Early on in Miguel Gomes’ arty new movie Tabu (booked to play at the Walker Art Center over the next couple weekends), the cloudy-minded elderly woman Aurora tells her terribly tolerant neighbor Pilar a lengthy nightmare she experienced. In her dream, Aurora was bedeviled by her hairy-armed late husband … or was it actually a monkey? She can’t seem to tell for sure, and notes that it probably made little difference in the dream, so what consequence can it possibly have in her waking life?
If Aurora’s dream faintly suggests the animal transmutations that occasionally surface in the midst of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films (most notably the gay lover who maybe turned into a tiger Tropical Malady and the red-eyed Sasquatch ghost floating through the recent Uncle Boomnee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), Tabu‘s neatly bifurcated structure makes the comparison all but explicit. Gomes, however, uses his two distinct halves to stress the clarity that can come from storytelling, whereas Weerasethakul often uses his divergences to suggest the mystery of simply being. (The movie’s structure is also a direct antecedent to F.W. Murnau’s two-chapter final film Tabu, from which Gomes’ film also obviously took its name.)
Heady though it may seem at first, Tabu is actually a surprisingly frontal experience, with the movie’s prologue setting up a parable of longing and regret that extends even beyond the grave, a story that later informs Aurora’s state of mind as she approaches her own death. Gomes first portrays her crepuscular unease through cinematographer Rui Poças’ richly high-contrast B&W imagery of downtown Lisbon.
It’s when Aurora summons Pilar to find the other heretofore unknown stranger Gian-Luca Ventura that the film’s downbeat spell bursts into something else. Ventura tells Pilar and Santa, Aurora’s live-in personal attendant from Cape Verde, the story of how Aurora and he were the one great love of each other’s lives back in the 1960s, when she was married to someone else. Their coupling forms the “Paradise” yin to the movie’s own “Paradise Lost” yang.
Gomes doesn’t underline it, but there’s every reason to suspect that Ventura’s tale is as much a fabrication, or at least as much a product of long-suppressed subconscious desires, as Aurora’s own dream told toward the beginning of the film. The handsome Tabu, as intensely slippery as that pet crocodile that keeps skulking out of its wading pool, demonstrates how much an audience can accept as fact anything that seduces them.