Berlinale 2022 review: The Kegelstatt Trio (Rita Azevedo Gomes)

“It is one of those graceful moments of tenderness that unfortunately arrive too infrequently, and a little too late, in this stilted film, which could benefit from more musicality in its execution.”

Singular Portuguese auteur Rita Azevedo Gomes returns to Berlinale’s Forum section with a modest but enjoyable two-hander in The Kegelstatt Trio (O Trio Em Mi Bemol). Clearly the big selling point here is the origin of the text that inspired the director; Azevedo Gomes makes extensive use of the only stage play written by Éric Rohmer, who initially intended this piece to be a part of his 1987 feature Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle. The connection with the late French master could spark some interest in The Kegelstatt Trio, however, this minor production is unlikely to expand Azevedo Gomes’ small but loyal fan following in any significant way.

What we have here is not a direct adaptation of Rohmer’s play, but rather a film about filmmaking, in which the core text is the reinterpretation of Rohmer by an elderly director named Jorge. Since the original stage play recounts seven distinct encounters between a divorced couple who clearly still love each other, Azevedo Gomes finds room for mildly amusing behind-the-scenes detours after every episode. In the rare instances when Jorge comments on the performances, reminding us that we have been watching a work-in-progress instead of a complete performance, his directions are far from eloquent (“this was not good but I don’t know why,” says the grumpy filmmaker and returns to his chair on the beach). This is a fertile (if not truly inventive) structure; The Kegelstatt Trio occasionally blurs the lines between rehearsal and performance, or the film we are watching and the film within it. But this conceptual game is not sufficient to carry an excessively stiff piece of filmed theater for over two hours. While some of the conversations between the couple are endearing or intellectually rich, many other parts of the film feel simply flat and lacking in emotional resonance.

Much of The Kegelstatt Trio plays out in simple, static master shots as the characters converse in their beautiful beach house. Camera movement is kept to a minimum and most of the compositions are not particularly elaborate. The couple, named Adélia and Paul, discuss their new lovers and the affairs they had since their separation, talk about their shared love of classical music (Paul is quite an expert in the field), and analyse the trajectory their relationship has followed over the years. They distinguish between love and tenderness, admit the comfort they find in each other, and gently complain about the habits they wish the other one could change. They say things like “I like disagreeing with you more than pretending to agree with others” or “you always see the same theater plays, but that’s good.” In short, the affection they still have for each other is obvious despite their disagreements. But Azevedo Gomes’ detached style does not attempt to capture or heighten these feelings in any way; everything is articulated in lengthy dialogue exchanges, but very little leaves a lasting impression. The problem is not a lack of ambition or a verbal overdose. But unfortunately Azevedo Gomes’ mise-en-scène does not have the creativity or the fluidity that could better sustain a talkative film like this.

Like Azevedo Gomes’ previous films, The Kegelstatt Trio benefits immensely from a wide range of intertextual connections. In addition to Rohmer the emphasis on staging and performance obviously brings another New Wave master, Jacques Rivette, or his cinematic descendant Matías Piñeiro to mind. A soju-soaked, more playful version of this film could easily have been made by South Korean Berlinale regular Hong Sang-soo, and it would not be a stretch to trace back the theatrical artifice or the moments of gentle surrealism to late-career Manoel de Oliveira (whose work has been a valuable point of reference for several earlier projects by Azevedo Gomes). It could even be said that The Kegelstatt Trio resembles a very cerebral fourth instalment in Richard Linklater’s beloved Before Trilogy. While this little game of cinephilia may not amount to anything substantial, there is indeed some moderate pleasure to be found in this web of references.

The title of the film comes from a celebrated piece by Mozart, which Paul considers to be pivotal in the cultivation of his life-long appreciation for classical music. Later on, The Kegelstatt Trio is mentioned once again in a moving scene that reveals how Adélia and Paul do not wish to hear this piece in the company of anyone else but each other. It is one of those graceful moments of tenderness that unfortunately arrive too infrequently, and a little too late, in this stilted film, which could benefit from more musicality in its execution.