A film that almost wasn’t, Rita Azevedo Gomes’ Kegelstatt Trio began life as an abandoned cinquième aventure in Èric Rohmer’s Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle (1987). Opting instead to develop it as a stage play, Rohmer’s offshoot is a familiar reorganisation of shapes he played with his entire career: two ex-lovers have a series of digressive but honest conversations about art, love, and life. Paul (Pierre Léon) lives in a large but sparsely furnished modernist 1960s house in the countryside; Adélia (Rita Durão) visits him often, and the two are drawn closer together even as they discuss Adélia’s dissatisfaction with her current partner.
Gomes shoots the house, already a sharply defined architectural imposition, on lenses with angles that lean towards the wider end, making Paul’s relative solitude even more pronounced. The hardwood floor seems to stretch for miles across his living room, adorned by a few sets of shelves, a table with CDs and a stereo, some plastic garden chairs, a piano. Captured in clean, rigorous static shots lasting several minutes, the Paul of Gomes’ interpretation appears to have cleared out all distraction, filling up the hole left by Adélia’s love with music.
Or perhaps his stripped-down living situation is a symptom of another facet to Gomes’ version of Rohmer’s play: Paul and Adélia are actors, performing the playscript as though it were an original work by a particularly fickle director, played by actual Spanish filmmaker Adolfo Arrieta. He fusses over details, praises the actors as perfect and yet remains perpetually unhappy with the finished product, and gets them to rehearse independently without guidance. “You were both perfect, but it’s not right,” he says at the end of the first scene, frustrating both performers with his inscrutable supervision.
The Rohmer connection becomes an ironic one. For an artist so invested in a digressive and ambling discursive cinema, Gomes has loaded her tribute to said artist with a knowing fussiness in both her formal framework and the character of the director. Where Rohmer preferred a relaxed editing style, and let his camera roam freely when it suited him, Gomes’ film looks rigid and highly controlled. A focussed artistic effort, certainly, but more than that, the film’s formal austerity is a total inversion of the source material’s core values. This is, after all, still Rohmer’s script, albeit delivered in the fashion most dissonant with his philosophy.While these separate pleasures of sweet, tender writing and tight formal control are endearing in the first instance, their disparity becomes more pronounced by the second hour. The conversational circularity of Rohmer’s writing is tiresome, even as Gomes’ framing skills don’t miss once. It renders a potentially radical examination of Rohmer’s insular, overwhelmingly French artistic ethos into something more hermetic. It has the distinct feeling of an exercise, a passing fancy for the global festival circuit that acts as an Avengers-style ‘What If…’ for fans of Rohmer, Gomes, and Arrieta too. As a tribute, it’s more thoughtful than the average supercut or fancam. But it lingers for about as long.