Wisp – Once upon a time in the cinema

The death of the prince

We discovered João Pedro Rodrigues in France with his intriguing, sexy and provocative film, O Phantasma. We find him this year in competition at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs in Cannes after many films, including The Ornithologist in 2016 which told a little about his passion for birds bequeathed by his father. As if he had taken literally the madness of the firefighters of Titanium by Julia Ducournau, sad Palme d’or at Cannes in 2021, and their sulphurous and burning reputation, he gives us here a short sexual and poetic fantasy in his own way about a young prince whose unmentionable dream is to become his majesty’s firefighter. Of course, this film has nothing to do with the previous one Will-o’-the-wisp by Louis Malle released in 1963 and is in no way a remake. It’s a very short film, a little over an hour, and that’s to be emphasized in these times of too long films. It is built like a tale with prince and castles, in the form of a flashback. Alfredo, an uncrowned king on his deathbed, is brought back to distant memories of his youth and remembers when he dreamed of becoming a firefighter. The meeting with the instructor Afonso, from the fire brigade, opens a new chapter in the life of the two young men immersed in love and desire, and in the desire to change the world.

A mystery movie

On his deathbed, framed by bare walls, a canvas that will be sold to pay for the funeral, and a kid who in turn is playing with a fire truck, Alfredo does not regret anything but reviews his life and his loves. But why this enigmatic title in fact? Even the director does not know how to answer it: “It is for me a rather mysterious title, he declares in the press kit for the film. It has a very strong connection to the fantastic, but also to something ephemeral. It says nothing about the film and at the same time it says a bit of everything! I like the idea that the wisp is both ghostly and physical, because it’s a real, chemical phenomenon that used to be scary when people didn’t know what it was. So this title symbolizes this very strong relationship to the fantastic and to reality at the same time, which innervates the whole film. »

That Obscure Object of Desire

We are a bit like him, quite perplexed by this UFO film which says nothing about the politics of Portugal, about the violence of the Salazar years or even about royal power. Everything revolves around the young prince’s love story with his instructor Afonso, a young and handsome black man who will become the president of the new Republic at the end of the film, attesting to the end of royalty and individual power. Of course, as with most films by this Portuguese director, the atmosphere of the film is quite sexual, very connected to the gay eroticism that shines through in the reconstructions of famous paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens and Velázquez, by the intermediary of beautiful young completely naked firefighters, the only concession to aesthetics and art in this film which, for once, is presented as an unbridled comedy. But it’s also a profound film that intends to question the spectator, hence the actors’ gazes at times. “I really like a painting by Titian in which the three ages of life appear (Allegory of Time governed by Prudence, circa 1565). My film actually has this ambition to tell the story of a person in the rather short duration of a film. It was necessary to choose the exact moments to tell, including death. I think my films are always about overcoming death. It’s something that obsesses me: how do you prepare to die. The cinema by its immortality, is a way of overcoming death for me who does not believe in the afterlife. Cocteau had already observed this: the cinema is indeed death at work…

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Wisp – Once upon a time in the cinema