Play for Today: Rita Azevedo Gomes’ “The Kegelstatt Trio”
It’s October 26th – Austrian National Day – and I’m sitting with Ms. Rita Azevedo Gomes in her room at the Hotel InterContinental, one floor above the press office of the Viennale, and the faraway sound of an orchestra is coming in from the street. She’s more than delighted to be at the festival – and has her eyes on a few films featured in the Yoshishige Yoshida retrospective, presented in collaboration between the Viennale and the Austrian Film Museum – but she also has a couple of other things on her “Vienna must-do” list, which she reprises whenever she’s in the capital: chiefly, to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum and to attend a classical music concert (she warmly recommends the nearby Wiener Musikverein).
The Portuguese filmmaker is here to present her latest work, The Kegelstatt Trio (2022), an adaptation of Éric Rohmer’s sole theater play that was shot during the fall 2020 lockdown. The plot focuses on a series of visits that Adélia (Rita Durão) pays to her ex-partner, Paul (Pierre Léon), as they playfully discuss their new romantic liaisons, their lingering affections for one another, and the reasons behind their split. Rather than going for a straightforward adaptation, Gomes encases Rohmer’s play in a meta-fictional frame, wherein the play is being directed for the camera by an aging director (Ado Arrieta) who is haunted by his indecisiveness on set – and by some rather bizarre dreams off set.
I sat down with Ms. Gomes to discuss her approach to Rohmer’s piece and to literary adaptations in general, about what it was like to shoot a film amid the pandemic, the influence of music on the film, and the story of a little pig named Hernaldinho.
You’ve done several literary adaptations. For example, you adapted Robert Musil for A Portuguesa (2018). Now, you’ve adapted a play by Éric Rohmer for The Kegelstatt Trio. How do you choose the works that you wish to adapt for the big screen?
I don’t choose, they choose me. [Laughs] You know, there’s no rule for that. Sometimes I read something that strikes me, as it happened with A Woman’s Revenge (2012). The Musil story was a bit different — but I was caught by that short story by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, that’s from a book called Les Diaboliques. When I read that, I was on the beach, and it was really intriguing. I wondered, “What is going on with this woman? What happens to this person? How far can a human being push things to the limit?” And so, as I was reading, I was already immediately thinking that I would like to adapt it into a film. And the Musil, as well — it’s a very enigmatic tale, mysterious behaviors of human beings that overtake life, in a way.
So… it goes like that. And for The Invisible Collection (2009), as well, I adapted a work by Stefan Zweig. It’s the story of an old blind man who was an art collector, and suddenly he goes blind. His family is in a crisis due to the war, and they start selling his collection of engravings — works by da Vinci and so on. They’re selling them because they need to afford food, but they don’t tell him, so they replace the engravings with white sheets of paper. And the old fool spends hours and hours opening his cases of artworks, feeling and touching what he believes is a beautiful rendition of the apocalypse by da Vinci, but there is nothing there, everything is gone. And he doesn’t know that. I liked the story immediately — the idea of someone who takes pleasure out of the memory of images, and he will die if he knows that the collection was sold. It’s not there any longer, but it’s still all there in his memory.
So, somehow, it’s all coincidence. And I also think that literary texts sometimes leave an impression on me at a specific time in my life. And maybe, if I read “A Woman’s Revenge” today for the first time, it wouldn’t have the same impact on me, you know? It’s like meeting someone. You have this attraction, this connection.
An adaptation is — fundamentally — an act of also adding yourself to the work, by using sound, color, movement, and montage. Do you feel that you have a different strategy depending on each film?
Yes. I think each film asks for it. Probably there is something similar in all of them because it’s the same person constructing it. But yes, I think each film, each text, and each history demands another interpretation — it’s not all the same, I think. I used to have this feeling when I was making editions, cinema catalogs, or painting. Each author requires another position from me. I will not treat Truffaut the same way I treat Ozu, Sokurov, or whoever. Each film, each author requires a different touch, I think.
And so, what attracted you to The Kegelstatt Trio? To Rohmer’s sole, unique theater piece?
