A Butterfly Passes By...

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Conversation with Rita Azevedo Gomes about The Kegelstatt Trio (2022)

By Diego Cepeda and Christopher Small

The Kegelstatt Trio (O Trio em Mi Bémol, 2022)

Late at night, outside the house where a film is being shot, a dreamy film director, Jorge (played by the much-forgotten Spanish filmmaker Adolfo ‘Ado’ Arrieta), remarks to his assistant, Mariana (Olivia Cábez): ‘Snow is very important in this film!’. Later on, we never get to see it, but the evocation of his wish has already imprinted a particular climate on our imagination. The films of Rita Azevedo Gomes operate with this freedom; between what is said and what is shown, between text and image, a suggested world unexpectedly takes shape.  In her first film, The Sound of the Shaking Earth (O som da terra a tremer, 1990), we could already hear the phrase: ‘To get to the truth, you must compose. Artifice is obligatory’. Thus, her most recent film, The Kegelstatt Trio (O trio em mi bemol, 2022), presents a melodrama (in the strictest sense of the term) composed of the following elements: a camera (which captures rehearsals and scenes), a sound recorder (which brings out dialogue and music), a space (a house near the beach and its surroundings), the actors (frequent collaborators and friends, Pierre Léon and Rita Durão), their characters (a troubled couple of friends, that were once lovers, Paul and Adélia) and, finally, their words (from the only theatre play Éric Rohmer ever wrote, ‘Le Trio en mi bémol’, based on Mozart’s musical piece, known as ‘The Kegelstatt Trio’ in English).

Full of variations, the film expands on its emotional journey like a drifting ship, each time revealing its inner mysteries and fantasies. Christopher Small and I sat down over Zoom to discuss the Trio, which had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum last February, with Azevedo Gomes, who was at that moment in the hectic final months before her retirement as a programmer at Cinemateca Portuguesa. At the mention of Manoel de Oliveira in our discussion, she rushed with excitement to her kitchen. She returned with a photograph of her younger self looking on with extreme curiosity at the busy shooting of Oliveira’s Francisca (1981).

After forty years and twelve of her own films later, Rita speaks with the same youthful energy and creative wonder.

Diego Cepeda: There is an article by Jean-Claude Biette, ‘Griffith’s Butterfly’, about Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (Le rayon vert, 1986). He said that this was a film in which the passage of a butterfly through a shot belongs to the very nature of the shot and reinforces the impression of reality. And that other filmmakers would wait for  the butterfly to pass before letting the actors play on because they believe that the butterfly would distract the spectator from the dramatic action. While in Rohmer (among other filmmakers), everything requires that the shot be inhabited by the stuff of reality. The butterfly then can only pass among filmmakers where there is contemplation of the world, and I think I see that in this film.

Rita Azevedo Gomes: Yes, that’s something that happens only there, while you are filming. It is something I have never experienced anywhere else. Maybe an actor can experience it each night when they discover other emotions inside the role they are developing, but I’m not an actor. It’s a moment when you feel you are where you belong, in the place that fits you, because this butterfly was sent to me, like a sign of grace. Sometimes I think, ‘if I deserve this, it could be of some use to what I’m doing’. So the idea of Biette and the butterfly is very interesting, but what is difficult is that when the butterfly ‘happens’, you have to be able to catch it, like an insect, you have to pay attention. And then you have to ask yourself: ‘Does the film need the butterfly? Am I going after it?’

DC: How did this theatre play written by Rohmer land in your hands?

