A deeply disappointing affair sure to leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
Marco Martins’ highly anticipated follow-up to his superb debut, “Alice,” is a deeply disappointing affair sure to leave an unpleasant aftertaste. “How to Draw a Perfect Circle” shows every sign of being seduced by French New Wave cinema, but the siren call is distinctly out of tune and the helmer appears to have exchanged his earlier emotional honesty for mere Gallic navel-gazing in this story of wealthy incestuous siblings. It’s hard to imagine audiences at home or abroad wanting to cuddle up to this very imperfect pair.
Perhaps one day, psychologists will explain why incest among the poor is seen as shocking and sordid, while such behavior among the rich is decadent and transgressive. Martins and co-scripter Goncalo M. Tavares offer no insight into this enigma, instead reinforcing the puzzling notion with their tale of Guilherme (Rafael Morais) and his sister, Sofia (Joana de Verona). The two live in their grandmother’s mansion, occasionally looked in on by their unconventional mom (Beatriz Batarda). Their dad, Paul (Daniel Duval), returns to Portugal from Paris, but he’s the kind of Frenchie intellectual devoid of parenting skills.
Sofia promised Guilherme that when she was ready, he would have the dubious privilege of taking her virginity, and the randy young man is getting impatient, unable to satisfy himself any longer with masturbating by her side. When he spies his sis apparently having sex with another guy, he feels deeply betrayed, his emotional maelstrom further exacerbated by news of their grandmother’s death.
As Mom makes moves to sell the ancestral manse — another betrayal — Guilherme moves in with Paul. That doesn’t work out very well, either, and once again he’s reduced to self-gratification, this time while watching his father having sex with a prostitute. Just before this scene, while father and son play Tic-Tac-Toe, Paul remarks that Guilherme can draw a perfect circle but always loses the game. The line is a long time coming, and by then, any meaningful emotional resonance has been lost.
There’s an oddly backward-looking quality to the entire film, as Martins emulates Godard and Co. (the siblings watch “Band of Outsiders”), but in a way that feels attenuated and false; even the decor screams French cinephilia. Paul is almost a parody of a French intellectual, while his son’s naive reticence, as well as unnatural predilections, are anything but charming. So the characters look yearningly, smoke a lot of cigarettes, flick through Virginia Woolf and walk in the rain — it’s like “The Dreamers” without the magnetic personalities.
Some marvelously unexpected images in the first third, like an overhead shot of Guilherme between beach and ocean’s edge, remind auds that there is genuine talent here. Scenes often start with slow pans from above or below, and crepuscular lighting is maintained for a maximum amount of dark spaces. Art direction inside the mansion would appeal to an early 21st-century version of Miss Havisham’s house, with tonalities kept to a dun-colored dreariness. Songs by Jacques Brel, Leo Ferre and others further the French feel.