Well, I once had this project, working on some radio theater plays, and I had chosen a few texts. I intended to stage and record it there, so people could in a way witness the making of the play. And one of these plays was the Trio because it’s a two-actor play and there was something in it that reminded me of Groucho Marx. But then I also started working on A Woman’s Revenge, so this idea was kept behind. When we were in lockdown, I had the urge of doing something — and that was a film. I asked my friends if they would come and help me, and it happened.
I re-read the Trio since I had worked on it before. I had translated it [into Portuguese] for the theater project, and so I said, “Let’s do something light, not something about the strange feeling that I have towards the entire situation with the pandemic,” which was a total mix of bliss and happiness, and total depression and horror. Indeed, it was kind of bliss — the total silence, nobody moving, pause, total pause. And I thought, “Jesus, we needed this!” The result is not… I never had any illusions that the world would change.
I thought the Trio was suitable for this situation because I didn’t have money, I didn’t have time, and we were heavily conditioned by the situation of the pandemic, so I thought maybe this was a good idea, yes, a sentimental comedy, something that eludes the topic of confinement. It’s still there, though. I thought, “These two characters live in a sort of confinement themselves! They’re knitting this entire situation; they are isolated in a bubble.”
You said something very beautiful at the Q&A yesterday: that the main actress, Rita, is the clarinet, that Pierre is the viola, and that the music itself is the piano, all coming together as the Trio.
Yes… But that’s my fantasy. Maybe it’s true. I didn’t read anything that confirms this, but I wondered why he wrote this… The only play he ever wrote, using Mozart’s Trio? Really, the situation is so rare, because, in this piece, you had the very first time in music history when these three instruments were put together, which changed all the music to come. I think maybe Rohmer saw or imagined a sort of trio. Because there is dissonance, complicity, moments of harmony — where the instruments are happy together — then they disagree, and then they come together again. The piano is always flirting…
It’s also a piece meant for the chamber. Given the huis clos-style construction of the film — meaning they’re inside all the time — the house where you shot the film and the surroundings were very important. You said that the house was borrowed from a friend — how did it influence the atmosphere?
The house was a miracle. When I got there, I realized that I could have never imagined it. And it was a bit bold and risky to ask people to come and make a film with me in this unsteady situation, with no time to prepare and rehearse, and it’s also a long text. But everything was saying: “Go, go, go!” And I was like [hesitant tone] “okay, okay…”
Everything was pulling us in that direction, and when we arrived at the house, the owner just handed me the key and said, “Do whatever you want.” He never came to the set, we took out everything that he had there — it was full of baubles and porcelains, beautiful things, a nice collection of paintings and carpets — everything was fsht! Sent away. I think the house was very suggestive and very inspiring. Luck was on my side, I think.
There is this interesting frame that you constructed for the film — it’s not a straightforward adaptation, because you also have this meta-plane of the director who is shooting the film within a film. He stops the actors at the beginning, changes the time of day, and the entire mood of the actors’ meetings and interactions… and so I wanted to ask, how did you arrive at this form?
When the play that I meant to do for the radio was no longer possible, I decided to turn it into a film, and so I wrote a script. Since the very beginning, this character was there. But it wasn’t like it ended up being in the film because, in my mind, it was more of a younger man, who was a bit lost… I had this reoccurring dream, you know — maybe it was my “hangriness,” my growing appetite — that I would arrive on set and I had lost everything. My script, all the notes from the previous day to prepare the scene, everything. Everybody is looking at me and waiting for me to tell them what to do! I panic, improvise… I thought, what if this was real? What would I decide to do? Maybe it comes from there, from this repetitive dream.
Initially, I imagined him as a director, who is young and insecure, the clichestuff. I started approaching Ado [Arrieta] during the lockdown, we got closer, it was a very nice thing that happened daily, we were changing opinions about everything… And then I thought, maybe it’s not a young, lost director, maybe it’s an old director that is a bit forgotten and who is still a child with all his indecisions. I thought it could be more interesting — and it was.
The lead actors, too, should have been younger — surely not fifty or sixty. Because I wanted Rita and Pierre, that’s the way I justified myself — it’s much more interesting for them to be sixty and knitting the same, endless broderie of love…
I noticed your characters have these moments of calm and relaxation outdoors. Here, for example, the director is relaxing on the beach, or sometimes in the forest (and there are scenes like that in A Portuguesa, too). Simply sitting outside. I wanted to ask you about these specific moments where the characters are resting, where the film also breathes along with them in these moments of relaxation…
I don’t know. No, I think… I mean silence, silence of words sometimes says things by itself. You don’t need to speak out loud all the time. There are these moments in life, as well, and I like these moments. [Pause] When you say they sit outside, what scene are you thinking about?
The scene where the director is sitting on the beach, for example.
Yes, there — everybody is moving and everybody is preparing, and he is just sitting on his little cloud there, like when he’s sitting outside in the night and there is a green light approaching, and then he has this dream with a pig, all this silliness. And silliness is also a part of life, and fantasy as well. No worries. I think it’s okay, that scene with the little pig. I really like it.
Yes, it’s wonderful!
We enjoyed shooting it so much… and it was funny for the team, you know! Everybody was asking “Why?” Why not? So… I finally got the little pig, Hernaldinho — that’s what we named him — and I was very happy because this wasn’t someone’s “private pig.” So I had to go to a pig farm, and when I took him back, I said, “This one, no! You are not going to kill Hernaldinho!” But they told me that he was the lucky guy, the one who is going to be sent to cover the females for reproductive purposes. I said to myself, “Okay, Hernaldinho will have a long life, then!”
I wanted to ask you a bit more about the production. The film was shot in the fall of 2020, and you mentioned that the budget was very small.
Yes, it was November 2020. We were at the peak of the thing. We couldn’t drive or move from one city to another; it was not possible. We had to get special authorizations to get through. I was a bit frightened, but at the same time I was confident because all of us were like, “Okay, let’s go!” That was unbreakable, that spirit. The production was that — a few phone calls, then I had to work a lot to contact everyone, ask for a lot of things (because I didn’t have a camera, lights, sound — it was all borrowed), and people were coming for free. I was very happy that they were free, that they could come and that they wanted to come. That’s the most gratifying thing to me, the fact that they wanted to make it. “Let’s make it!” “Okay.”
I felt very responsible, I had to make it. It didn’t matter how — they didn’t have the text, so I had to improvise something. Even if they had to read the script out loud, I didn’t care, I would try to do something. You are very free if you don’t have a big production because if it doesn’t come out well, I don’t owe anyone anything, except the ones that are with me. You don’t have a commitment to anyone except to those that accept to make this film together with you.
I wanted to also ask you about this feeling of freedom. How do you think that it transferred into the process, the performances, and the atmosphere?
We were very, very happy there. Everybody in this film still has a great connection with those weeks, because it seemed like we were in a bubble within a bubble, in a magic thing. That feeds a lot of creativity, because plenty of things are improvised, as you can imagine.
When Ado arrived by car, I decided to film that precise moment. We had already finished the day of shooting, it was night. When he arrived and started talking to some of the other people outside, I immediately said, “Let’s film.” And we improvised that scene, which is at the end, the one where he says, “everything is wrong, we have to repeat everything all over again.” He had just put his foot on the set when I said “Ado, let’s go!” Obviously, I explained a little bit. Jorge Quintela, the camera operator, was very worried because the lights weren’t ready. I said, “It’s okay!” “But this light is terrible, and the white wall there…” “Don’t worry, let’s do it.” And I’m glad we did it! Nobody understood exactly what we were doing this thing for, but I had this intuition to capture that, and it turned into a scene that destroys, a little bit, the construction — that’s what I do. I do that to deepen things.
In your films, the notion of time is not very well-defined, and they’re generally set in pre-modern times — or they’re set out of time, like in Frágil Como o Mundo (2002). Whereas The Kegelstatt Trio certainly belongs to modernity. What relation does your work have to historical time? How does it relate to the way you regard the concept of cinematic time?
Time, time, time… You know, when I take a literary text, I always find a certain contemporaneity of the subject. It happened with The Portuguese Woman. I will not mention the fact that Paris is the city where the scene is occurring, so she says, “I came to Paris,” but in fact, she came to a city, and that city can be anywhere in Europe, but in fact, we are in a studio. I like to bring history into contemporary times because human nature doesn’t change that much. The feelings are the same, even if everything changes, spinning and spinning… I like to bring it to the present, I don’t need to say that “this is the eighteenth century or the nineteenth.”
