Monday 2 October 2017

Watching the wildlife: "The Ornithologist"

The Portuguese writer-director João Pedro Rodrigues has been a festival favourite since the turn of the millennium, although his films - wholly postmodern in their approach to narrative, gender, sexuality and identity; works in which all traditional bets are well and truly off - have so far been deemed too niche by distributors for the generally conservative tastes of British cinemagoers. You could see how Rodrigues's ever-shifting, thoroughly singular latest The Ornithologist might, with judicious trailering, be sold as an approachable fable or thrilling chase movie, and yet precisely nothing about it is guaranteed: frankly - and I mean this as a compliment - there's enough in these two hours to discombobulate just about everybody.

It starts straightforwardly, doing more or less what it says on the tin. Here is a study of a close-cropped, sturdy young twitcher - as played by the emergent French actor Paul Hamy, more Jason Statham than Bill Oddie - out in the wilderness with only a canoe and a campfire for company. After he's swept away by a sudden tidal surge, he finds himself at the mercy of a pair of Chinese tourists (Han Wen and Chan Suan), who've apparently strayed from the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. An opening quote from St. Anthony of Lisbon has already alerted us to the presence of signs and wonders in this world, and this early stretch seems to be setting us to contrast the girls' evident superstition with the protagonist's science, rationalism with religion. "We're good Christian girls!," the tourists giggle when the twitcher offers them his tent for the night, but the next morning he awakens trussed up in his tighty-whities - one of several images that evoke religious tableaux - and with his rescuers making plans to castrate him. Chris Packhams of this world beware: things are about to get really wild.

In one fell swoop, then, a hunter becomes prey, and a watcher transformed into a doer: having disentangled himself from the ropes, our boy is obliged to navigate back through the forest towards his parked car, trying to cope with the loss of his medication, and not to be too freaked out by the series of pagan rituals he encounters en route. Framed like this, it could sound as though Rodrigues has merely reversed the polarity of countless horror movies: this time, it's a bloke stumbling shirtless through the woods, no less vulnerable than the average final girl. Yet The Ornithologist is unmistakably an art movie, one that keeps steering the viewer away from the frantic towards the reflective, and into pockets of quiet fascination: Hamy's attempts to tie a knot on a riverbank, or to aid a bird with a broken wing. 

It helps that Rodrigues has elected to play out this particular battle royale on the grandest possible stage: a sunkissed expanse somewhere close to the Spanish border that nurtures its own diverse taxonomy (the commitment to nature is such that every species featured gets listed by its full Latin name in the end credits) while permitting more primal and disconcerting elements: the shadows on a cave wall, say, or the sight of a tent illuminated from within. Those Chinese pursuers prove to be no more than catalysts, allowing director, film and protagonist to veer off in new, strange directions: it looks as though the birdwatcher may be heading backwards in time the deeper he heads into the woods, but we barely have time to consider it, given that he's busy submitting to accidental golden showers and stripping off alongside a deaf shepherd (Xelo Cagiao) who goes under the name of Jesus.

Perversity is in the film's blood: Rodrigues is surely nudging Hamy's pilgrim - and those of us congregating in the dark - further and further away from the beaten path, and towards a contemplation and appreciation of the wilder life. When the birdwatcher passes into a clearing stuffed with rhinos and giraffes, we're being encouraged to go with the flow and accept that anything is possible in this universe - including the clever reverse that sees the birds watching over the birdwatcher. The Ornithologist is sometimes bottom, sometimes top; sometimes it's high-minded and religiose, sometimes - as when a platoon of topless horsewomen gallop into view - it's classy trash, and it's this ability to confound our expectations with each new scene that confirms this filmmaker as a notable talent. You could see the film playing just as well to action-adventure aficionados as it would to gay audiences - not that those two demographics are mutually exclusive - but it could equally introduce this director to anybody who just prefers their movies to be a little more open to interpretation. This is, in every sense, outward-bound filmmaking, and it covers a lot of territory.

The Ornithologist opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment