At the end of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, a series of dissolves take us in a matter of minutes through the better part of Newland Archer’s adulthood: the christening of his son, the marriage of his daughter, the death of his wife — “most of the real things in his life,” according to the voiceover narration, even though the subject of the film’s preceding two hours was the young Newland’s abortive affair of the heart with an unconventional woman. Which life was more real — the finite and public, or the imagined and invisible?
Melodramas often follow such inside-out structures, amplifying the desires that run counter to the official narrative of a life, and defying the forces that thwarted it. (The theorist Elizabeth Freeman’s concept of a conditional “queer time” might apply to Call Me By Your Name and Brokeback Mountain, for instance.) In the new Brazilian film Invisible Life, the secret current which animates the characters’ lives beyond the reach of patriarchy is not romance, but sisterhood.
Adapted from Martha Batalha’s novel The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão by director and co-writer Karim Aïnouz, Invisible Life tells the twinned stories of sisters Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler) by exploring the pocket of time in their lives before they stopped waiting on their dreams. It begins in Rio, in 1950; Eurídice, a gangly piano prodigy, plays to cover the sound of the vivacious beauty Guida sneaking out to meet a boy. Guida returns only to leave Eurídice one of the earrings she was wearing, and the two never meet again, separated for good after their conservative father commits to an embittered lie. Forked by a single impulsive decision, their paths diverge, snaking back towards each other only during a few wrenching near-misses. This is a classically melodramatic kind of irony, in which contrivances of plotting (and the malevolence of individual actors) stand in for the grinding machinations of the world at large.
Eurídice weds the son of her father’s business associate, one of those mama’s boys for whom marriage just means trading one breast for another; Guida scratches out a life on the margins, with a retired streetwalker (Bárbara Santos) as her earthy fairy godmother. Throughout the 50s, as ties of blood and marriage tighten around Eurídice, and Guida finds her own family through shared struggle, the latter pours her heart out in unanswered letters to her sister. Unlucky in love, Guida imagines Eurídice’s world-conquering success as a pianist; frustrated in her artistic ambitions, Eurídice imagines Guida’s romantic adventures.
Aïnouz imbues Invisible Life with an intimacy that’s at once blunt about bodily needs and evocative of the lushness of inner lives: globetrotting cinematographer Hélène Louvart saturates the film with palm greens, lusty reds and beachfront blues, and the sound design is alive with sounds of wind, water, and chirping birds. Single edits cut through the years with an awful swift grace; major life events sneak up on you like blood in the first quiet moment after you slice your finger. The film’s ultimate leap into the present-day mirrors Age of Innocence with its sudden revelation of the “real things of life” — a checklist of progeny and possessions. But with its epistolary conceit — like The Bridges of Madison County! — Invisible Life ensures that its hidden women are eventually recognized as the authors of their own stories.