The passion according to GH

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By IVANA BENTES*

Considerations about Luiz Fernando Carvalho's film, showing in cinemas

What do we do and think when we are “alone”, how do we express this mental world populated by “vast emotions and imperfect thoughts”? As experiences become a stream of words and speeches and these can become a body, performance and images: cinema?

GH, a character by Clarice Lispector who takes on the body and voice of Maria Fernanda Cândido, is the confined protagonist of a book published in 1964 and now transcreated for cinema by Luiz Fernando Carvalho.

In the book and the film, perhaps the “reason” that triggers this individual and/or collective “being alone” is less important, narrated with ferocity: the maid who decides to leave, the visceral encounter with a cockroach, the end of a passion, or, we could add: a devastating pandemic or simply chance or everyday banality in person. The decisive thing is that “it” overflows into an event, in the sense of that which breaks our bodily and psychic automatisms, and produces something too terrible, too beautiful, too distressing.

When I started watching the film, my first concern was trying to glimpse how this director-actress arrangement, this unstable union of a text-monologue and a body on stage, could express the viscerality of the language of Clarice Lispector, an extraordinary and overwhelming writer. , who is constantly speculating about his own failure to say something and, at the same time, betting on the infinite saying of life turned into language.

“Life is not relatable. Life is not livable”, which leads us to the endless displacement of the production of meanings, and a bet, without guarantees, on language in the face of an existential hole, but also in the face of the plenitude of everything that is alive.

I kept asking myself: how could someone film the cockroach scene that already defies the rules of representation and the “relatable”, defies the rules of literature and constitutes an epiphany within Clarice's own work. A scene that is a kind of culmination of the narrator-sculptor GH's awareness of the limits of her own words in the face of the overflow of life.

Watching the film, with its paradoxically minimalist and sumptuous language, it seems to me that Luiz Fernando Carvalho positions himself in the same unstable place on the limit, now of cinema itself, and invokes and makes use of his entire aesthetic arsenal, his cinephilia, narrative dexterity, technology and craftsmanship, all his erudition to put his meeting/confrontation with Clarice Lispector on hold.

It is about facing the limits of cinematographic language itself, facing the text and words of Clarice Lispector, facing the body and face in performance by Maria Fernanda Cândido, extract the maximum from the soundtrack and images, in a tour de force between the real risk of failure and the delusion of omnipotence. A narrative that is simultaneously unstable, assertive and grandiloquent.

The film looks at the pathetic, in the sense of pathos and passion. Passion according to GH, enunciated by the author and which subverts the commonplace about passion and suffering.

Filming Clarice Lispector and this text in particular is to emulate the same kind of anguish and challenge as GH in the face of the cockroach, in the face of the initially repugnant act that becomes a purgation and redemption: eating the cockroach and tasting the matter of life, undressing of conventions, dissolve your identity and seek “courage to do what I'm going to do: say. And I risk the enormous surprise I will feel at the poverty of what was said. I’ll barely say it and I’ll have to add, it’s not that, it’s not that!”

The challenge of the film is this: construct a fluid monologue-narrative, make a performance which demands total scenic delivery from the actress, fragmenting the narrative, to stitch it back together seeking to connect us and create intimacy, a relationship of proximity and estrangement with the omnipresent face-body of Maria Fernanda Cândido in action, on stage, a body performing the live.

Bells, violins, evocations of sabbaths and rituals, sounds of gunshots, religious hymns, deserts. The soundtrack in the film in fact “fills” with its layers of sounds, leads and narrates to a beyond-text, with fragments of a sound river that runs through Penderecki, Morton Feldman, Mahler, Bach, Eakins, Górecki, Rabih Abou-Khalil Schick, Deuter, Gubaidulina, Arvo Part, Adams, Ligeti, Franck, Schubert, Kancheli, Billie Holiday, Chopin, Cage etc. I was only able to follow the film's sonic whirlwind and its references made by a complex mixing thanks to the ear of Arthur Omar, for whom “cinema is music”.

A mass of sound that drags the viewer along when they perhaps give up seeing or listening. Extraordinary image montage and sound mixing, which emulate an entry and exit of mental states, moving from objective and subjective images with a camera that is also a character.

A life made subject

But there are no literal images in the film, everything we see escapes us. Including the most problematic image, the one that couldn't even be filmed: that of the cockroach.

Luiz Fernando Carvalho partly saves us from the repugnance and disgust anticipated by every viewer-reader of Lispector by presenting the cockroach with the right proximity and necessary distance: in Close, isolated in an image that reminds us of a scientific film, as if made by an entomologist. The cockroach with its small fins in super Close that enter and tremble on the screen, until we reach the “face” and eyes of the insect that look at us, a life that looks at us in its supreme cockroach indifference, now become a subject, subjectified.

