The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão finds Karim Aïnouz, the Brazilian writer-director fêted on the festival circuit for his subversively queer romances, going epically long with an adaptation of a Martha Batalha novel; in doing so, he moves himself a little closer to the movie centreground. (The film was Brazil's official submission for the Academy Awards in 2020.) Told via a series of letters that never reach their intended recipient, this is a tale of two sisters raised within a reasonably well-to-do family in the Rio of the 1950s. Aïnouz's first triumph lies in casting personalities who contrast yet complement one another, and who so closely tessellate in the early scenes that it immediately feels like a tragedy when the fates conspire to rip them asunder. Our heroines are the tall, upright Eurídice (Carol Duarte), a gifted pianist with plans to study in Europe that require saving herself for marriage, and the shorter, darker, lustier Guida (Julia Stockler), who finds herself tarred with the brush of disgrace after she runs off with a Greek sailor and returns to the family home pregnant. It quickly becomes apparent that, although operating with a bigger budget and more heteronormative relationships than he has previously, Aïnouz is still working through his recurring theme of secret and forbidden, unruly or unseemly love. And the subversion is still there, not least in the drunken wedding night that involves poppers and gloriously smudged make-up, or a swoony nightclub tryst that throws back to the Fassbinder of Querelle. An in-all-senses pointed close-up of an erect penis suggests we're witnessing a rethink of the costume drama, one where the costumes will be far less prominent than the hearts - and other parts - throbbing beneath them.
To this end, Aïnouz has armed himself with more or less the ideal collaborator in cinematographer du jour Hélène Louvart (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). From the prologue, which locates the sisters in the natural world, this is a film far more interested in bodies and faces than it ever is in material things. The plot, to isolate one element, runs for an hour on desire alone: I fear this is going to sound like a blatant bid for pullquote status, but The Invisible Life... is a far hornier period drama than the much-binged Bridgerton, featuring characters who can't contain their hormones long enough to deploy the withdrawal method, and thereby come to suffer the consequences of unprotected sex in a country that can hardly bring itself to talk about abortion. Here, Aïnouz's film starts to assume a political slant, possibly inspired by the Bolsonaro regime's efforts to roll back the clock on women's rights. Batalha's book was published in 2016, but the film is quietly informed by ongoing debates, setting the pleasures of people coming together against the stern control required to keep them apart. The second half leans into an Almodóvarian narrative tension, as the shamed Guida is banished, Eurídice's correspondence starts to be withheld by the girls' tyrannical baker father (António Fonseca) and the sisters lose sight of one another while attempting to rebuild families on their own, greatly more accepting terms.
The key to the film's success is that Aïnouz and Louvart know exactly where to look - towards the margins and fringes. That's why the women here register so much more forcefully than their male counterparts, why a long shot of a housewife fruitlessly beating a carpet tells us more about mid-20th century Brazilian society than anything said or done by Eurídice's husband, for one. (That penis is a raised hand, erection-as-interjection; it's also where a good deal of the trouble starts.) Where he glides serenely through events, the women of this world - born just too early for the liberations of the 1960s and 70s - are fated to pair up, give birth, suffer and disappear as the girls' mother does. Assisted by high-calibre material, Aïnouz spies just what they're up against: a bold yet desperately sad coda erases decades from our heroine's life, and sets us to wondering whether it could have been better spent. It is an instructive life, nevertheless, and you should emerge after two-and-a-bit hours with both teary eyes and a feel for a certain time, place and mindset. You will hear no better definition of patriarchy in a film this year than Eurídice's soft, resigned shrug of a line "my mother is the shadow of my father", but even the small talk here is equal parts revealing and dismaying. Upon leaving the hospital after giving birth, Guida is accosted by a female neighbour who inquires as to the newborn's gender. "A boy," Guida answers, with an early hint of the exhaustion to come. "Lucky him," comes the wistful response.
The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and is available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.