Will-o’-the-Wisp, João Pedro Rodrigues’s long-awaited follow-up feature to The Ornithologist, almost seems to take the form of a sketch. Running a slender 67 minutes and seeming to concentrate its action into a matter of days, the film’s structure bears a closer resemblance to Un chien andalou than anything else: it begins in the year 2069, before hopping back to 2011, then forward to “some years later,” then “one year later,” which is where the bulk of the film takes place. This purposefully ambiguous timescale feels right for a film that indulges so freely in alternate realities and surreal settings, an overflowing of incidents packed into a small container.
Will-o’-the-Wisp appears to take place in a version of Portugal where the royal family still reigns to at least nominal effect: the main character is Prince Alfredo, seen on his deathbed in 2069 and as a youth in the rest of the film, and the first quarter of the film — delineated by a title card calling this a “musical fantasy” — moves through three consecutive parodies of the royal family in private; in one moment, the film even acknowledges the proscenium stuffiness by having the queen acknowledge that people are watching, with a knowing look toward the camera.
Fittingly for such a short film, the first of just two musical sequences takes place before this intertitle. The two — one a cherubic children’s choir, one a highly choreographed group dance to non-diegetic music — couldn’t be more different, a neat summary of Will-o’-the-Wisp’s divergent but simpatico aims. It is both an oddly hopeful evocation of the changing tides of politics in the face of global warming and, in the style of Rodrigues’ previous work, a homoerotic exploration of a particular milieu.
Here, that milieu is the volunteer fire brigade, which Prince Alfredo is prompted to join by a spate of forest fires, including one amid the “royal pines” that his father so fervently admires; in response, his mother claims that he is confusing “the royal family and documentary cinema,” an out-of-nowhere connection typical of the family scenes that operate in direct contrast to the fire brigade’s pleasurable bluntness. A predominantly male unit, its members are exclusively hunks, who quiz the supposed art historian Alfredo on his (poor) knowledge by posing nude or in jockstraps in the manner of various paintings. These moments, a contrast from the rest of the film, are presented in striking chiaroscuro, a loving attention paid to the rippling muscles of these men’s bodies and the sensual absurdity of watching them reenact these paintings.
Indeed, sensual absurdity is a fitting phrase word for a film whose primary sex scene, between the White Alfredo and his mentor Black firefighter Afonso, features exceptionally fake-looking penises; it’s not as if Rodrigues is afraid of showing nudity, even displaying a slideshow of penises that each correspond to a forest in Portugal. But the limits of showing reality are openly challenged by Will-o’-the-Wisp, a film where firefighters are never actually seen in front of a blaze, where a supposedly disastrous simulation is a lighthearted form of hazing, where futuristic clothing is beautifully tacky, and firefighters seem to have amassed considerable power in the intervening decades.
Will-o’-the-Wisp even finds space to invoke the pandemic, a sudden cleaving force that brings the film briefly back to “reality.” But Rodrigues’ concentration of his plot, his ability to elide the parts that would prevent this from taking full flight as a musical fantasy, preserves the film’s strange and uncanny spell. The final image, of the acceptance of Alfredo into the fold despite his all-too-short time in the brigade, points to a certain optimism, one where the fantasy ends happily ever after.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 7.