A kind of cinematic decision that positions GH's sumptuous, talking face, Janair's black, mute face and the cockroach's “face” in a disturbing connection, at first repugnant, but which the book and the director's framing sustain and build upon. unfold in radically moving to another register: a real and metaphorical fusion of these faces of the living, bare life.

Did I understand correctly or am I hallucinating when I realize that the image of Janair and the cockroach are “equivalent”? The “unsaid”, which is perceived and experienced, is perhaps what is most powerful and disturbing about cinema and language operations.

Going from sumptuous black and white to color, from the square screen to a sequence in cinemascope, at the end, talks about the director's quest to experiment with the material of the film, the taste for its cinematic materiality.

Politics of being

An upper middle class woman, artist, sculptor, who finds herself compelled to clean up her house and her head, in the midst of a process of self-analysis. A woman who enters the laundry area and the maid's room like a hostile and mysterious continent to be explored.

In Clarice Lispector we are always moving from everyday banality in person to an event that destabilizes everything, that breaks all of our defense systems. The film cinematically seeks this experience, this narrative of deconstruction of psychic and social clichés. As Gilles Deleuze states in the time-image (Brasiliense): “[…] if everyday banality is so important, it is because, subjected to automatic and already constructed sensorimotor schemes, it is even more capable, at the slightest disturbance of the balance between excitation and response […] , of suddenly escaping the laws of this schematism and revealing itself in a nakedness, rawness and visual and sound brutality that make it insurmountable, giving it the appearance of a dream or a nightmare”.

In both the book and the film, there is an uncomfortable and disturbing otherness that emerges, causing the mental order of GH to collapse: the figure of the maid, in the film, embodied by the black actress Samira Nancassa, from Guinea-Bissau, who lives in São Paulo, is one of those triggers of the crisis.

She is Janair, a character whose invisibility is made explicit in the book. This black face that we see in very few scenes of the film, but which produces an immediate ghostly and disturbing effect on the narrative. The face of the black maid, an image of nobility and beauty, produces noise and discomfort when it appears in flashes, interrupting GH's narrative as something thoughtless, something that demands attention, something that puts what we see and hear at risk.

The black maid, who abandons her white boss in the book and film, establishes a social and existential conflict without saying a word. Having to tidy up the maid's room and come across her traces of subjectivity is something shocking for GH. There is life and language in that room, that “dark and invisible” woman is seen for the first time, at first with indifference, then with hatred:

There were years when I had only been judged by my peers and my own environment, which were, in short, made of myself and for myself. Janair was the first truly external person whose gaze I had become aware of.

Here, perhaps the most shocking thing for contemporary sensibilities is the analogy not explicit, but expressed, in the book and in the film, between GH's encounter with this black life, this woman dehumanized by indifference and who comes into existence, and the second encounter GH destabilizer, with the cockroach, there in the maid's room.

A reaction that goes from disgust, nausea and fear to recognition and epiphany in the face of life in its exuberance and irreducibility: “And now I understood that the cockroach and Janair were the true inhabitants of the room”. Not just “inhabitants”, the analogy, at first degrading, turns into a process of confrontation, problem and recognition of “brown” lives (the color of Janair's clothes that make her invisible according to GH), the brown of the bark and of the cockroach's wings.

GH realizes his own indifference towards black women. Here, we can make a contemporary political reading of GH's whiteness, her privileges and existential dramas, her naturalized racism, her difficulty in seeing this black woman who becomes a subject and destabilizes her own image of herself.

“I see you” says the black and majestic face, also filmed in Close, by Janair. Character who explains racial issues and the subjecting relationships between the two women, white and black, boss and employee.

This is a possible reading of Clarice Lispector. Yes, all the traces are there, but wouldn't that be too comfortable a reduction? The author practices politics in another, broader way, in a visceral way, narrating herself, denouncing her own limitations, creating a politics of being.

In fact, we cannot escape these clashes and the maid's room is associated with filth, disorganization and fear. GH's metaphysical and existential lucubrations are not outside this place from which she speaks. Clarice Lispector names this place countless times in The passion according to GH, and Luiz Fernando Carvalho does not hide this “who speaks” and “where he speaks from”, with all the limitations and distortions of the character and the writer.

But this white woman, in her elegant apartment, with a life of comfort, is also capable of perceiving herself and fighting a battle with everything that constitutes her, this is the question we have to face today in all decolonial struggles and in all struggles contemporary. This is the same operation as Clarice Lispector and GH: perceiving privileges, vices (“like salt and sugar”), perceiving hell and facing the problem and the joy of living.

GH’s big question is the same Nietzschean question: “how does someone become what they are?” Not to affirm or justify prejudices, racism, limited views of the world, but to open ourselves to a cataclysm, a fissure, a drift that frees us.

The film operates outside this comfort zone, which is the language that quickly decodes and frames everything, the clichés that plague thinking and politics today.

The Brazil we enter through the maid's room comes to us in a sensorial way, with questions spewed out in a thousand words, but not “explained”. Clarice Lispector's text, overwhelming, does not lend itself to Manichaean statements, reductions or positions to be “cancelled”.

