You can depend on a João Pedro Rodrigues movie to give you a real eyeful. The Portuguese filmmaker’s erotic phantasmagorias offer no shortage of what-the-fuck tableaux, with an emphasis on bodies and the sweet havoc they wreak—the insatiable young horndog of O Fantasma, for instance, jerking himself off with a shower hose coiled around his neck; or the middle-aged transgender nightclub performer in To Die Like a Man, whose breasts leak blood and silicone. Rodrigues’s latest, The Ornithologist, is no less attuned to the shock and awe of corporeal experience, but here the fixation is couched in an almost overpowering serenity, one that prevails amid a proliferation of bewildering Christian and pagan allusions and a widescreen, nature-doc revelry in northern Portugal’s leafy, hilly landscapes. Even the film’s sole penetrative act—a finger sliding deep inside a dead man’s stab wound—is undertaken with a gentleness that belies its necrophilic overtones.
Pouty-lipped, vacant-eyed Fernando (Paul Hamy), the sexy naturalist of the film’s title, sets the mood for watchful curiosity. We meet him alone in the wilderness, surveying varieties of avian life through his binoculars and fielding occasional texts from a concerned lover inquiring if he’s taken his meds. But like the birds he studies, Fernando is mostly untethered from any discernible backstory, his wanderings seemingly fueled less by professional commitment or existential restlessness than a healthy appreciation for outdoor pleasures. It’s not long before we become the inheritors of his scopophilia, as a string of picaresque scenarios conspire to test his endurance—and showcase his Calvin Klein physique in various states of undress. Swept away by dangerous rapids, he awakens to find himself the captor of two sadistic lesbian pilgrims from China, who all but re-create the martyrdom of San Sebastian by roping him half-naked to a tree. Soon after escaping their clutches, he stumbles on a deaf, mute twink named Jesus sucking milk from a goat’s teat, a meet-cute that leads to a tender tutorial in bird-watching and a quick roll in the sand.
Calling to mind the best of Luis Buñuel and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, The Ornithologist adopts a dream logic that never begs for decoding, a sensuous engagement with the world that asks only to be experienced. As if to render the notion of intelligibility quaint, Fernando’s encounters repeatedly heighten the threshold for communication, whether by pairing him with tourists who do not share his native tongue, or by thwarting the very possibility of verbal exchange, or—finally—by evoking the mysterious ways in which creatures of heaven and earth make contact across their estrangement. The film operates like a reversal of the pathetic fallacy most famously practiced by the Romantics: far from opening up an epic canvas upon which to project the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, nature forces Fernando into intimacy with a pervasive incoherence. Nature itself becomes denaturalized. And the fact that Fernando begins the story as a knowledge-seeking man of science only makes the fractured, anything-goes absurdism of the final act pulsate with a complexity that offsets the film’s slow, almost soothing pace.
Toward the end, we find Fernando at his most intensely alone, but also steadily, intently watched. Impatient to leave the human gaze behind, Rodrigues’s camera has been taking on the distant, perched perspectives of birds, and as if to mock the solidity of our hunky hero, the director remakes him, for a few fleeting seconds at a time, in his own image. These sudden body swaps become more frequent in the film’s final passages and are all the trippier for being entirely unexplained and nearly imperceptible. While no one who falls under the spell of this strange movie will be in any rush to decipher what this metamorphosis might mean, these surrealist gestures certainly reaffirm Rodrigues’s career-long impatience with the confining essentialism of personal and political identity. Perhaps what he means to suggest is that if we are doomed to never change how and what we see, then we might at least try to imagine the various selves we become in the eyes of unknowable, innumerable others.
The Ornithologist will screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Andrew Chan is web editor at The Criterion Collection. He has been contributing to Film Comment since 2008.