“There’s Political Relevance to Melodrama”: Karim Aïnouz on His Lush Tropical Tale of Sisterhood, Invisible Life
Greenery abounds in Brazilian auteur Karim Aïnouz’s affecting and bright-colored sisterhood saga Invisible Life. Based on Martha Batalha’s 2016 novel, it chronicles the forced disconnection between siblings Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler), whose hearts break with each passing day apart in 1950s Rio de Janeiro. Victims of a male-dominated society that denies their dreams and ambitions, the sisters embody two sides of the same still resonant struggles women of the time endured.
In addition to the striking work of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, top talent was plentiful across the board. Illustrious producer Rodrigo Teixeira (Call Me By Your Name, Ad Astra, The Lighthouse) came on board after working with the director on 2011’s The Silver Cliff. “When you have a producer that actually likes cinema, it makes a whole lot of difference. And Rodrigo loves cinema,” explained Aïnouz about his long-time friend and collaborator.
An even more providential participation was that of Oscar-nominated actress Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station), who appears as Eurídice in older age and carries the emotional impact of the whole production on her shoulders, despite having a small part written specifically for the film adaption. “She is the most amazing Brazilian actress of all time, and she has a great sense of resilience and dignity,” said Aïnouz. “She blessed the film with her generous presence.”
Away from the humidity of the tropics, Aïnouz sat down with Filmmaker in Los Angeles for an in-depth discussion of the maligned melodrama subgenre, using all the color gels in Rio to shoot Invisible Life, and why Brazil’s political situation provides a unique energy to the country’s recent filmic output.
Filmmaker: On promotional materials for Invisible Life, the film is often referred to as a tropical melodrama. Could you dissect the relationship between those two elements? What was it about melodrama that intrigued you as a genre? And what makes the film tropical?
Aïnouz: It was very clear to me that I wanted to do a melodrama because it is the main genre of Brazilian soap operas. I thought by going through that genre I would reach a larger audience because audiences in Brazil are used to melodrama. And the tropical part was actually trying to make this genre local: “How can I make it specific?” I was thinking of Mexican melodramas, of Egyptian melodramas, of Spanish melodramas, and of American melodramas—particularly the ones from the ’50s when they sort of blossom. It was about making a Brazilian film within that genre. “How can I somehow appropriate that genre into something local? “
Tropical seem to me the right word, but it also seemed to be describing the context of the film — and not only the physical context because it takes place in Rio. I’m not from there, so it’s always very strange to be in a city where the jungle is in the middle of it. There’s this constant friction between the jungle and the city itself. And in the film I thought, “How can I translate that into the images?” The first thing was, “How can I have people that are sweating all the time?” which is what you have in a very humid place like Rio. “How can I have the presence of the green and have this sort of lush vegetation not only in the exterior shots, but also the interiors?”
I also wanted to fold this element not only visually but also into the story. At the beginning of the film these two sisters are sort of together in what could be called the tropical Garden of Eden. They’re in a forest that’s close to the sea. The film tells the story of these sisters who are separated and spend their lives looking for each other, and the memory that they have is this green, this very green, lush space with birds and animals. Later in the film, I wanted to bring that to their homes. Whenever they are thinking of the other there’s this presence of a lot of plants inside the house. There’s a constant presence of plants and the color green. Green is always there. The main element to make the melodrama tropical was color. The light in Rio is particular and it brings out colors in a saturated way. It’s different than, for example, here in Los Angeles the air is so dry that the colors become subdued. In the tropics there’s a sense of life everywhere, in the vegetation, in the houses, in the clothes people wear, so the sense of color was also something that was very important to the film.
Filmmaker: Sometimes there’s a negative connotation associated with melodrama, as if they tell sentimental stories that lack depth. What’s your take on the merits or qualities of melodramas that are often overlooked?
