Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’s ‘Tabu’ takes its title from F W Murnau’s 1931 swansong, and more besides: both pictures are divided into two chapters, one set in a version of paradise, the other after its loss; both are concerned with nature and colonialism, desire and elopement, the body and the social contract; and both rest on an exoticism that flirts, more or less knowingly, with kitsch. Gomes’s is the more radically divided tale. Following a quasi-ethnographic prologue, the first half of his story is set in contemporary Lisbon, presented in luminous black-and-white photography as a city of drifting souls. Then we veer tangentially into an extended flashback to colonial Africa for a more compellingly linear tale of doo-wop bands, fugitive crocodiles, yearning infatuation and fatal impulses.
An impressionistic enterprise, ‘Tabu’ is more satisfying in its latter half: the aestheticised lethargy of the first part – though frequently lovely – is less successful than the second part’s gorgeously realised yet carefully ironic melodrama. Recalled across a great distance of time, space and experience, this narrated tale enriches the film’s first half while setting up challenges of its own: at once heroic and shabby, the love affair’s self-romanticising tendency is of a piece with Gomes’s lyrical yet distanced technique. Evoking work as disparate as that of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Guy Maddin and Claire Denis – with a dash of ‘The Artist’ thrown in – ‘Tabu’ is a tantalising trip.