Decadence, hysteria, incest and mad ego parade across dramatic backdrops of storm-tossed seas and cloud-swirled crags in vet Portuguese director Joao Botelho’s exquisite fever dream of extreme 19th Century romanticism, “The Northern Land.” Based on a novel by Agustina Bessa-Luis (favorite literary source of the helmer’s compatriot, Manuel de Oliviera), the quasi-indecipherable story spans decades, classes and generations with surreal sameness, as the identical woman constantly reappears in different guises, one more imperiously obsessive than the last. As visually stunning as it is narratively off-putting, this quintessential art movie by an eclectic maestro is unlikely to surface outside rarefied fest or museum circles.
In the present, a woman (fiery Ana Moreira, in one of many incarnations) delves into the mystery of a long-ago ancestor, a woman who threw herself off a cliff in the Northern Land (or did she?), conjuring up a convoluted tale of shifting identities and disturbing doppelgangers as it moves from elegant ballrooms to luxurious brothels, passing through opera houses and theaters along the way. Successive generations fare even more poorly, dying anonymously at sea or hanging themselves in fits of incestuous jealousy.
Like Catherine Breillat in “The Last Mistress,” Botelho limns a romanticism that has little to do with sentimentality and everything to do with excess. What characters lack in charm or humanity they more than make up for in manic passions and monstrous egoism. Their only saving grace is the magnificence of their self-destruction. But what Breillat clinically distances, Botelho relegates to straightforwardly photographed, oddly unreal tableaux.
Pic unfolds on the island of Madeira, with characters routinely escaping from civilized Funchal in the south to the elemental primitivism of the titular north. Scenes taking place off the island, such as brief shots of ships or of burials at sea, are framed within spyglass-like irises and rendered in textured tones that relegate the external world to a series of engraved illustrations, closing off the island to an inbred, feudal hell.
Joao Ribeiro’s lensing incorporates the luminous lighting that is Botelho’s signature, a source of limpid tranquility in films like “A Portuguese Farewell,” here shifting and flickering with dreamlike instability in hothouse HD, the luxurious gowns and ornate trappings of the beau monde threatening to slide off into chaos or, perhaps, history.