Review by Alan French
In the fall of 1968, an American musical named Hair became a symbol of the counterculture. After a successful debut off-Broadway, the musical draped (and sometimes undraped) in hippie clothing became a lightning rod for controversy. Nevertheless, Hair’s success left a mark on pop culture for decades. Director João Pedro Rodrigues hopes his new musical, Will-o’-the-Wisp, can make a similar mark. Cloaked in millennial anxiety about climate change, Will-o’-the-Wisp embraces an experimental structure to highlight its unique perspective.
In 2069, the King Alfredo of Portugal (Joel Branco) lies dying. As the world wonders what comes next, we flashback to his younger years in 2017. His father tries to teach him geopolitical ideas that will one day help him rule. Instead, wildfires and Greta Thunberg convinced the young Alfredo (Mauro Costa) to become a firefighter. He soon enters a world that allows his passions and sexuality to define his world.
At only 67 minutes, Rodrigues keeps his film moving like a freight train. From the word go, Will-o’-the-Wisp wastes no time with subtlety. The movie even forgets to drop its title, which eventually comes around the 20-minute mark. While it utilizes performances akin to Spanish melodrama, the Portuguese director plays with form. A character breaks the fourth wall and delivers a monologue in English straight into the camera. The world stops, and as the camera zooms out, the corners of the soundstage become part of the visual storytelling. The film brings meta elements of the medium into the text, and Rodrigues forces the audience to acknowledge the discomfort.
The film also embraces a far more progressive attitude toward sex than expected. Rodrigues inputs an extended showcase of erotic visual gags that become double entendres for sexual positions. Exceptionally sexual ballet routines complement the songs and continue to build on the film's political themes. Some sequences are far more explicit than one is likely to see outside the world of pornography, but the overt visuals are part of the film’s strange optimism. After all, if humanity makes it to a functioning 2069, maybe our lifestyles and actions will save the planet.
The performances throughout the film rarely drew too much attention. Actress Claudia Jardim and actor André Cabral stand out once we reach the fire station. While Cabral casts an alluring spell over the film, Jardim excels as its comic relief. Their performances lift the film's second act, and their absence is palpable once they leave. They are keyed into what Rodrigues and the film require, allowing their commitment to carry us home.
Again, Rodrigues seems focused on relaying his message. Once he shows greater control over the messages of his films, Rodrigues seems destined to make a masterpiece. The visual skill is undeniable. Hopefully, his next feature will not feel the need to hit you with a mallet to get its point across.
Will-o'-the-Wisp screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8 to 18.