RA: Well, it was with me some years before making the film; I had the intention to make a radio drama. It would be played live in the theatre, and we would make the recording and the effects on the stage with public assistance. Once it became clear the radio drama would not be realised, I thought I would make a film from the script I had translated. I tried to submit it for several subventions, but it was always refused funding. I was not deeply invested in the project; I had not entirely immersed myself in it, so I found myself at a crossroads: if it were to go ahead, I would have to jump. Then suddenly, it was 2020, and we were all completely separated from the rest of the world. I felt a kind of duty to do something for myself. To make a film, obviously, it’s not like I was going to do gymnastics or yoga at home. So the Trio, with two characters, and thus two actors, was a realisable film. And it was a happy project, a sentimental comedy of a couple, with all Rohmer’s intrigues of love; it felt very fitting. During this time, the present wasn’t ever so immediate, but I was always in contact with the life we were living while making the film. And the moment of making a film is always exactly like this, very sacred, something that you keep forever. With all the films I made, I carry those moments with me… But during the periods that we were filming, we were completely confined and isolated in this small village.

DC: Where was the village?

RA: It’s in the north of Portugal, Minho, on the shore. It’s a village where families from the North go for their summer holidays. Everything then was closed, and we had just met there. We had no rehearsals and could not prepare production matters together because we had to do it all by phone. That was all the preparation we could do until the moment we set out in the car. We had no money, but there was a friend, Gonzalo García Pelayo, who lent me a bag with bitcoins – so it’s a ‘Bitcoin-film’ really. We went to have lunch, he gave me a bag, and when I opened the bag it was full of small bills, all in twenty and fifty euros – and that bag had the necessary for meals, sleeping, and travelling. Pierre Léon said: ‘Totally, yes’, and Rita Durão – with her children left behind and while she got Covid during filming, all these terrible things – she came. [Jorge] Quintela on the camera and Olivier [Blanc] on sound also came. So, I had the heart of the film, plus three students from the school, and that was it. And they lend us the cameras, all the materials, and the house.

Christopher Small: And Adolfo Arrieta – how did he come to be part of the film?

RA: Arrieta came exactly during the height of the Covid period. I was at home, confined like everybody else, and I started messaging Ado because we were already thinking about his upcoming cycle at the Cinemateca Portuguesa before everything closed. Nevertheless, we kept messaging a lot, and it was like a daily presence, the best company during the Covid months. I still have an endless amount of emails about everything: projects, his life, cats, everyday things, it’s incredible. I knew he was very unhappy, trapped in his small apartment in Madrid. He could not go out, only to buy a beer to come up and look at the ceiling. So I asked him if he would come. In the script, there was a role of a ‘Film Director’; the initial idea I had for it was a cliché: ‘a director who is lost during the shooting and doesn't know what to do’. But then, when thinking of Ado doing that character, it added another special dimension: ‘it’s Ado! I have it!’. The fun we had together was like seeing him reborn from the ashes; he went back to Madrid, bought a piano, and started playing again. He started painting, had an exhibition in Madrid, and is thinking about making a film with an iPhone… and he’s finally having his retrospective in Lisbon, which I think is fair. I'm very happy for him, and he was genius in the film.

DC: In a way, there is a possibility of a ‘conversation’, thanks to this film, between Éric Rohmer and Ado Arrieta. Historically, of course, one can say that a much broader audience knew who Rohmer was while he was making films, while Arrieta was on an ignored side of film history at the same time.

RA: I think that’s the tough part for Ado and most of the Ados in cinema. I’m a little bit an Ado myself. Now you are talking to me about this film, but I’ve been a bit out of the picture. That’s the way it goes, you have that hurt and pain, but at the same time, you are free, and so are your choices, and here it’s my choice. If I do something wrong, it’s my problem, but I have to try to do things differently and try different things.

DC: The idea for this character was in the original play, or was it something you added?

RA: No, no, the play is only the couple, that’s all, just Paul and Adélia. Even before the idea of Ado being the Director, I had already the idea of his dream with the pig and the green – there was something about this green, it’s a terrible colour, it’s poison, you know? It’s like copper; when it’s old, it gets green as poison. In Vertigo (1958), when Kim Novak comes out of the toilet and it’s all green – even green in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes. I had this green in my imagination. I wanted to make it there in the moment, not via After Effects, you know? Because I like to fabricate whatever is possible, it’s fun.

