4:3 is back in fashion. The Academy ratio had fallen out of favour for the longest time – pretty much ever since widescreen and Cinescope were introduced to counteract the onslaught of television. But something about the most classic of aspect ratios has appealed to a number of filmmakers over the last few years, most notably in films like The Artist or Meek’s Cutoff. Tabu can be added to that slowly increasing list.
Filmed in glorious black & white, Tabu is simply beautifully photographed from beginning to end. In an inspired touch, the two halves are filmed in different film stocks – the first in stark, familiar 35mm, and the second in gloriously grainy and old-fashioned 16mm. It’s a film with a genuinely unique visual identity – homaging the style of classic cinema with a refreshingly modern twist. On purely cinematography terms, Tabu is intoxicating.
The second half of the film is where it really goes for broke. It's in essence a simple, familiar and melodramatic romance, but it's handled with genuine care and affection. It’s the more stylistically ambitious half: told only though sound effects, music and voiceover, it's an emotionally involving and expertly realised love story. While the core narrative could have been lifted right out of silent cinema in many ways, its modern tweaks (from surreal musical interludes to a surprisingly raw sex scene) ultimately create something that feels fresh and exciting while still recounting a classic and comfortingly familiar story. A strange story involving a crocodile is told in the prologue, and the creature reappears throughout the film – a symbol of love, perhaps, or a reminder of the timelessness of certain stories and cinematic techniques.
Not that the first half is unworthy of praise: it still has much that’s worthy of comment. Madruga’s performance is excellent, and the challenges faced by her character are handled with subtlety and intelligence. There’s some very clever visual flourishes – one conversation takes place in what appears to be a rotating restaurant in a casino, and it adds an extra layer to a fantastically written scene. The themes and drama experienced by Pilar and her companions reverberate throughout the rest of the film in subtle and curious ways – while we never return to the contemporary setting, the events of the second half suggest possible resolutions and catharsis for the character dilemmas established in the Lisbon segment.
Miguel Gomes has crafted a purely cinematic treat, and one with a great command of form and technique. On a purely technical level, this is very easy to recommend. But while firmly situated on the arthouse end of the spectrum, it's the warm, carefully paced and genuinely emotional narrative Tabu an extra push towards true excellence. Highly recommended.