Eight hours in the life of Lisbon are idiosyncratically chronicled in “Three Palm Trees.” Making a commanding palette of the city, director Joao Botelho offers a visually seductive series of loosely interlocking metropolitan moments that’s by turns tragic, jocular, intense, gripping, teasing and even light-operatic. Almost as cerebral as it is cinematic, the film should figure on European TV slates, but theatrically it’s too rarefied an exercise in style and oblique philosophy to go beyond the festival field.
The film is one of a trio of hourlong features depicting different stretches of a single day in the “Lisbon, 24 Hours” project commissioned for the city’s year as European Capital of Culture. Time frame here is 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., opening with a suicide and closing with a birth.
A pregnant woman in her 40s (Teresa Roby) is about to go into labor. To distract her from anxieties about her suitability for motherhood, the baby’s young father (Pedro Hestnes) tells stories of inhabitants of the city sprawling out beyond the three palms opposite their window.
A young woman throws herself in the river; a pair of nighttime revelers stagger home drunk; a man contemplates killing the woman sleeping in his hotel bed, and then shoots himself; an English-speaking couple have a tiff that gets patched up silently; a ballet student learns that she’s not cut out to dance.
The vignettes are fluidly woven together by Hestnes’ commentary and Roby’s dismissive, often disbelieving reactions. Hestnes is drawn directly into the universe of stories when he steps out for cakes and meets a film-star-turned-bag-lady in the park, who frightens him off with an unsolicited demonstration of onscreen kissing technique.
A cake shop provides the stage for an amusing, fully sung mini-opera involving a woman who begs for cash and makes off with a tray of pastries.
The baby’s graphically filmed birth coincides with the recovery of a body (presumably the woman from reel one) from the river. Several characters step over the line into each other’s stories, creating a sense of fusion of the city’s disparate strands.
Botelho’s fascination with the elements continues from his previous feature, “Here on Earth.” Water and wind feature heavily on the soundtrack, along with Antonio Vitorino d’Almeida’s portentous, often willfully strident music.
Color is heightened dramatically, with rich blood reds, warm sea and sky blues and solar yellows almost leaping off the screen. Olivier Gueneau’s handsome lensing is especially alluring in the period before sun-up.