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Will-o’-the-Wisp (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2022)

The rare pandemic-era production to tap into something joyful and infectious, João Pedro Rodrigues’s Will-o’-the-Wisp parlays past injustices and present-day anxieties into a euphoric vision of the future. Beginning in 2069, the film tells the tale of an elderly Portuguese king named Alfredo (Joel Branco), who, on his deathbed, reminisces about the years he spent in his youth as a volunteer firefighter. Flashing back to COVID-19 times, a wide-eyed Alfredo (now played by Mauro Costa) is seen defying his parents and joining the local fire brigade, where he meets and falls for his instructor, Afonso (André Cabral), a young Black man carrying some culturally incurred trauma, though with an undeniable pep in his step. In between homoerotic training exercises and nude calendar shoots with co-workers, the pair sneak away to exchange intimate stories and engage in some humorously explicit sexual activity in the woods. Dubbed a “musical fantasy” in the opening credits, Will-o’-the-Wisp is studded with classic fado tunes and contemporary Portuguese pop songs bursting forth with irrepressible glee, and often flowers into inventively designed dance routines. Against a backdrop of climate change and colonialist guilt, Rodrigues—retaining his longstanding art-historical interests but productively scaling down after the ambitious likes of To Die Like a Man (2009) and The Ornithologist (2016)—fashions a kind of a homoerotic utopia in which two unlikely companions reimagine the fortunes of an entire culture.

Following the premiere of Will-o’-the-Wisp in the Directors’ Fortnight program at Cannes, I sat down with Rodrigues to discuss the film’s prolonged gestation, the political aspects of fado music, the lack of risk in contemporary cinema, and how the past is always present in the future.

Will-o’-the-Wisp will screen October 1 and 2 at the New York Film Festival.

I think this is the first movie I’ve seen where someone dies of COVID-19.

[Laughs] Yes, well, for me it’s very hard nowadays to see a film that just pretends there are no masks. I think the pandemic really changed the way we relate to one another. We don’t get close to anyone—I’m always avoiding people. And so for me it’s really strange that people are making films and just ignoring it.

You and your regular collaborator João Rui Guerra da Mata worked on the script for this film, but there’s also a third co-writer credited…

Yes, Paulo Lopes Graça. He’s a diplomat. He works at the U.N. at the Portuguese commission in New York.

How did you come to work with him? 

He once invited us to make an exhibition at a museum he was working at in South Korea. We produced an installation for him from a short film I had made called Morning of Saint Anthony’s Day (2012), and we became friends. So we decided, why not invite him to work with us?

What did he bring to the writing process?

He wrote a lot of dialogue—he’s a very witty person. And he also helped with the music. He knows a lot about Portuguese music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. For example, Amália Rodrigues. She’s our biggest fado singer ever—she’s like the Edith Piaf of Portugal. That’s her song playing in the scene where the main characters are having sex in the forest.

It’s a good song.

It’s an amazing song but a hidden one, because it’s really racist. People pretend that she didn’t sing it. She was a very progressive person herself, but she sang fado, which is connected to a more conservative tradition. Even the song that’s performed in the film, “Fado do Embuçado” (“The Cloaked Man Fado”), by João Ferreira Rosa, is a very royalist song—it denotes nostalgia for the aristocracy and pre-Republican times. It tells the story of a man who always came to listen to fado wearing a cloak, and when he uncloaks himself he’s the king of Portugal—which is what the last scene of the film is referencing when the character uncloaks. In that scene I have the ’90s fado singer Paulo Bragança perform the song. I had used one of Bragança’s songs in To Die Like a Man, and I always wanted to work with him. He is a visionary and irreverent fado singer, who used to sing barefoot, wearing skirts or futuristic clothes, and somehow he revolutionized fado singing. He rearranged some very traditional fado songs for the film—he even changed the lyrics in one song so we could play on the similarities of the words fado and falo, which in Portuguese means phallus.

How did you conceptualize the use of music in the film? It seems to be a mixture of pop songs, orchestral music, and traditional Portuguese songs.

Cinematically, I looked to Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, as well as Ginger Rogers–Fred Astaire and Stanley Donen–Gene Kelly musicals. But we wanted to use different kinds of music, from the very popular to the almost naive. At the beginning there’s a children’s song that we use to bring the king back to his past, and later we use a contemporary Portuguese song. In fact, the original singer of the children’s song, Joel Branco, is the guy who plays the dying king. You hear him singing the original ’80s version in the credits. It was a song made for the Day of the Trees, which is a day for children to be aware of forests and nature.

How did you and da Mata, who also did the production design, arrive at the look of the film? It is economically scaled but quite vivid.