It’s funny, with the Trio, I realized that since the beginning, all my films have this touch of daily life, of the present life, the life we are living. Even in A Woman’s Revenge, without much thinking, I created scenes that are not set in the respective era. In one scene, she has the script in her hands. I like to break the time — to say that we are in this century, but also not, at the same time. Actually, we were working in the studio, and whenever we had a day off, I’d go there to prepare for the next day, and then go home, thirty kilometers away. So, I leave, and I run into traffic, into bills I have to pay — life is running. What I mean to say with this is that this film is a fantasy, but it’s set within the present, and this is why I opened the gates of the studio at the end, to see how the traffic goes past. This film was the summit of that situation. There are these rehearsal scenes, which allow us to immediately feel that we are in the present.
Exactly, you see people wearing masks, but then you go back within the fiction, where they’re using these old landline phones with rotary dials.
The telephone, yes, it’s funny because I thought, “no, there are no mobile phones in this film, they have nothing to do in this film.” I still have an old phone. When I do a period film, I like for everything to be fake, to be made of paper — like in The Portuguese Woman, the clothes were improvised, on the body of the actors sometimes. But if you have an object from a specific era in the film, everything changes because if the actors have a piece of furniture with ornate wood or a piece of jewelry, something true, the characters behave differently.
For instance, something that the spectator doesn’t even see in the film but the actors know is there — when they sign the peace treaty in The Portuguese Woman, when the Bishop of Trent is dying. The actor playing the bishop is dressed in clothes that we got from the museum. It’s true. We got them from the window display and then put it on Alexandre [Alves Costa], all these garments [laughs], even the headpiece It’s very beautiful, but it’s also very heavy, so his head was falling all the time. I told him, “It’s okay, because you’re dying” [laughs]. All the others around him, they were not really even dressed, they were masquerading in these clothes that I had brought in, with pins all over, a very improvised wardrobe — but they knew that the pen that they were using to sign the treaty was a true pen, made of gold, that also came from the museum. We don’t see the pen in the film, but when the actors take it into their hands, they feel a certain type of contact with the circumstances, with the idea of signing a peace treaty. The pen helps them incorporate it.
So history is also a material presence.
Yes, always. Even if I was improvising with whatever I could grab to make a dress, I changed it, turned it, painted over the materials… I’m not very interested in creating a reenactment of the era. I didn’t live back then. Okay, we have the paintings, the museums, literature in order to imagine how it was, but it’s not real, it’s already an interpretation. So that is inspiring — and then, you can just fly away. You can easily take a sheet from this bed, I can paint over it, and it becomes a dress.
This happened with The Portuguese Woman a lot. We didn’t have enough dresses, so I really painted over white canvas material that is very cheap — or I would go to a neighborhood Chinese store, buy some scarves, and use them to make a dress. From whatever I could pick up. It’s a suggestion, you know. But in the middle of all that, there is something true — maybe a pin, maybe a ring, maybe a chair. That’s enough. I don’t need more. I like clothes and ambiances that are used, that are dirty, maybe even a little broken, not the new ones.
One time, I worked on a stage production of La Traviata and there was a scenographer, a costume designer, a whole team of seamstresses… and everything came out looking like it was made for a BBC drama. [Laughs] When I saw the final rehearsal, all dressed, I said, “Jesus Christ, this is terrible!” During the night, I went to the wardrobe with some scissors [laughs], some paints, and some lace… and cut all the things, wrinkled the material, sprayed them with dust, and it was beautiful. Imagine a beautiful, peach-colored silk dress — it’s beautiful, but it had to be worn. When the actors came to prepare for the premiere and to get dressed, there was a big crisis in the chorus because they did not want to dress up in “those terrible things!” [Laughs] Of course they preferred to be like Elizabeth Taylor, dressed in jewels, but I said, “no jewels, please!” But it was much better after this destruction that happened during the night, much, much better.
Rita Azevedo Gomes’ The Kegelstatt Trio premiered at the 2022 Berlinale.