And if we want to be decolonial, we can say that Clarice Lispector's text talks about a white woman stripping away her coloniality and her class and social group, stripping away her naturalized racism, her elegance, her good taste, her artistic environment, his indifference to the maid, his repulsion towards everything that refers to the “dark” and “filthy”.

GH is a woman who talks about the liberation that comes with the end of a relationship, with the decision to have an abortion, with the perception of a bare life confined in a servant's room; a woman who realizes all the privileges and comforts of social codes and seeks a radical break, an existential confrontation and a dissolution.

In Janair's room

A key is given to GH by the departing black maid, who leaves the elegant house. At the entrance to the service room, the maid's room, we see a small Brazilian flag pasted.

The stripped room contrasts with the sumptuous apartment, decorated with works of art. The room is a prison: a closet and a worn-out mattress rolled up on a bed frame/cot. We are in Big house and slave quarters once again, an updated narrative in the apartments of the middle and upper classes and in the subjecting forms of domestic services. At the same time, GH understands that from inside the maid's room she was seen in her privileges, in her indifferent life, in her whiteness.

The film talks about the look: who looks, where they look from, who sees me, how I see myself, what I see when I look at the maid, the cockroach, what I see when I look at myself.

Faced with the limits of any representation, Clarice Lispector's writing and the film turn to rituals of mystical ecstasy and the dissolution of the self in the very matter of life. An operation between hell, redemption and joy. “The world wouldn’t scare me if I became the world. If I am the world, I will not be afraid. If we are the world, we are moved by a delicate radar that guides us.”

“I was eating myself”

The repeated image of the white matter that slowly comes out of the crushed cockroach, “like from a tube”, the fluffy white slugs are repeated in a crescent throughout the narrative, until culminating in one of the central sequences of the film in which GH rushes in the dark towards the cockroach and screams.

The narrative summons signs and sounds from horror films: suspense in the music, super-accelerated editing and “we don’t see anything”, but we see her face being “slapped” by an invisible instance, thrown against a white wall, going into convulsions, being whipped by the camera.

The scene evokes the dizzying montage of the bathroom scene in Psychosis, by Alfred Hitchcock. We do not see the act that culminates in nausea, vomiting and then jubilation. There's no need to show GH eating the cockroach, but we suffer all the effects of his decision: “Hold my hand, because I feel like I'm leaving. I am going again to the most primal divine life, I am going to a hell of raw life. Don’t let me see because I’m close to seeing the core of life.”

We hear from the actress the existentialist manifesto of Clarice Lispector, which goes from Sartre to Camus, from nausea to “senselessness”, from the absurd to ecstasy in the face of life. “Scream”, I ordered myself!” At a certain point, the film's narrative also evokes, with its sound flow and convulsing images, a demonic orgy, elements of a Sabbath to which the book sometimes alludes.

Regarding this type of sabbat, it is still interesting to note a document, rescued in the exhibition Constelação Clarice, at the Moreira Salles Institute in São Paulo between October 2021 and February 2022, curated by Eucanaã Ferraz and Veronica Stigger, which certifies Clarice's participation Lispector at the First World Witchcraft Congress in Bogotá-Colombia, in August 1975, when she was invited to present the story “The Egg and the Chicken”. If there is witchcraft in Clarice Lispector, she comes closer and closer to this radical meaning, to the knowledge of things and the patriarchal curse that falls on women and their autonomous bodies.

We have no difficulty associating Clarice Lispector's literature with feminine and feminist thought and experience, with its transcendental housewives and middle-class women who practice a politics of being that transcends the clichés of political language. Her bodies speak of an immemorial witch hunt, kidnapping of the autonomy of women treated as servants of the devil for their wisdom, management of life, independence. Killed in fires, as Silvia Federici explains in Caliban and the witch: Women, body and primitive accumulation (Elephant).

In the film we hear the sounds of a Sabbath ritual while we see the ecstatic face of Maria Fernanda Cândido: “I had joined the Sabbath orgy. Now I know what happens in the dark of the mountains on orgy nights. I know! I know with horror: things are made fun of.”

Despite the social group marking, of this thin woman wrapped in signs of wealth, the actress-character expresses multiworlds, from a coquettish affectation to a type of total and epiphanic surrender in the face of the vitalism of the world, a process of initiation and mystical ecstasy that gives meaning and density to words that are difficult to sustain.

“Life is mine”, writes Clarice Lispector. “Life is mine, and I don’t understand what I’m saying. And so I love it.” The final image of the film is this big yes to existence in super close-up, “I love it”, “I love it”. A single moment of an open, wide laugh, which turns into laughter and free laughter. A possible answer to the cry of despair and horror at the taste of life and the living.

*Ivana Bentes She is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Media-Crowd: communication aesthetics and biopolitics (Mauad X). [https://amzn.to/4aLr0vH]

Reference


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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