CS: It was interesting for me to realise, watching it again, that there are so many filmmakers in this film, not just literally Ado and Pierre Léon, but Rohmer also. I think in all your films, what you do is you slowly take something apart and then change this and change that, it’s almost like a set designer, you know, like Ozu putting a teapot here, and changing the picture here and so on, but in this case, these materials are almost something else, something cinematic, the ghost of other people’s films. Here there are these scenes where you see Ado almost dreaming things up, half asleep.

RA: You know, I don’t know all the films by Rohmer. For instance, maybe Ingmar Bergman would scare me very much, but I would like to work with Bergman; I don’t know if I would like to work with Rohmer, it’s not my blood. I like so much of what he does, and I think I try to understand him because he’s a very complicated man. But well, I would not marry a guy like him. If you listen to the dialogues in the Trio… it’s nonsense… it’s nonsense, in a positive way. ‘What does it mean? Why? What does she want? What does he want? What are they doing?’ But it is, at the same time, how we miserable humans live. We are impregnated with behaviour and gestures, and a tone of voice… We are formatted and shaped, and his dialogues are like lace; they are knitting and endless… I think that’s a particular perspective on humankind. It’s brilliant, and I don’t know if that was what he intended, but that’s what I see in his films. He brought the Trio to the stage, and he even filmed it. I think it might be on YouTube, but I didn’t want to see it. I read a book that Rohmer wrote about the depth of music, From Mozart to Beethoven: ‘Essay on the Concept of Depth in Music’, and that helped me to understand why he wrote the Trio – now I have to speculate a bit, which is more fun –  it’s the only play he wrote for the theatre, the only one, and I was asking myself ‘but why the hell does he write a play on a trio of Mozart?’. Then I understood that this Trio, as with its dialogues, changed the music. The three instruments have never been put together before, and it’s like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – so Rohmer writes about all this, and it’s a very nice book, and I discovered he was a musician as well, which was a pleasant surprise.

CS: I think I heard that when Rohmer’s mother died, she still didn’t know he was a filmmaker, and she died in the 1980s.

RA: Yes, Pierre Léon, who loves him most, as you know, and who knows Rohmer very well, told me that too. But it’s true. So, as I was saying, I would not like to be on a set or work with him; I’d like to work with Bergman, for instance, or Nick Ray, or … that’s how I came to Oliveira, I wanted to see, and to discover how he makes his films, I wanted to be present.

DC: Perhaps, now that you bring Manoel de Oliveira, or maybe you don’t want to open that door—

RA: No, it’s always a wonderful door, Oliveira.

CS: Was it you Rita who told me this anecdote about [João César] Monteiro and Oliveira, that Monteiro wrote maybe about Francisca (1981) or Past and Present (O Passado e o Presente, 1972)? When it came out, he wrote something like ‘this filmmaker is too big for Portugal’.

RA: He said even more – he said: ‘Senhor!’ He treated him like a sir, ‘Mr. Oliveira’.

CS: He said something like: ‘Oliveira is too big for Portugal; we either need to shrink the borders of the country or trim the Oliveira!’

RA: ‘Mr. Oliveira’ – because he was angry with Oliveira at that period, but he had to confess and admit that he was too big for the country.

DC: That reminds me that Oliveira used to say that cinema, as opposed to theatre, had the power of ‘fixing’ things and moments in time, ‘fixing’ the text or a gesture… fixing as the process of registering. That idea reveals something phantasmagorical to everything that cinema is. Thinking about this, while I was watching the Trio, there are all these scenes that the spectator watches with very close attention because, for me, a lot of the time, we have the point of view of a director watching a scene developing – and there’s this ambiguity because we often don’t know if it’s a rehearsal or the ‘scene’ in itself. One watches the whole film developing with this strange tension, the tension of being aware of the rhythm of the actors, of their voices, each word of each line, their movements and also the camera, which sometimes moves incredibly slowly.

