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‘The Kegelstatt Trio’ Brings Eric Rohmer’s Stage Play to the Big Screen

The Kegelstatt Trio
Courtesy of Basilisco Filmes

This year’s Berlinale’s Forum includes the world premiere of Rita Azevedo Gomes’ latest feature film, “The Kegelstatt Trio,” adapted from the 1987 stage play, written by the late French helmer, Éric Rohmer.

The privately-funded Portuguese/Spanish co-production was shot during the lockdown, produced by Gomes and Gonzalo García Pelayo. It received post-production completion finance from the Portuguese Film and Audiovisual Institute (ICA).

Rohmer wrote “Le Trio en mi bémol,” inspired by Mozart’s composition of that name, while writing his 1989 pic, “Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle.”

The story revolves around a series of encounters between two former lovers who talk about what led them to drift apart, including the importance of music in cementing their relationship. Whereas the man views classical music as the supreme art form, able to move the mind and body at the profoundest level, the woman sees it as being a primarily intellectual attraction. She had left him for a new lover, who was a rock musician.

The film incorporates a “making-of” dimension, jumping between the main dialogue and then pulling back to show a Spanish director and his crew as they shoot the film. The ensemble of crew and cast, in turn, are filmed by Azevedo Gomes. The man is played by French actor, Pierre Léon (“The Idiot”), the woman by Portuguese actress, Rita Durão (“Gloria”) who has starred in many of Gomes’ previous feature films, including “The Portuguese Woman,” in which Léon also played. The director is played by veteran filmmaker, Adolfo Arrieta (“Sleeping Beauty”), a pioneer of Spanish independent cinema.

Gomes (Lisbon, 1952) is a regular on the international film festival circuit, having previously won awards in Turin,  Caminhos do Cinema Português, DocLisboa and the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. She also works for the Cinemateca Portuguesa, where she is responsible for graphic design, programming and exhibitions.

Her career also spans the theatre, where she has worked as an artistic director, set designer and costume designer.

In “Trio”, she plays with reality, both through the “making-of” device – including a scene in which the camera rotates 360º to show that the crew has disappeared – and with subtle dream sequences, including a moment in which the Spanish director is seen on his own in the house at night, next to a wandering pig.

Elegantly lensed by Portuguese cinematographer, Jorge Quintela, the setting is a minimalist 1960s modernist beach house, on the coast of Northern Portugal.

Variety spoke to Rita Azevedo Gomes

Why did you decide to make this film?

A few years ago I thought of recording a stage play for the radio. At the time, I planned to record in front of a live audience. Rohmer’s play was one of the options, since it was relatively easy to put together and didn’t require much stage directing. Later, I tried to get a subsidy to make it as a film, but without success. When we entered the lockdown, everything changed. I thought it would be a great option for making a film. Suddenly several miracles happened. I managed to get authorization from Rohmer’s son and wife. The actors and key crew agreed to work on the project and were willing to do so free of charge, since I had no subsidy, and I was also lent all the sound and image equipment. It all came together very rapidly. To allow people to travel from Spain required special authorizations. They were extreme, unprecedented circumstances.

Did you always plan to include the scenes with a director making a film about the play, which isn’t in Rohmer’s text?

Yes. But I originally thought of casting a much younger director. During the lockdown I started conversing intensely with Adolfo. He was perfect for the part. João Bénard da Costa, the former director of the Cinemateca. had screened his films many years ago. Adolfo and the Portuguese director João Cesar Monteiro were like brothers, who admired each other’s work. I had talked with Adolfo at several festivals and proposed to organize a retrospective of his films. During the lockdown we exchanged a lot of films and drawings. We were in permanent dialogue. He agreed to appear in the film. His own films are wonderful. We will finally open his retrospective this June.

What is special about Mozart’s composition, “The Kegelstatt Trio”?

Rohmer wrote a wonderful book, “From Mozart to Beethoven: An Essay on the Notion of Profundity in Music,” in which he talks about what makes the “Trio” special. It was the first time that these three instruments – the clarinet, viola and piano – were played together. It marked a new line in the evolution of music. Listening carefully to Mozart’s trio I felt each instrument corresponds to a character. The viola is the man, the clarinet is the woman and the piano is Mozart. When you hear the piece, you sense the harmony and also the dissonance between the three instruments.

What was the role of Gonzalo García Pelayo as co-producer?

He’s a professional investor, who loves taking risks and also making films. He’s a bit like a Robin Hood character. He uses the funds he makes from his investments to be a patron of the arts. At the height of the pandemic he decided to open a publishing house in Madrid and wanted to translate and publish the books by the Portuguese novelist, Agustina Bessa Luís. He asked me to help him. I asked him whether he wanted to help me make a small film. Two days later he said he would give the money for the film!

How long was the shoot?

We shot everything in 3 weeks, in November 2020, shooting every day, including the first and last day. It was an extraordinary experience. You can see by the messages that everyone exchanged. It was a moment of grace. And light. I felt a gratitude that I have never felt before. I asked people to come with me. They had to leave their children at home. Of course, there were tensions. The actors had to rehearse via video call before the shoot. They didn’t know the text. Nobody knew. But I knew that something magical would happen. I wanted to include the rehearsals in the film. I wanted them to be half character/half actor. They shifted between the two worlds. Both worlds are true.

The beach house has a key influence on the feel of the film

That was another miracle. I called a friend of mine, the architect Alexandre Alves da Costa who played the Bishop of Trent in my film “The Portuguese Woman.” I asked him whether he knows anyone who has a holiday house that wasn’t being used. He said “I have a beach house.” Rohmer’s play was set in an apartment in Paris, with windows looking out onto the city. The beach house, next to the sea, is a character in its own right. It feels like a secret space, a shell. We removed the furniture and the rugs. Everything was white, bathed in natural sunlight. My DP, Jorge, was a bit nervous, with all the white surfaces and low ceilings. It felt like a musical instrument. It had its own resonance.

In Rohmer’s play the dialogue is the critical element but you also develop a very special soundscape, in addition to the dialogue

The dialogue is also vital. The film depends on the actors. The music of the film is their voices. But I also wanted to explore the sounds of the house and the sea. The wind began to be a character in the film. The house was a bit like the entire lockdown experience. A weightless bubble, suspended in air. Everything was white. Then we could hear the rustling of the eucalyptus trees, the music of the leaves. I thought of adding other sounds, like a train in the distance, but that would interrupt the magic.

What was the inspiration for the dream sequences, like the surreal moment when we see the pig inside the house at night?

A long time before the pandemic I had the idea of including this moment in the film. I had tried to fund the film, but was always turned down. I had a recurrent dream. I would turn up on the set and didn’t have any script or notes. I was completely lost. I didn’t know what to do. And everyone was waiting for me. I woke up in the middle of the dream and later talked about it with a friend who said that it’s great. It doesn’t make sense, but helps create the character of the director. I think the image of the pig came from a photograph Pierre Léon once showed me from a TV series about a punishment for a politician, involving a pig, I think it was from “Black Mirror.” It’s a terrible scene.

Do you know what your next project will be?

I have several projects in mind. One will be shot in Greece. Something very complicated to put together. I’m still working on it.

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The Kegelstatt Trio Courtesy of Basilisco Filmes