Tuesday 25 August 2020

On tour: "Technoboss"

Between its ongoing season of New Brazilian Cinema and the recent retrospective of Rita Azevedo Gomes, MUBI UK has done more to expose us to the Portuguese language than any lockdown Duolingo course. The USP of João Nicolau's Technoboss, streaming as part of the platform's Locarno discoveries strand, is that a higher than average percentage of its Portuguese happens to be sung. It opens with scenes from the humdrum life of one Luis Rovisco (Miguel Lobo Antunes), grey-haired head salesman for a medium-small security firm, first discovered kicking pebbles at the side of the road while waiting for a breakdown truck to rescue his stalled company car. Yet it's not long before he's motoring again, trilling along to a melancholy melody as he drives on through the night; soon, we'll hear him singing a duet with the grandson he picks up from school, and after an especially tough day on the road (and a slug or two of Jack Daniels), Luis Rovisco can be seen jamming along with the house band in the bar of his hotel. Yes, that's right: Nicolau has constructed a musical around the type of lowly, unglamorous figure who - even after the vast global success of La La Land a few years back - wouldn't normally be anywhere close to the musical's radar.

Arguably, there's precedent here in Office, Johnnie To's corporate song-and-dance extravaganza of 2015. That project was geared towards spectacle: its boardroom musical numbers were extensions of the setpieces in its director's action-thrillers. Technoboss, by contrast, is attuned not towards multiple bodies in motion, but solitude, drizzly roads, empty hotel lobbies; Luis's only company, when he returns home, is a cat and a well-thumbed Maigret, and those consolations are reduced by 50% after the cat conks out on the living-room carpet around the film's midpoint. It is, then, a very Portuguese musical, a mournful basenote of saudade grounding the film against its inbuilt quirk. The title number may be a jaunty splash of electro (taking its cue from Luis's ringtone), but the keynote song is the lament Luis addresses to a tollbooth girl who's been replaced by a machine. Luis is characterised by a sadness connected to the fact he too is nearing the end of his working life, having tired his body out logging long hours in a profession that has made only minimal difference to those around him. For all his travelling, Luis strikes the eye as altogether limited in his movement, a feeling compounded by Nicolau's use of sets to stand for stretches of life on the road, the barriers that recur in the mise-en-scène, and an early setpiece that sees Luis locking himself in a hotel corridor. British viewers can only be reminded of Alan Partridge's travails in the Linton Travel Tavern, but sporadic bouts of narration from an unseen source add an extra, unsettling layer to Luis's plight: it's as though he's being pinned or nailed down, becoming the subject of an official report.

Nicolau, a savvy, cheery soul on this evidence, knows that he can offset that effect with the enduring pleasures of melody and performance. As musicals go, Technoboss remains resolutely lo-fi: it's not the work of a writer-director who has access to a symphony orchestra and slick producers, rather one with a few friends who play guitar, drums and synths at the weekend. Yet the songs rescue both protagonist and film from the officespeak that Nicolau and co-writer Mariana Ricardo fashion into an absurd, somewhat exasperating poetry, and the banality of their hero's daily interactions. (He has a way out that Partridge - perhaps thankfully - only fleetingly accessed, belting out "Goldfinger" while stomping along the hard shoulder separating hotel from service-station sanctuary.) Much of the film's oddball charm derives from the delivery of those songs. Nicolau makes an object of very human fascination out of Lobo Antunes, with his deadpan expression and his tremulous voice escaping from a wonky, Jonathan King-like mouth, a weary warrior who comes newly alive whenever a band or backing track strikes up. But then that's music for you: Technoboss is nothing if not alert to the power the right chords have, when played in the right combination, to liberate us from our responsibilities, make us feel younger than we are, and restore a smile to even the most habitually downturned of faces. For three or four minutes at a time, Nicolau's film transforms a lowly drone into a bona fide rock star.

Technoboss is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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