Aïnouz: It’s totally described as a subpar genre. It’s been mistreated. One of the first films I remember watching was Imitation of Life. I would go home after school in the afternoon and on broadcast TV they would show dubbed American films, and one of them was Imitation of Life. I didn’t really remember it until I saw it again when I was in my 20s. That’s a classic melodrama, and I think it’s one of the most political films I’ve ever seen. It’s such an amazing film about race relations in America, and it’s so timeless. The one I remember was [Douglas Sirk’s] 1950 version, but the first adaptation was in the ’30s. I always thought that melodrama was such an interesting genre because on the surface, as my film is, it’s very beautiful. It’s very colorful. It’s very seductive. But that’s just a way to lure the viewer to actually talk about things that are very serious. For me melodrama is one of the most interesting genres to work with when you are in a moment of political crisis. If there’s a metaphor for the genre it would be a character that wants to put his or head above water as the world is pushing it back down. There’s political relevance to melodrama. It’s so interesting that you can watch a good melodrama and it touches you, but you don’t really know why. This feeling is what cinema should be doing. It should touch you on an emotional level and not only on cerebral one. It was a big challenge because it’s treated as a subgenre that’s very kitsch and tacky. But I just said, “Why not embrace it?”
Brazil and all other Latin cultures are so much about excess. We like everything big. If you cry, you cry a lot, and I was trying to embrace that. Why do we need to be precise if we are messy? Why do we need to be austere if we are baroque? Melodrama allowed me to embrace a culture that sometimes is looked down upon as vulgar or looked down upon as not elegant. But we are all of that. It’s a genre that allows you to embrace mixed cultures. Our culture is not puritan culture. It’s an excessive culture. When we sing we sing very loud. When we fight we shout. It was a great genre to embrace it and not be ashamed of it.
Filmmaker: In adapting a novel that was published in 2016 but whose story looks at the past, how do avoid creating a period piece that feels outdated? Like the author of the material, you are telling a story about the past from the point of view of the present.
Aïnouz: The novel was written based on stories that the author heard in her family and in her inner circle, so it looks at the past from a very fresh and contemporary perspective. The novel doesn’t feel stale or dusty, and that’s because the women that she describes are women that she knows very well. The challenge of taking the novel and bringing it into the present was also how not to make a film—talking about melodrama again—that looks like an old melodrama. How do you make a film that takes place in the past, but to which you can relate to today?
Two very concrete examples. When I was preparing the film I was doing a lot of research on vocabulary from the ’50s. But when the actresses started to perform with those words, it didn’t touch me and it felt like there was a degree of separation between me and them. How could I actually contaminate those characters and those actresses in those bodies with things that are contemporary but taking place 70 years ago? The challenge was not to make the dialogue reflect the period. The way they talk is very contemporary. The colors that they wear in their wardrobe are colors that might have been there in the ’50s but they could also be here now. Even the way they walk and the way their bodies move is very current. It was about having contemporary elements in the environment that could take the viewer to a different time, but not necessarily to the past. The trick was to create a world, which is definitely the one we know today, that could seems like the ’50s, because there are some elements that you could trace to the ’50s, but inhabited by people that you feel could be sitting across the table from you now.
Filmmaker: This was your first time working with French cinematographer Hélène Louvart. Was this her first time shooting in Brazil? Did you feel someone with an outside point of view could bring a interesting gaze to the film?
Aïnouz: It was her first time not only working there, but really her first time in Brazil. I believe she was once in San Paolo for like a couple of days to do color grading for another project the year before we shot, but when she came to Rio it was her first real time. I was a bit afraid of it when I thought about it because Rio is a city that could so easily be represented as a cliché. There are so many photos of Rio and so many films shot in Rio. On one hand, I was afraid to have a French woman coming to shoot the city, but at the same time she had a freshness. We always thought, “We should not make this exotic. We should make this lived-in.” It was fantastic to have that fresh eye coming to see this place. The light situation in Rio is also is very specific. There’s a way the light cuts through the air and a way that it’s filtered, but it’s also a little misty. It was great to have somebody who was excited to discover the place, but also very careful of not making it a picture-perfect Rio for tourists.
