Kleber Mendonça Filho’s AQUARIUS is unthinkable without Sonia Braga’s fiery, dignified performance
There’s a lot in common between Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça FIlho’s anxiously-awaited second fiction feature, Aquarius, and a couple of other films that also saw their premieres in the 2016 Cannes festival. I’m thinking particularly of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, films that are also anchored around strong women and strong actresses. In many ways, all three films are off-centred women’s pictures that refuse to be bound by the limitations and conventions of whatever genre they’re working in (and none of them can fit peacefully any one specific genre); they’re also love letters to their actresses, that aim to give them as much time and space as possible for a character to emerge. Peculiarly enough, only one of them was actually directed by a woman, and Maren Ade’s film is in fact named after the alter ego of its male character — but either way, these are films that are pretty much impossible to conceive without these actresses.
Toni Erdmann, for instance, works at nearly three hours because long takes, observation and expectation are central to its dramatic approach, and what Ade is interested in is less what Peter Simonischek’s practical prankster does and more how Sandra Hüller’s all-business-woman responds to it; but at some point in Aquarius, you start wondering whether “more” isn’t really “less”, whether Mendonça Filho has taken on more than he can deal with, whether this combination of a portrait of a strong-willed woman and a picture of modern-day Brazil starts working against the film’s dramatic strength.
But, ultimately, the film’s strengths much outweigh its faults. And it’s in the story of a woman coming to terms with her life and the world around her, in its unmitigated, arresting love for Clara/Sonia (and, in this case, is there really a difference?), that Aquarius is at its best and Kleber Mendonça Filho confirms why he’s one of the few contemporary directors you should always keep an eye on.