RA: I couldn’t possibly say that this film made more ‘real’ for me the fact that I ‘don’t know where I am’… We are in a pit… What does this mean? For me, there is a kind of space. I don’t know what to call it; a ‘gap’ between what we call ‘reality’ and what we call the ‘representation of reality’. There is a gap there. And that’s why it’s always fascinating for me to see the growth of the actor into the character. There is a growing and then there is a passage, and then they become someone named Adélia, Paul – and between these two things it’s not a transformation, it’s a change, because sometimes they become so real, that cinema helps to make-believe, so we don’t think of the actors, we think of the characters. And I would go further, so please don’t laugh at me – I would say that cinema is the representation of this gap between reality and its representation, ‘art’. Cinema is there, and it’s the perfect place for ghosts… and it’s the perfect place for doing silly things, and the perfect place to play… because when you play, you touch upon yourself. I wouldn’t say you ‘understand’ yourself because I don’t know if I understand myself, and I don’t care, I would not worry; seventy years of that is enough, I do not worry about who I am anymore. And in this film, it was obvious, and I wanted that. Sometimes we see the actor, and sometimes it’s already the character, and then they are not very well prepared, so they go into these passages all the time, and I liked that.

CS: As I just alluded to, your movies for me are always this act of collage, in every way, collage at the moment but also collage afterwards. This film has the most beautiful end-credits sequence that I have seen in a long time. It’s like you’re repurposing these images from the set, or you’re finding something else to do with them, and that also makes me think about how you edit. So I guess I’m asking: how do you edit a film like this? Did you edit right afterwards?

RA: Not exactly. There were a few weeks in between the shoot and the edit because I didn’t have the computer, but then I started – and I did it all alone because of the pandemic. Nobody could visit me or help me. Technically, it was very tiring; I’m still a bit disturbed, it was very hard work for me, to use the computer for that. I had never used Premiere before, so I had to learn, call everyone and ask for things and help… But I had to go on my own, and I would not wait. But you know, everything is – that’s probably why now I like to edit, I think I move things differently from the others, and the final proof was Correspondances (Correspondências, 2016). There is also the previous editing. I knew when I made this kind of silent dream sequence with the shot / counter-shot between Rita Durão and Pierre Léon, Adélia and Paul, which I call the 8th tableau – because Rohmer’s play has seven, but the Trio has eight – that it would be near the end. That’s the crystal thing between both of them, silence and all the other things with no words, so this was something that came during the shooting. I hadn’t thought of it – I had the dream, and the pig, and the beach, but those things come, and you know where it goes in the film somehow, so it’s better that you are in the editing room from the very first day, even when they are synchronising the material, I’m already there, watching. Once Bernard Eisenschitz came here and wanted to see the film, so I bit my nails and showed it to him, and I was smoking on the balcony – and it was important also, because you are not certain, especially when you are too much involved with the situation, you are still breathing at the same rhythm, you know? And the film has to find its own rhythm. It’s something very… I’m not sure if I am very good there. The question of time and cinema is that – because of what you said before, cinema is like a fixed moment, but not only that – memory works like that also. When you remember a film, you are actually remembering a moment. The memory comes very quickly, like in dreams, but it makes a movement, a spin. There is one interesting thing to end the idea of what we were talking about on Rohmer. My supposition about this play of Rohmer is that precisely once I was editing and things were – I was not happy at all, everything was falling apart, went terrible, it happens, so then I said: ‘Maybe I should stop and do something else for tonight’. So I decided to listen to Mozart’s Trio, and when I put on the Trio that night – I’ve heard it many times before, and I was so in the story of Adélia and Paul, and suddenly I saw… It was obvious to me then: The clarinet is Adélia, the viola is Paul, and the piano of the Trio is Mozart. I saw this, and maybe this was what made Rohmer write the play because it’s two characters – if you listen and try to make the experience – you put the trio and listen to the dialogues with the movement of the words. The feelings and the meanings with the three instruments, it’s incredible. I said to Pierre Léon: ‘Listen, yesterday I made a big discovery!’ and he said: ‘Évidemment, it is like that!’.

