Aspern ★★★★★

“Paulo Branco has a mansion,” to quote Seema—possibly my favorite movie genre. Some couch-cushion money and a luminous, sultry Lisbon permit Gregorio to burrow into an old villa and estivate far from Rivette’s lunar shadow (“I flourish in the summer,” as Valli’s reclusive praying mantis would have it). Aspern makes the best case for Gregorio’s unique talents: it contains his slipperiest tracking shots, which slide through registers and rooms like a glissando passage before landing on sharply reframed compositions, and by adapting this particular novel, Gregorio extends the investigative project that he initiated in La mémoire courte, where the Author’s absence leaves a tear in the fabric of things. The house that holds an unseen text is a void as immense and as absolute as the blank page; the anxieties of literature, not theater, haunt Gregorio’s art.

That said, I don’t want to take anything away from the performers, particularly Bulle Ogier, who commands the movie despite a delicate recessive quality that has her curling up into whatever ornate parlor chair is presently unoccupied, like a house cat terrified of new guests. She has some right to be afraid of Jean Sorel’s caddish interloper, admittedly, given his express intention to bed her, simultaneously unlock her virgin heart and the valise holding Aspern’s missing manuscript, and abscond with the contents. Posed shirtless against Lisbon’s red tile skyline, Sorel fashions himself the man in control, and his pied-à-terre even comes furnished with a poster of Mabusian fingers pulling at strings. But the hands over the city don’t belong to him. They’re Ogier’s, the source of her clandestine power. Duelle’s outstretched arm/open palm gesture recurs here, deployed as an unexpected and comically mistimed rebuff, and I now suspect—though I don’t know with certainty—that it originated with Gregorio. What I can say for sure is that no one else gave Ogier better, stranger bits of business: she violently grips a car door from the passenger’s seat as if, never having encountered the technology before, she thinks she needs to hold on for dear life; and then there’s her routine of extinguishing a half dozen candles by dabbing them with her index finger, a painful act executed with casual, even unknowing masochism, though what’s truly disturbing is the fact that she leaves a few sticks burning for no good reason. These hands play with fire, capriciously. Which is surely what she means to say when, at the film’s close, she flashes a toothy rictus at Sorel: if my romantic hopes must now be ash, so too your author’s precious creation. Her final tears offer none of the comforts of grief; Aspern simply accepts that all that hands might create, hands might also destroy. And so as much as I want to share this weirdo film with a little cabal of friends, to invite them to join me in this infinite mansion, I’ve resigned myself to living with the memory of this faded print, unspooled briefly before going back under lock and key, and to the futility of fixating on (almost) lost works.