Filmmaker: Now that you mentioned the light, aside from the prominent green hues, throughout the film there’s a reddish or pinkish light that gives certain scenes a waking dream quality. What was the intention behind this?
Aïnouz: It’s very funny. On the second day of production we were shooting in an apartment. It was Eurídice’s apartment, and there was a big window. I looked outside—I didn’t know that she had done this—and Hélène had brought this big reflector, it was like an HMI. And when she turned it on it mimicked sunlight. And I said, “Hélène, why don’t we put a purple gel on it?” Because I felt it had to be lit by sunlight, but it had to be a sunlight that was contaminated with this sort of purplish color. And from that moment on we started to actually use colors that we thought would help the scenes dramatically and to free ourselves up from natural light. We thought, “We painted the wall one color, why can’t the light be a different color?” That also allowed us to create a universe that is set apart from reality, and that is not a traditional period film.
We might have used all of the gels that were available in Rio during the time of the shoot. Because we also thought we shouldn’t take for granted how a scene should look. So the question was, “What’s the dominant color of this scene?” It was great to do this on the shoot and not after in post-production, because this also helped the actresses. There’s one scene in particular when Eurídice is calling a detective, because she’s looking for her sister, where the light is very red, the walls are very blue, and it’s a night scene. I think it helped the way she performed. There was a mood we created. When you bring the element of color, and a very explicit color, to the scene, it also changes the way the actors perform.
Filmmaker: It also feels like we are often seeing both Guida and Eurídice through their reflections on mirrors, especially those inside bathrooms. It’s almost as if those are the only places where they can be themselves.
Aïnouz: Coming back to your question about melodrama, the other thing that I think is really important when you are making a melodrama is that the camera is not in the room with the characters, but the camera is somehow between you, the viewer, and the room. That way there’s a separation, like there is in the theater. There’s a sense of distance but also a sense that you’re watching somebody. You’re not sharing exactly what they’re doing, but observing. The mirrors, the walls, and the way that the camera is positioned throughout the whole film is very much with that intention, because you actually watching somebody doing something very private. The mirrors help a lot. It’s funny. I didn’t realize when the film was being edited that there were so many bathroom scenes. Of course I chose them and I did the shooting schedule, but it’s one those things that you don’t realize consciously.
But yes, even within the domestic space the only place that you can actually be private is within the limits of the bathroom. For women at that time, particularly the characters in the film, even more so because they didn’t have an intimate relationship with their husbands, as we know them today. For example, there are moments they don’t want to be around their kids. For me it was also important that those bathrooms were quite colorful, and that there’s a sense of hope within those boundaries. The mirrors were part of that, because we are in that space with them, but we are actually looking at them through the mirror and not directly. It’s something that makes you have a different relationship with the character. It was very interesting to edit the scenes and notice the difference between when the camera is there but you don’t see them through the mirror, and when there is a mirror. There’s such a different sensation as a viewer. You’re probably closer to them if you’re watching them through the mirror.
Filmmaker: The sex scenes are difficult to watch because they are rather transactional and even brutal for the women in the film. How did you approach these moments with the actors, since they are not meant to be erotic or passionate but violent?
Aïnouz: It was very difficult, but at the same time it was important to do it. The first sex scene in the film is nonconsensual marital rape. When you think about the 1950s, particularly in this class context, which was lower middle class, a woman did choose whom she was going to marry, but she could never choose to un-marry that person. There was no divorce. Being with their husbands was the first time they saw a male naked body and they didn’t necessarily knew what to do with it. It was very important to call attention to what has been normalized or framed as natural.
