The passion according to GH

Passion according to GH/ Image: disclosure.


Commentary on the film by Luiz Fernando Carvalho, showing in cinemas

At this point, even those who haven't read The passion according to GH, by Clarice Lispector, knows what it's about: the sculptor GH, a beauty from Rio's elite, enters the recently fired employee's little room and experiences a reverse epiphany when she comes across a cockroach. She delves into the wild heart of life. More important than this scarce section is what the writer makes of it: a desperate search to transcend the limits of verbal language, through writing that is undone and remade all the time.

How can we transpose this limiting experience into cinema without falling into mere illustration or paraphrase? This was the challenge that director Luiz Fernando Carvalho, from archaic farming and so many notable TV miniseries. The result is a film sui generis, which attempts to dialogue on an equal footing with the superb text that inspired it.

At the beginning we hear the sounds of a typewriter, we see a cigarette lit by a female hand. Visual and sound signs that clearly say: we are in Clarice Lispector's world, in her fictional universe. Distorted images follow, between figurative and abstract, within a more “square” frame, less horizontal than usual. “I’m looking,” says the voice of GH (Maria Fernanda Cândido). “I’m afraid of this profound disorganization.”

Ethical and aesthetic adventure

From the beginning, therefore, the attempt is not to reproduce a story, but to emulate a language, an ethical and aesthetic adventure. Over the next two hours we will see (and hear) various procedures with this objective: to find the audiovisual way to express this woman's free fall into the horror and wonder of existence.

“What was I?” asks the protagonist, triggering flashback images of an elegant apartment, with smooth camera movements and pastel colors in which a diaphanous blue predominates. It is this refined and well-composed world that is about to fall apart, as the fragmented appearances of the black maid, Janair (Samira Nancassa), moving through the empty apartment seem to announce – a being alien to the environment, who at a certain moment, later, He faces the camera with the defiant air of someone reacting against his subordinate status.

Upon entering the newly vacated maid's room, GH will begin a dive into the abyss that will simultaneously shake her triple condition: the bourgeois condition, the feminine condition and the human condition. Luiz Fernando Carvalho and his co-writer Melina Dalboni seem committed to not leaving aside any of these dimensions, especially the social-racial one, only suggested in the book. It is no coincidence that a paper Brazilian flag is glued to the door of Janair's room with tape. It is also into this dizzyingly unequal country that GH enters when crossing that door/portal.

It would not be possible here (and anywhere) to describe all the audiovisual procedures that the director uses to recreate the protagonist's descent into the hell of her own being. Maybe not everyone is successful; after all, a risky undertaking includes the possibility of error and failure. But some are particularly inspired.

The drawing and the cockroach

When he comes across a charcoal drawing drawn by Janair on the bedroom wall, GH has his first shock. It's as if it were an ancestral cave painting, a message, a spell, a threat to her status as boss and lady. In the film, the discovery is interspersed with the image of a black hand tracing the charcoal drawing – a man, a woman, a dog, seen in the same frame with the Brazilian flag on the half-open bedroom door.

Everything condensed there: the slave heritage, inequality, class hatred, class fear. GH tries to erase the drawing with his nails, with a spatula, and finally throws water on the wall. Cut to a brief flashback of GH diving into a pool, before returning to his horror in the bedroom. This pendulum movement, between the protagonist's safe and comfortable past and her turbulent present, will be a constant in the film.

The second shock, GH's encounter with the cockroach, is a radical experience that falls somewhere between Zen Buddhist enlightenment (the satori) and Roquentin's sudden horror at the sight of a misshapen tree root in the nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The whole living world is shaped like hell,” she says. In a dizzying instant, GH discovers himself as part of the cosmos, breathing along with everything that is alive.

Decisive moment

How is this decisive moment recreated in the film?

GH opens the closet door. It is seen from the inside, in backlight. We see the silhouette of her face. A sudden scream, a retreat, eyes covered by a shelf. Screams, amplified insect wing sounds. Horror on the face, on the soundtrack. She abruptly closes the closet and the screen goes dark. She reopens the crack, brings her face closer. “My heart turned white, as hair turns white.” It cuts to the black face of the maid, as if it were the opposite shot, that is, as if the maid were in the closet, looking at her. “Scream, scream” – and we see the image of GH screaming, without sound, and then a shot of a super-magnified cockroach antenna, like a spear.

There would be countless ways to set/show the scene. Luiz Fernando Carvalho chose this one, which seems extraordinary to me. The way the cockroach reappears from time to time in the film is also noteworthy. It never appears whole, but always in fragments, like dreams we want to forget.

One example among many. “Goodbye, beauty of the world”, says GH, and we see her face that contorts, her hands that knead her skin and tousle her hair, it is all of her that is desperately deformed. It cuts to the goo coming out of the cockroach, in super close-up. “I want God in what comes out of the cockroach’s belly”, says the protagonist.

In other passages, the spoken, verbalized cockroach raises apparently incongruous images, which multiply the meanings and associations of ideas. GH says: “Seen up close, the cockroach is an object of great luxury, a bride of black jewels.” And, instead of the insect, what is shown is the naked protagonist, with her back to the camera, lying languidly on the bed, like the “venus in the mirror”, by Velázquez.

In short, the game between image, word, noise and music (Bach, Mahler, Ligeti, Schubert, Duke Ellington by Billie Holiday, the Anthem to the Flag...) is almost always unexpected and stimulating. Clarice Lispector's existential and aesthetic restlessness finds a worthy interlocutor here. And Brazilian cinema gets a great film.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brasiliense).

Originally published on cinema blog from the Moreira Salles Institute.


The passion according to GH
Brazil, 2024, 124 minutes.
Directed by: Luiz Fernando Carvalho.
Screenplay: Luiz Fernando Carvalho Melina Dalboni.
Cast: Maria Fernanda Cândido, Samira Nancassa.

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