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Cannes 2015: ‘Arabian Nights Vol II, The Desolate One’: The inexplicable beguilement of surrealist cinema

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Arabian Nights Volume 2: The Desolate One
Directed by Miguel Gomes
Written by Miguel Gomes, Telmo Churro, Mariana Ricardo
Portugal / France / Germany / Switzerland, 2015

Miguel Gomes showed up the Director’s Fortnight screening of the second part of Arabian Nights wearing a t-shirt and Benfica football scarf and started off by rambling about his favourite team’s newly won championship title. Something about Gomes is disarmingly charismatic and sincere – you could tell the rugged look was not an act but rather Gomes was just being himself. And amazingly, despite the thick layers of surrealist imagery and narrative convolution, there is a quality in his Arabian Nights enterprise that comes across as totally sincere.

Volume two runs at just over two hours and, on paper, sounds like a load of pretentious claptrap – there is no unified plot but rather the structure is built around three disconnected episodes with various degrees of narrative development. The first story is set in the Portuguese countryside and revolves around an elderly villager, whom the narrator occasionally refers to as an ‘asshole’, on the run from police. The second story ups the surrealist ante with a red-robed “judge” running a bizarre court of law in a moonlit amphitheatre after a mobile phone conversation with her daughter reporting on her deflowering. Some of the victims, witnesses and perpetrators are wearing masks and disguises and some are not. Some of the offenses tried are related to the economic policy of austerity that Portugal endured in 2013-2014. The third slot tells the story of a Maltese dog named Dixie as it switches owners on a poverty-stricken housing estate. Dixie is apparently a loving happy dog that brightens the lives of the humans around it…

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On screen however, the absurdity of the characters and dissonance of storylines is somehow transformed into a surrealist work that functions on a level beyond narrative logic and traditional character construction. Having been burned by high expectations the past couple of days (see Tale of Tales, Mia Madre and The Lobster), I was mentally prepared to endure two hours of nonsensical  rambling, but fortunately the magic that’s been missing from quite a few of the festival’s contestants was here this time round.

Magic, because there is no pinpointing the exact ingredients that render The Desolate One an enjoyable piece of surrealist cinema. It must be Gomes’ unidentifiable talent and idiosyncratic imagination that makes the wacky blend of grotesque characters, seemingly random vignettes (Why does Dixie see a dog ghost? Why does the maid make cake naked? Who are the three young women having a slapping orgy with the fugitive old man and why do they make moonlit dinner for him?) and allegorical social commentary (austerity is similarly evoked in a surreal fable-like manner) work on its very own terms. Suspension of disbelief here comes naturally, and the bizarreness comes across as elegant, if that’s possible. Where Tale of Tales and The Lobster seemed forced, overwrought and over-ambitious, Gomes’ film manages without blowing its own trumpet to be both a singularly original, innovative piece of art and an inexplicably enjoyable watch.

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