by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/France/Portugal, no distributor
A marvelous conviction animates Lisandro Alonso’s new film Eureka, his first since Jauja nine years ago. In his longest work to date by nearly a full hour, the filmmaker has strung end-to-end three radically disparate narratives, linking them only with hoary, almost laughably threadbare connective devices. Each story explores questions of indigeneity and its reaction or resistance to the imposition of Western law and order, but even though a character or prop might reappear across sections, and images occasionally rhyme, the chapters are distinct. Instead of the feel of an anthology, Eureka demands we reckon with its strands together, as integral pieces of a gradually building, coherent argument. Alonso has recognized and deployed a particularity of cinema too often left unexplored by makers: within the context of a time-delimited moving image experience, there is vast freedom to place elements, however varied, side by side and invite viewers to contemplate: why these pieces, in this order, in this one film? With Eureka, as with a text like, perhaps, Todd Haynes’s Poison, answers will vary.
In Eureka’s first part, shot in black-and-white and hemmed in by a tight 1.33:1 aspect ratio, we meet Murphy (a marvelously precise and twitchy Viggo Mortensen), an 1800s gunslinger traveling some dusty plain in the back of a wagon. He’s in search of his missing daughter (a familiar Alonso trope—see Jauja and Los muertos), and his quest lands him in an isolated outpost—a few patchwork buildings watching over tamped dirt boulevards boasting debauched spectacle that wouldn’t be out of place in Blood Meridian. While slurping whiskey and fingering a quill in the local saloon, he meets El Coronel (Chiara Mastroianni, perhaps modeling Barbara Stanwyck’s matriarch in Forty Guns), who cryptically offers her aid in his search. At times the filmmaker is on entirely new turf—movement through scenes seems to have more kick than in past efforts. Dialogue, and quite a bit of it, veers from the banal and quotidian to the grandly philosophical without warning (“The memory of man is uncertain. There is little difference between what you think you are and what you really are.”). And there’s something in the cinematography by Aki Kaurismäki regular Timo Salminen—returning to collaborate with Alonso after Jauja—that suggests an extratextual aesthetic linkage between the two filmmakers I had never considered before. Perhaps it’s a result of Alonso toying so openly with Hollywood forms, as the Finnish master regularly has. Even so, the Argentinean director isn’t beyond slowing the proceedings back down to watch Mortensen inhabit a chair for a stretch—what might he do?—or wait for blood to leak out of a fresh bullet hole and cascade down a hat’s brim.
Given that Eureka is not concerned with the withholding and timed revelation of story material, to fully clarify how this sequence concludes and transitions into the film’s second, longer movement (now full frame, in color, and set in the present day) wouldn’t be much of a traditional spoiler, but I still want to leave it. At a moment of heightened, guns-drawn tension for Murphy, Alonso abruptly decamps the viewer to South Dakota’s Lakota Nation, where Alaina (Alaina Clifford), a Native American cop and her niece Sadie (Sadie Lapointe), a youth basketball coach, go about their business over the course of one eventful, freezing cold night. Alaina’s patrols bring her in contact with a number of locals—often sadly addled by various substances—in a fashion that skirts the feeling of documentary, yet one attenuated by rigorous decentering of dialogue and emphasis on bodies trudging stolidly through lengthy takes. Which is to say this scenario feels not unlike the Alonso of Liverpool or La libertad, but now with a female protagonist, one grown as weary of the world and the violence around her as the filmmaker’s previous stoic men. (A fairly literal reading of Alaina’s night might suggest the squalid conditions she encounters are a direct a result of the violent white forces of manifest destiny parodied in the film’s opening chapter.)
After several harrowing encounters, the film leaves Alaina mid-scene, alone in a trashed hotel room as the snow pours down outside, with threats of further violence hanging over her. It shifts to the beatific Sadie, whose burning desire to escape the reservation sparks the film’s next transition, one in which the camera takes literal flight. We’re suddenly floating high above the jungle, and a series of languorous dissolves moves us into the next location: the near-past Brazil of the 1970s, to spend time with a remote indigenous tribe that is hemmed by encroaching colonial influence. This new scenario’s tale of betrayal, lust, and prospecting for gold suggests a variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the classic western manqué of the opening now revealed as less a cheeky stylistic detour than the beginning of a considered indictment of Western oppression—in life and art.
Though the previous two sections have offered up images and moments that appear dreamlike, the indigenous tribe here makes the discussion of dreams central to their community, gathering daily as a group to share their visions. One day, after two young men both confess to dreaming of Lili, seemingly the only young female of the tribe, a scuffle breaks out, which leads to a real-life killing and the flight of the murderer; a transgression made while asleep holds as much weight as one made while awake. There’s certainly a metaphor to be excavated in this about cinema-viewing and its relationship to the dreaming state, but I suspect Alonso is more intent on paying respect to indigenous ways of viewing the world that resist Western empiricism, and also on preparing his viewers for the unexpected return, in the film’s final shot, of a quill that looks remarkably similar to the one Murphy fingered idly in a constructed saloon just a couple hours of movie time prior. There are more psychic echoes to be found throughout the film, and there’s immense pleasure to be had in combing over the events, looking for clues, even if Alonso is too smart to let his work devolve into solutions.
I remember watching Hong Sang-soo’s bifurcated Right Now, Wrong Then and recognizing, somewhere in its second half, an odd sensation. I had an uncanny feeling that the two characters replaying the film’s first half, with crucial variation, somehow knew that they had featured in another story and were adjusting their behavior accordingly. I wondered for a moment if the two sides of the film were somehow living entities that had become cognizant of each other. (Of course, a filmmaker structured and wrote a diptych, and actors performed the two scenarios.) Hong is a very different filmmaker than Alonso, and his splits and repetitions work to different ends, but I had that similar uncanny feeling in Eureka. Have the film’s three parts somehow dreamt each other into existence? Perhaps. But, at the very least, Alonso reveals they certainly need each other to be viewed in this order, within this span of time. There’s never a moment of clarity as the title portends, but the finale does proclaim of the strange powers of the cinematic form. It can be tempting to label risky, ambiguous, elongated works “major,” and, while Eureka may very well be that, I’m ultimately more interested in how it furthers an ongoing filmmaking project, one that favors the primal pull of embodied imagery over dialogue and obvious psychological markers. Here, Alonso seems similarly emboldened to abandon traditional notions of classical narrative harmony in favor of an artwork that bends towards a different kind of completeness. He has found it.