Cannes 2021 review: The Tsugua Diaries (Maureen Fazendeiro & Miguel Gomes)

Crista, Carloto and João dance in a living room to rock and roll music and theatrical lighting. The morning before they discuss the possibility of organizing a party. Was it the one we saw before, the one with the colorful illumination? That was only three people. But then again, they seemed insecure about their social skills, or so they said as they repeated the same dialogue, swapping lines each time. They could be rehearsing their acting, or acting their rehearsing.

The days go by, the days go back. The trio builds a nursery, swims in the pool, gathers fruit, looks for missing dogs. The complicity between their bodies, that makes it feel like a love triangle, is bound to dissolve into where it started.

In The Tsugua Diaries, Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes meditate on the notion of time and the way it is experienced in cinema. This is Fazendeiro’s debut feature after two documentary shorts. For Gomes, this is his fifth project and the first one since his 2015 trilogy Arabian Nights. It is not difficult to find connections with the rest of his work: the idealization of summer, the bucolic landscapes, the willingness to stage. As we go back into this film, we learn to interpret the rules behind it, or the lack of them, as an experiment: a film crew is confined in a Portuguese manor during late summer 2020 in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. Three lead performers – maintaining the names of the actors who play them – will spend three weeks at the property. There’s no personal background about them, so it is the tasks they fulfill in that state that should determine the interactions between these non-characters. They are also encouraged to propose activities and ways to shoot them. The days will be presented in reverse order, starting from Day 22 to the first one. This way, the performers’ sojourn – which started as a turbulent experiment amidst personal conflicts and new sanitary protocols and turns into an idyllic summer – is presented backwards, as a deconstruction. Two rotten quince fruits lie on a parapet. One of them returns to its ripe form as the film advances. It is the opposite of dead nature: unfrozen time. A dream-like journey rendered through surreal lighting, choreographed scenes, and a constant use of physical filters: mosquito nets, wind-shook tall grass, leaf shades.

There’s a clue in the title: Otsoga, Tsugua and Tûoa could trick us into thinking they are toponyms from a tropical land, but are rather reverse spellings of August in different languages. These discovered words, if pronounced and then played backwards, or written and subsequently mirrored, would not match Agosto, August or Août phonetically nor visually. Fazendeiro and Gomes play with temporality within the realms of our understanding: as much as we go back day after day, we deduce these are presented chronologically (starting in each day’s morning on to its afternoon), and no sequence or dialogue is presented in reverse, as the experiment would become incomprehensible, vain. Our notion of time is limited by language, whether spoken or kinetic. Reimagining our relationship with time is a pertinent exercise in the era of confinement.