For women it was very hard. I interviewed all of women between 80 and 90-year-old, and I asked them, “How was it the first time you saw a male body? How was your honeymoon?” A lot of them laughed when they told me, but there was a lot of pain there too. I was trying to capture this. For the actress, Carol Duarte, who plays Eurídice, and the actor who plays her husband, Gregório Duvivier, it was very difficult to do a sex scene that wasn’t romanticized, but a sex scene that was violent. For the woman it was very violent, and for the man it was also violent, but that’s the role he was supposed to perform. It was just very uncomfortable for both of them. It was hard but we weren’t dancing around things. It was very clear what we wanted to portray and how to perform it. Directing a sex scene, independently of the context, is directing a dance scene. Since we knew what we wanted, it was very clear what movements they needed to do, what position they would be in, and the sensation that we wanted for every scene.
Filmmaker: Carol Duarte, who plays young Eurídice, is considerably taller than all the men around her, which creates an interesting visual dynamic given the themes related to patriarchy at the center of the film. Was this an intentional casting decision or an unconscious one?
Aïnouz: That’s a good question, because in the book she becomes really overweight as a way to avoid her husband. But the film takes place within the span of 10 years, so it would have been impossible to do that unless we had worked with CGI, and that was not the case. I asked myself, “How can I create that dynamic in this relationship not through gaining weight but with something else?” And what I thought would be interesting is to have this husband who is the most macho husband you can get, but who looks like a kid. He’s shorter than her, he’s heavier than her, and I wanted her to have this sort of very long and thin body. That’s how I resolved it. They are so different form one another. She is just so abstract and so elegant, and he is stockier and smaller. It was something that was not in the book but that I thought could express this within the scope of the cinematic language. I also thought that she should be very long, and she should be almost like an abstract figure, like a Giacometti sculpture or a Modigliani character. There’s something quite transparent about this character that lives through music. Music is quite abstract. It’s not something tangible that you can grab onto.
Filmmaker: All of your films thus far, from Madame Satã to Futuro Beach and now Invisible Life, follow people marginalized by society in one way or another. Why do you believe you find yourself attracted to characters who are often invisible on screen?
Aïnouz: Cinema is a fantastic way to spotlight people that would not be spotlighted in real life. Whenever I’m making a film I asking myself, “Is this character worth being celebrated?” And if it’s worth being celebrated, “Why?” Is it because it’s not being celebrated enough or is it because it’s not being celebrated in the way that I think it should be celebrated? I’m interested in these characters that have not been represented, who have been invisible in cinema. This is the third time I make a film with female protagonists.
My second film, Love for Sale, was actually about a female character, and I made it at a moment when there were very few female protagonists in the landscape of Brazilian cinema. For me cinema is also a place where you could bring justice to the world. There are so many characters that are not represented, and one of the reasons that I make films is, more than to tell stories, to bring those characters to light, to celebrate them, and to allow audiences to spend two hours with them in an intimate situation that you wouldn’t otherwise. Invisibility is a trigger in how I choose my characters and how I choose the stories I want to tell.
Filmmaker: Considering the current social and political situation in Brazil, it appears that every Brazilian filmmaker releasing a new project has to address what’s happening at home. Do you feel that it’s unfair for the work of Brazilian filmmaker to often be seen through the lens of politics rather than solely on its artistic merits?
Aïnouz: I know what you mean. We cannot do something that is not political. We’re not allowed to. But at the same time, everything is political. For example, this is a film about Guida and Eurídice, about these two characters, and it was very important to me that you actually sense that they exist in real life. It’s a beautiful story, but it’s also a story that is deeply political. It’s about patriarchy. It’s about how women are silenced by men. It can seem on one level like a straight jacket, but on another level there is a rage about being political that provides a very interesting energy.
Not being neutral is actually quite interesting. There’s a sense of unrest that you have when you’re telling your story that can only benefit it. I prefer to see it as a mission that can actually bring a lot of life to the films we make. Now in Brazil you cannot not be political. It’s not an option. The situation is so horrible. I see this political responsibility as a gift more than a limitation. For example, the biggest energy in Madame Satã, my first film, is range and indignation. There is an energy that makes the cinema that we make in certain parts of the world, I’m not sure if more interesting, but certainly more electrifying.