First there was the question of the future, because the story starts in 2069. And yes, we used 69 symbolically, because, well… [Laughs]. But it’s also a reference to the Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin song “69 année érotique.” I knew when 2069 appeared on screen at the premiere and people laughed that they understood where I wanted to go.

In any case, we didn’t have a lot of money, and the film has some science-fiction elements—B-movie style science fiction, but science fiction nonetheless. We see the shadow of a spaceship, for example, but not the actual spaceship. It’s all about suggestion. Even the costumes had to be invented since the characters are supposed to be firefighters in the future. We thought a lot about what Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film is set in the future, but you still see old furniture from the ’60s. What I don’t like in period films is when things are just from that period. The world is not like that. The past is also in the future. You don’t throw out everything you have in your home every 10 years because it’s the fashionable thing to do. You keep stuff. It’s a strata—each period has the past in it. That’s one reason we chose the chapel you see at the end of the film. It’s a brutalist chapel by two modernist Portuguese architects, but it looks like something out of the future.

Can you talk about the choreography of the musical sequences? Did you work these elements out on set?

No, it was super rehearsed. My choreographer, Madalena Xavier, and I watched a lot of musicals—and by that I mean classical musicals as well as music videos. We looked at Paul Thomas Anderson’s video for Thom Yorke’s “Anima,” and we also watched a lot of Perfume Genius videos.

Madalena is a dance teacher in Lisbon. Some of the firefighters were and are her students, including André Cabral, who plays Afonso. Our main idea for the choreography was to establish a rhythm early on, in the sequence where the firefighters are going through their safety training—especially the First Aid Recovery Position routine. Those gestures were the starting point. You’ll notice they do similar things when they’re dancing.

I’m curious about the main storyline of Alfredo wanting to become a firefighter. I know you have an interest in bird watching, which partly inspired The Ornithologist, but did you ever want to become a firefighter?

It actually comes from a magazine article someone sent me. Portugal hasn’t had a monarchy since 1910—so 112 years—but there are still royal families and many living descendants of royals. Apparently an heir to one royal family wanted to be a fireman. So from that I built up a story that has nothing to do with any real royal family, but one that deals with the idea of how people represent themselves. That’s why we decided to use a theater curtain in those early scenes with the family in the dining room. A lot of the film deals with how you want others to see you and how you discover who you really are.

Can you talk about the film’s art-historical reference points, particularly as it relates to painting? There’s the sequence where the firemen are recreating various famous paintings for a wall calendar, but there’s also the large painting that hangs in the royal family’s house, which becomes a plot point in the film.

The painting is from the 18th century, and it’s called “The Marriage of Negro Rosa,” by José Conrado Roza. It portrays a wedding ceremony that one of our queens had for little people. Negro Rosa was the queen’s confidant. The painting is a fairly diverse depiction: there’s a Brazilian man, a native man—all little people. The painting is now at the Museum du Nouveau Monde in La Rochelle, France, and it’s called “The Wedding Masquerade.” I think it speaks a lot to the times we’re living in. You can’t call a painting “The Marriage of Negro Rosa” today because it’s considered racist—and of course it is, but that’s also the title it had. The film is all about these kinds of subtleties—what you can say and what you cannot say.

The calendar sequence is inspired by these cheap calendars that firefighters often make of themselves. But rather than just have them pose as naked hunks, I wanted to play around with some paintings and artists I admire, like Caravaggio or Velázquez, but also someone like José Vilhena, who was a very vulgar Portuguese cartoonist. He was very critical of the dictatorship that we had until 1974. He somehow managed to make political caricatures, ridiculing the people in power. It’s like what happened with the Hays Code, with filmmakers finding ways to speak about things without directly invoking them.

The film definitely walks a tightrope. It’s funny, but it also deals with racism, fascism, and global warming.

I feel like I’m always walking a tightrope, but I like that idea of risk. There’s not enough risk in contemporary cinema—I get bored a lot. Speaking of which, I also wanted to make a shorter film, one that’s not three hours long like a lot of films that screen at festivals. Not that I don’t like long films—I have nothing against them. I even saw Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) by Lav Diaz in the cinema once. But I think people are starting to tire of some of these longer films.

I really try to be critical toward myself, and be precise. I think contemporary cinema lacks precision. Filmmakers like Bresson made the kind of art cinema that inspired me. He shows just what he wants to show and nothing else—it’s so erotic. For me, Bresson is the most erotic director. It’s all about physicality; it’s about the way you say words, too, but it’s really about how you film bodies. It’s not sexual, but for me it’s a pleasurable and erotic experience.

Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in ArtforumCinema Scopefrieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight & Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.