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CANNES 2022 Directors’ Fortnight

Review: Will-o’-the-Wisp

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- CANNES 2022: Portuguese filmmaker Joāo Pedro Rodrigues’ latest effort is a queer musical-fantasy about a dying king, set suggestively in the year 2069

Review: Will-o’-the-Wisp
Mauro Costa and André Cabral in Will-o’-the-Wisp

Folklore, environmentalism, queer desire and Hollywood musical-style ensemble choreography come together in this short but ravishing feature by Joāo Pedro Rodrigues, who is bouncing back to form and the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes after his last, less successful work The Ornithologist [+see also:
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interview: João Pedro Rodrigues
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played at Locarno. Films with these outré descriptions often dot festival catalogues and flatter to deceive, but Will-o’-the-Wisp [+see also:
trailer
film profile
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absolutely lives up to the excitable copywriting on viewing, whilst beneath its pleasurable surface lie many thought-provoking ideas. And at a 67-minute running time, it also easily nabs the “it’s short, it’s good” festival crown that Quentin Dupieux thought he’d forever have to himself, like Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City never letting go of their league titles.

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We begin in bed, although with just one sole occupant of the sheets this time. In Rodrigues’ universe, the Portuguese monarchy has been restored, and King Alfredo (Joel Branco) lies ailing on his deathbed, with only the company of his regrets and memories. Next, time jumps backwards from 2069 to 2011, and we see the young, fresh-faced Alfredo (now played by Mauro Costa), clad in a preppy sweater-vest, ambling through a lush pine forest near the coast, the historical site where naval launches in centuries previous began to establish the Portuguese empire. Rodrigues here begins his overlapping of imagery, where the thick, towering tree trunks surrounding him chime with his closeted queerness, and must also be maintained against the threats of forest fires triggered by global heating. And then, in faux-amateurish blocking reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a bunch of kids sing the 1980s children’s song “Uma Arvore, Um Amigo” (lit. “A Tree, A Friend”), their cherubic faces darting rhythmically between the tree trunks, and the effect somehow avoids tooth-rotting tweeness.

Then Rodrigues shifts to the main, X-rated bulk of the story, which feels very catered to the gay male gaze. Echoing the cruising garbage-man protagonist of his 2000 breakthrough Phantom [+see also:
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film profile
]
, Alfredo is inspired to become a firefighter, with its promises of virtue denied by his aristocratic background, and the succour and protection it can provide to the nature he so loves. And there is also the small matter of the all-male, all-buff working environment. Alfredo generates chemistry with Afonso (André Cabral), and after a wooing foreplay composed of the latter and his firefighter buddies acting out poses from transgressive artists like Caravaggio and Francis Bacon (embarrassing the less-cultured Alfredo, who dines at his old family residence beneath a racial stereotype-laden painting by José Conrado Rosa), intimate pleasure occurs in the green utopia of the forest, complete with sexual depictions a few close-up details shy of gay porn.

Despite being dazzlingly made, and au courant with its modish concerns of colonialism and the climate, as the film reaches its end, you wonder how it’s all going to add up, or if it might eventually feel overly slight. Rodrigues happily returns to the future timeline, invoking the sexual position referenced in the year by doubling back and tying up all of the narrative loose ends, making the film an archetypal queer love story in another, old-fashioned sense, hauntingly musing on a life and sexual desires unfulfilled.

Will-o’-the-Wisp is a co-production between France and Portugal, staged by House on Fire, Terratreme and Filmes Fantasma. Its world sales are overseen by Films Boutique.

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