious amalgamation of remarkable worth and infinite, indeed limitless, interpretation.
Watch Limite and Mysterious Object at Noon at the Criterion Channel.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.