DC: That is true also for the whole structure of the film. There is this line from Paul describing the piece, something like: ‘it’s almost like an improvisation, but it’s not’, and the film itself has this feeling of the same nature.

RA: There is a dissonance in the ‘Trio’ of Mozart. The clarinet flies away, then comes back, and flirts with the viola, then the viola replies: ‘bam bam ba ra ra’, and sometimes they are together, and sometimes they are hard, clashing and embracing at the same time. These variations fit the film well. And it’s also nice to take some liberties and do some foolish things.

DC: Some boleros from Bola de Nieve to Lucho Gatica are suggested by humming and singing. How did that come about?

RA: All the singing and all that came along, I asked them: ‘Do you know any boleros? Okay, so let’s do it!’ Ado was remembering; that’s why he also started putting his fingers on the piano. With ‘La Barcarolle’, Offenbach's piece on the scene at the beach, while they are preparing silly and nonsense things, came while I was editing; I heard it by accident, someone posted it or something, and I was totally immersed in the film and ‘pimpa!’ it just took place, became obvious for me, I don’t know why. Editing has a lot to do with music. I’m so sorry that I don’t play any instruments, and I can’t sing because I have this frog voice – maybe the most accomplished thing someone can do is to be a singer, you don’t need anyone, you work yourself, your instrument, your voice, perhaps acting… but singing is more delirious, it’s something that lifts you off the floor. It must be nice to be able to sing.

DC: The scene with the Eno song is pure magic, it is the most beautiful moment for me when Pierre Léon is playing that song on the piano, and suddenly, he lifts his hands into the air very slowly while the music is still going.

RA: It was very funny, he was listening to it through the iPhone, everybody was saying: ‘But he doesn’t move his feet, he’s not playing the piano, this is so badly made’. And suddenly he was suffering and saying: ‘No! This is terrible!’

DC: There is this quality of the film towards the music, and it is that the music in the film isn’t used as a dramatic effect but as an object in itself or as another character. When Pierre and Rita are near the piano and playing these songs, I thought about An Affair To Remember (Leo McCarey, 1957), where Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr’s characters meet and fall in love on a transatlantic cruise ship. On one occasion, they visit Nickie Ferrante’s (Grant) grandmother’s house on the Mediterranean coast. Behind a dusty piano, Grandma Janou plays a melody that will later be accompanied by the voice of Terry McKay (Kerr). Here, the whole film seems to stop, as if it was held under a spell. There is something particular, I can’t quite explain what it is, but I felt the same thing watching that scene in your film.

CS: In that film, there’s also a repetition later, when Grant returns and the grandmother has died, and he picks up her shawl, and you hear the music again as he casts his mind back, and of course, this is Hollywood, this is a thing that happens, but somehow here it’s not that, it’s almost like what Rita’s saying, this silliness and this play. It creates a third idea when he lifts the shawl, with that magical gesture – it is like something from the Trio.

RA: I’m glad you liked that scene because I know maybe some people won’t react the same way. I was so moved when I was filming that – I’d never be inhibited to put it in the film, even if it seems silly, crazy, or unnecessary – I mean, for me, I don’t like the word magic, but it was so unusual, so beautiful, I was totally emotional with that thing, you know, I could not – and everybody was saying ‘maybe it’s a bit long’, and they were maybe waiting to see if I cut. Still, I thought I could give it a little time anyway, it’s not too long. I have to see An Affair To Remember again.

DC: It’s like everything is talking through music, the actors, the characters, everyone is aligned through these songs. They are speaking another language, something else.

RA: And the wind as well, yes.