The story of the love affair between American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires).
Tethered to university teaching positions or day jobs, sustained largely by grants, and ignored by the broader reading public, the lives of most modern poets are not especially fertile grounds for film adaptation. But Elizabeth Bishop was a singular figure, not only in terms of the work she produced—a poetic voice radically unlike any of her peers—but also in terms of the way she lived. After moving from Massachusetts to New York, she was championed by Marianne Moore and befriended by Robert Lowell, at that time second only to Robert Frost as the most famous living American poet.
Both these mentors seemed to recognise in her something unique and fragile, a talent that needed to be tended carefully, else it might as easily come to nothing. A famously slow writer, Bishop laboured over every phrase and line-break, and published little: her first collection, 1946’s North & South, was followed almost a decade later by her second, Poems: North & South – A Cold Spring, which repackaged the first book and added just 18 new pieces. It would be a further 9 years before her next collection (Questions of Travel, 1965), and 11 more before her final publication, Geography III (1976).
But in early 1951, her life changed. She received a $2,500 travelling fellowship from Bryn Mawr College—Moore’s alma mater—and used it to travel to South America; that November she arrived in Brazil. She expected to stay a fortnight, but wound up living there for the next 15 years: learning Portuguese, getting to know the country’s leading literary figures, whose work she translated, and writing (or trying to write) her own poems.
For most of that time, she conducted a relationship with another woman, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, a member of the local aristocracy charged with the re-design of Petrópolis, the country’s ‘imperial city.’ As depicted here, the pair strike sparks when they first meet, at the home of one of Bishop’s friends from Vassar. Which makes sense, given they’re temperamental opposites: the local woman a bohemian, a dreamer; the visitor a rather uptight librarian-type. Between them, they personify two competing notions of identity in the New World—high-flown libertinism and moralistic repression. Yet even as you watch them circle each other, like a pair of hungry cats, you find yourself wondering how two different people will possibly manage to make a life together, once the initial sizzle fades.
This question is further complicated by Mary, the aforementioned college friend—and Lota’s original lover. Who stubbornly refuses to quit the field when Elizabeth comes along, and remains instead on the margins of their love story, sometimes living with them and sometimes not, turning their already-tempestuous love story into a triangle of unequal parts.
Either because of her sexuality, which she took care to conceal during the homophobic 1950s, or out of some innate reserve in her character, Bishop was a fiercely private individual, and as such, implacably opposed to the confessional tone which predominated at that time among her peers. (“Art,” she once told Lowell, “just isn’t worth that much.”) So one can only imagine what she would have made of this up-close-and-personal account, which devotes as much time to her love life as to her work, and which manages to celebrate her achievement while, at the same time, cataloguing her many weaknesses—in particular, her long-time alcoholism. There are many films about talented people who drink too much, but this one boasts at least one moment of unusual clarity, when Elizabeth admits to her girlfriend that “I don't drink because things go wrong; I want to drink every minute of every day. Things going wrong just gives me the excuse I've been looking for.”
This lacerating honesty extends to Miranda Otto’s performance. As the essentially solitary poet, she’s excellent, conveying at once a rich and complex inner life—its details elusive perhaps even to Bishop herself— and also a profound uneasiness with the world outside. She disappears into the part, inhabits it completely. As her lover de Macedo Soares, meanwhile, Brazilian actress Glória Pires has the showier role: she’s all ferocious tantrums and extravagant shows of affection; her pitch is constantly set to 11. But she, too, quickly locates the beating heart of her character, and displays it; she makes what might have seemed a caricature into a real person.
A mainstay of Brazilian cinema, director Bruno Barreto first came to attention in the mid-1970s with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, a lightly erotic comedy that was widely distributed (it was nominated for a Golden Globe) and did much to reawaken commercial interest in the country’s film industry after the aesthetic and political vanguard of the Cinema Novo movement. He’s enjoyed a sporadic international profile since, with films like Four Days in September (1997) and Last Stop 174 (2008), but this feels like the first of his ‘mature’ works—handsomely crafted, impeccably acted, and perhaps a shade too worthy for its own good. It’s a film for older viewers who pride themselves on their discernment; in America it would be an ‘NPR movie’—I suppose here it’s trying to reach a Radio National audience, well-read and smugly self-congratulatory about their own good taste.
Where it does excel, is in its production design: the film is almost a love-poem of its own—though less to its tempestuous characters than to the world they inhabit, a hymn to the unfussy elegance of mid-century modernist design. (I dare any viewer not to look at Elizabeth’s writing retreat—designed for her by de Macedo Soares—and not sigh in envy.)
Finally, ignore that awful English-language title, a cliché as unforgivable as it is ironic, given that this is a film about a writer who consistently, determinedly rejected tired and shopworn language. Better they had stuck with its working title, The Art of Losing—taken from the opening line of one of Bishop’s most famous poems. “Lose something every day,” she urges in it. For a writer so ruthlessly self-sustaining, these were words to live by.