Last month, MUBI introduced us to the distinctive cinema of the Portuguese writer-director Rita Azevedo Gomes via her most recent project, 2018's The Portuguese Woman. A selective retrospective now begins with A Woman's Revenge, Azevedo Gomes's adaptation of the Barbey d'Aurevilly short story from 2012. The filmmaker's big conceptual flourish has been to transfer the author's betrayals to an explicitly theatrical setting: we open in a dressing room, with a narrator who sets the scene, before striding out onto studio sets, where we find jaded lothario Roberto (Fernando Rodrigues) being tempted into a liaison assez dangereuse with an apparently free-spirited duchess (Rita Durão). This hook-up turns suddenly, unexpectedly sour. The ageing roadman is reminded - in no uncertain terms - that the two have an unhappy history; his tempestuous would-be conquest hisses, "You know who I am, but you don't know what I am." Here on out, A Woman's Revenge tightens into a terse two-hander - an Oleanna of its time - involving a man and a woman who, as framed, seem to stand for all men and women. Only in the final moments are the characters freed from the prisons they've made for themselves, allowing the camera to set foot outside; compared to The Portuguese Woman, which corralled dozens of people, animals and anything else passing into shot, this is a more controlled work. But what control.
In an era when most of our weekly releases are shot on cheap-ass digital that cuts budgets and corners but leaves the screen with ugly smears whenever a character makes the slightest movement, it's encouraging to encounter a cineaste who takes the majority of her visual cues from late-modern painting. In A Woman's Revenge, one spies the origins of that dazzling technique whereby Azevedo Gomes will leave a door or window open at the back or sides of the frame, so as to let some air into her otherwise closed sets and redouble the space she has to work with. Again, the effect strikes the eye as a minor miracle. Here is a film based on a novella, that is as composed as any Velázquez canvas, and that affects an air of theatricality, which nevertheless registers as intensely, immersively cinematic. The reason, I think, is that Azevedo Gomes, right from the off, was as interested in the frame as she was with its contents. A Woman's Revenge makes tremendous play with peepholes, curtains and mirrors; skilful lighting changes signify narrative timeshifts; and the Duchess's bedroom sports the most fiercely angry red walls since Bergman's Cries and Whispers. (They look as though she'd daubed them in menstrual blood, by way of a dirty protest against the men who've done her wrong.) Azevedo Gomes's is a two-dimensional cinema that pulls us in as the best 3D movies have; her casual mastery of screen space is, even at this relatively early stage in her filmography, thrilling to behold.
The films are perhaps a little more remote emotionally, although this one sneaks up on us and lingers, as was surely the author's intention. That there's more life in it than you might expect from a longish tale of woe is also down to the performers; it isn't all clever setdressing. That lingering quality emanates from Rodrigues, a cross between David Morrissey and an especially crumpled pair of trousers, who rattles nicely; his Roberto is a fellow discovering he has a few residual traces of conscience left after his years of carousing, and that they're bound up with his own rapidly encroaching mortality. After presenting as a temptress - she has a fun seduction scene, tantalisingly lifting her skirts to reveal... fully covered legs - Durão begins to bear out the hardness written into her name: there's a badly bruised woman beneath these tousled locks, Azevedo Gomes clocking that 19th century authors were writing trickier female roles than most contemporary screenwriters. Her heart full of hate, the Duchess often appears more spiteful than sympathetic, for all the suffering she's seen; she's like a badly wounded animal, lashing out at anyone who pays her the slightest attention. She's not quite as out-there as Asia Argento in Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, a period drama that grabbed the viewer by the collar in advance of either a sloppy kiss or a curt headbutt; this film's preferred method is to whisper something unnerving in our ear, before stepping back. Yet it's operating in not dissimilar territory: Azevedo Gomes is painting vivid pictures of the traumas that can follow from bad love.
A Woman's Revenge is now streaming via MUBI UK.