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Grand Tour

Miguel Gomes's new film has the aesthetic ambitions and also some topical similarities with his masterpiece Taboo, yet the soporific travelogue of Asia slips into artistic banality - from the 58th edition of Karlovy Vary

The year is 1917. British civil servant Edward (Gonçalo Waddington) works in Rangoon, the then-capital of Burma (the Sotheast Asian country now called Myanmar). He is anxious about the arrival of his fiancee Molly (Crista Alfaiate) from London by boat. They have not seen each other for seven years. In fact, he is of their prospective marriage. So he departs on the grand tour of Asia. He goes to Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Osaka, Shanghai, and finally reaches a riverside community in China. He barely leaves a trace of his journey behind. The main characters are Portuguese-speaking British, peculiar inversion of language colonisation in film practice. Normally, most filmmakers abide by the tacit, geopolitical rules of mainstream cinema, and have people of all nationalities speak English opt to have their foreign characters speak English – not the other way around.

Molly arrives in Rangoon roughly halfway through this 128-minute film. She is perplexed to find out that Edward isn’t there. Despite the many clues suggesting otherwise, she remains adamant that he’s in love with her and will soon return. She dismisses those who say that he may not want to marry with by blowing disdainful raspberries. Her commitment to Edward is such that she turns down a rich man who’s madly in love with her. She eventually takes off, following the scarce traces of her husband-to-be, city by city, picking clues of his whereabouts along the way, and befriending Vietnamese Ngoc (Lang Khê Tran). The kind stranger is determined to help the obstinate and hopelessly deluded woman. Grand Tour is an exercise on nostalgia, on the incessant search for the old, and on “saudades” (the emblematic Portuguese word describing the profound sentiment of missing someone you love).

On the other hand, the type of colonialism portrayed in he story is a very traditional one, and there is no subversion. European rulers exoticise the colonised. This is reflected in the various devices which Gomes deploys: the black-and-white colour palette, the prevalence of medium and long shorts, a sullen and laborious voiceover, and the Asian-language dialogues without subtitles. Those are places distant in time and in space. The dialogue helps to confirm this: a character in Japan claims that the West cannot understand the East, which must be “transcended”, while a European socialite in China affirms that “you get used to the weather, but not to the natives”. This is Asia through thick colonial glasses, and intentionally so. This isn’t the first time Gomes does that: the second half of Taboo (2012) takes place in an old Portuguese colony in Africa, with black-and-white photography and an openly racist European protagonist. The original screenplay of Grand Tour was written by three pairs of European hands: Telmo Churro’s, Maureen Fazendeiro’s and Miguel Gomes’s.

There is an effort to celebrate the various countries that Edward and Molly visit, with some insight into the landscape, the nature the architecture, the craftwork, the food, etc. Edward sees a panda on top of a bamboo tree, and meets people dabbling with opium derivates. Puppet shows (hand, strings and shadows) are a constant feature, and a narrative device. I presume that these performance too are a tribute to local culture. To top it all up, an undentified voice speaking different Asian languages narrates parts of the story.

The film chronology is very ambiguous. The story takes place during WW1. The costumes and the repeated telegrams that Molly sends to Edward are indeed consistent with the decade. The problem is that the developments are blended seamlessly with black-and-white footage of modern-day Bangkok and Saigon (now called Hoi Chi Minh City), amongst other places. Twenty-first century buildings and cars are everywhere. A clumsy artistic device: instead of infusing the story with lyricism, it evokes a sense of confusion from the less attentive viewers. This is not a timeless story, and the present-day images look terribly out of place. The photography too is multilayered: most images are black-and-white, yet the occasional grainy, coloured picture gives the movie a semi-documentary feel, as if the editors had to rearrange large amounts of archive footage from different sources. Inventive, but also a little random.

Grand Tour premiered in the Official Competition of the 77th Cannes International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Not Gomes’s grandest film, however pleasant and relaxing to watch. Perhaps a little too relaxing even, as the loudly snoring person sitting next to me at the press screening this morning may suggest. Also showing in Karlovy Vary.


By Victor Fraga - 23-05-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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