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Two tormented young women bond through their afflictions and pains, in this unusually structured Portuguese drama - from the 76th Locarno Film Festival


El (Carolina Mirogaia) is a quiet and introspective young woman working in an architecture firm in the hustling and bustling heart of Lisbon. She wears non-binary attire, has short hair a very androgynous look, Jane Birkin’s Johnny Jane type of sensuality. She is constantly suffocated by fear and anxiety. Her kind boss advises her that she will learn to live with the unrelenting smothering, reassuring the insecure lady that a perfectly normal and happy life lies ahead. She is barely able to voice her problems, with audiences left to guess the precise roots of her woes.

Jay (Meghna Lall) works with El. She has a more outgoing and streetwise personality. She is a Canadian of Asian background (her exact origins are only revealed at the end of this 100-minute film). She doesn’t speak much Portuguese and it’s not entirely clear how she ended up in the Portuguese capital. She has a male partner of around the same age, who is also Asian-Canadian. They reveal that they once lived in the UK, and only left after they became the victims of a horrendous hate crime, which the police refused to recognise as such. People who do not possess European features have to live in the Old Continent with the horrific spectrum of racism, it becomes soon clear.

El and Kay have a lot in common in addition to the fact that they sit next to each other on the Roman alphabet. Both women are progressive, anti-racist activists. They spread “Bolsonaro Out”, “I’m not Jackie Chang’s cousin” and anti-fascist graffiti around town. They both grapple with a male partner with whom they seem to have little affinity (we barely see El’s man). They both struggle with an elusive sense of belonging. This is particularly prominent in the case of Kay because she is an immigrant, with an ethnicity often perceived incompatible with her country of origin. But El too feels like a misfit. There’s something missing in the apparently welcoming, trendy and cosmopolitan Lisbon. Mirogaia is electrifying in her performance, imbuing her character with a touching sense of vulnerability and timid charisma. Lall is auspicious too, in the skin of a seemingly unfathomably woman, who gradually lets her guard down.

The narrative of Baan is a loose cubist composition. Audiences gradually put together the barely coherent pieces, of the various sizes and formats.It is not entirely clear whether this is a queer love story, a tale of friendship, an allegory of sorority, or something else. At times, it feels like the unusual structure is entirely gratuitous. More Kandinsky than Picasso. It takes until the final quarter of an hour of this 100-minute film before the picture becomes clear. The outcome is exquisite, if not entirely flawless.

Director Leonor Teles, who also signs the cinematography, attempts to create a sense of disorientation by introducing a frenzied soundtrack, while also playing with the frame rate and the shutter speed. She presumably wishes to highlight the chaotic and fractious state-of-mind of her two protagonists. This doesn’t work entirely. While the nervousness of the two women (particularly El) is tangible, the technical ruses feel a little unwarranted. At times I questioned myself whether there was a file conversion issue with the DCP. Such issues do not compromise the integrity of a heartfelt and inventive movie. It’s ok to take artistic liberties. Even it they may not always work for everyone.

This is Teles’s sophomore feature, and her first fiction feature. Five years ago. she directed the documentary Ashore.

Baan just premiered in the Official Competition (Concorso Internazionale) of the 76th Locarno Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 08-08-2023

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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