Dir: Joao Cesar Monteiro. Portugal. 2003. 179mins
Shown posthumously at Cannes out of competition following his death from cancer in February this year, Coming And Going is the epic final testament of Portuguese actor-director Joao Cesar Monteiro, who had some claim to being European cinema's single most eccentric talent. His films, rambling exercises in comic self-portraiture, are undeniably a specialised taste, and Coming And Going lacks the focus of Monteiro works such as Recollections Of The Yellow House or God's Comedy. Some audiences may find it a long haul, baffling or even unwatchable, given its defiantly slow pacing and the poetic flavour of the dialogue. But love it or hate it, this is a quintessential Monteiro film, which means it is as idiosyncratic as a William Burroughs novel, and those prepared to stay the course may find this a rewarding and revelatory three hours. Its length and Monteiro's arcane mind-set will make this an extremely hard sell even on the specialised arthouse market; but the affection Monteiro is widely held in should give it a strong festival profile.
Once again, Monteiro effectively plays himself, or at least another variant on his usual persona - an elderly, philosophical and unrepentantly filthy-minded anarchist lecher. Here he is Joao Vuvu, an elderly widower whose son is in prison. We first see Monteiro wobbling into view - looking dapper but even more fragile than before - in a Lisbon park, where he feeds the birds a bagful of liver. He then takes the first of many extended bus journeys around town that punctuate the film, during which he sometimes engages with fellow passengers - flirting with a beauty queen, tilting at a ranting right-winger - and sometimes just admires the view.
It must be said that Monteiro's personality and sheer physical strangeness make him intensely watchable, even when he is only craning his neck out of a bus window: he is as magnetic and balletic a film presence as Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati.
Between bus rides, Vuvu hires a series of young women as cleaners for his apartment - invariably young and nubile and at some point skimpily clad. The first, Adriana (Pereira Marques) declares herself to be a communist; the next thing we see, Vuvu is scrubbing the floor while she reclines on his chaise longue. The same actress later appears as Urraca, an outrageously hirsute woman who warns Vuvu, 'I'm Sapphic'. 'And I'm seraphic,' he replies, unflappably.
Other episodes involve Vuvu lecturing an old flame (De Frietas) on the art of the 'Chinese blow-job', and the film's tour de force, a sequence in which Vuvu narrates a scabrous epic poem to a policewoman, to his own hurdy-gurdy accompaniment. Otherwise, there is little event as such: Vuvu's son (Borges) returns from prison, only for dad to shove him into the river, and an unidentified figure appears in Vuvu's flat, does an African dance and then menaces him with a giant phallus, entailing a hospital spell and a sublime sight gag at the expense of George W Bush.
The film feels as though it is giving us a direct connection to the director's unique mind, but any sense of disorder is off-set by the extreme rigour, not to say beauty, of the execution. Shot with transparent clarity by Mario Barosso, Coming And Going is comprised of a series of tableau-like long takes, usually frontal, giving the proceedings a borderline theatrical look. Each sequence is dominated by Monteiro's performance. Like a distracted, emaciated goblin, he moves in slow, ballet-like movements, and speaks in a voice which viewers may either find mesmerising or repellent - a quizzical, almost incantatory delivery that gives his words a poetic flavour even when he is talking outright filth. However, Monteiro's misanthropy and unreconstructed libertine sexism take some swallowing.
Monteiro is undeniably self-indulgent, but you take him as you find him. And even when the philosophical pondering gets too obscure, there are regular dashes of comic business to hold the attention, such as a lunatic Spanish dance duet and a wonderfully simple sight gag involving a girl cycling in a city square. Given Monteiro's death, the hospital scenes towards the end are hugely poignant, and the final shot - an extended freeze-frame of Monteiro's eye in extreme close-up, set to choral music - is hugely moving. At once a fond farewell, a joyous celebration of sex and the lawless imagination, and an unrepentant 'fuck you' to the world, Coming And Going sees Monteiro going out in inimitable style.
Prod co: Madragoa Filmes
French dist/int'l sales: Gemini Films
Prods: Paolo Branco
Cinematography: Mario Barroso
Ed: Joao Nicolau, Renata Sancho
Prod des: Jose Manuel Castanheira
Main cast: Monteiro, Rita Pereira Marques, Manuela de Freitas, Miguel Borges, Rita Durao