All the colours of Aquarius

Kleber Mendonça Filho on madeleines and memories.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sônia Braga with her Aquarius director Kleber Mendonça Filho
Sônia Braga with her Aquarius director Kleber Mendonça Filho Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Aquarius stars a magnificent Sônia Braga with Thaia Perez, Maeve Jinkings (Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull), Humberto Carrão, Irandhir Santos (Neighboring Sounds with Jinkings), Zoraide Coleto, Paula De Renor, Fernando Teixeira, Buda Lira, and Barbara Colen.

Kleber Mendonça Filho talks to me about Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's Election, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann links, the madeleines, colours, creating the perfect tactile version of a childhood memory, and Diego as the international evil.

Sônia Braga as Clara
Sônia Braga as Clara

Aquarius begins with a get-together in 1980. A large family celebrates the birthday of Aunt Lucía (Thaia Perez), an elegant woman in a pink suit who has led a full active life and smiles benevolently at the children's attempt to honour her by containing her in a nutshell. We get a glimpse of Lucia's own sexy memories, triggered by a wooden chest. They call her a "firecracker" and talk about her persecution. Clara, played by Barbara Colen in 1980, will inherit the chest and already has a lot of the aunt's spiritedness.

As we move into the present, Clara (Sônia Braga), a music critic, is the last remaining inhabitant of Aquarius, which is the name of the seaside building. Developer Geraldo (Fernando Teixeira) and his mini-Trump grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão) want to get rid of her after they bought out all the others by using a variety of measures in an attempt to make her leave.

Social dynamics, a city in flux, a world growing old and another emerging - the film's neighboring thoughts cast a broad net of questions.

Developers Diego (Humberto Carrão) and Geraldo (Fernando Teixeira) with Clara (Sônia Braga)
Developers Diego (Humberto Carrão) and Geraldo (Fernando Teixeira) with Clara (Sônia Braga)

Anne-Katrin Titze: The actor who plays Diego is really good.

Kleber Mendonça Filho: Yeah. He's a very young guy [Humberto Carrão], very talented.

AKT: He is very good. Very menacing. Very internationally menacing. Speaking of different backgrounds - he is the international evil. How did you build him?

KMF: Well, I grew fascinated and I have to admit, I bought some of these [long pause] … books, that actually have become very successful everywhere but also in Brazil. These books written by American business people, American marketing people with hints at how to become successful. Strategies to make more money.

And they are frightening. It's frightening reading when you actually sit down and read these things. There is one which I haven't read but I think it was number three in a bookstore in a shopping mall recently in Brazil. The title of the book was: How To Lie, using statistics.

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in Alexander Payne's Election:
Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in Alexander Payne's Election: "She thinks she has everything figured out. And that's a little like Diego." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Wow.

KMF: It's really fascinating to think … I mean, this is all legal! These are strategies and schemes to do things and make money and give off the impression that something is being more important than what it actually is. And I thought Diego would be that kind of person. You know, very ambitious. He was born into money, of course. His grandfather [Geraldo played by Fernando Teixeira] …

AKT: Connected completely, of course.

KMF: Connected through osmosis, almost. The film also makes a point that in a certain layer of that society, everybody is connected, even if you don't want to. You might end up being somebody's niece even if you don't want to but you are. And then when you need, you actually use your connections. But he [Diego] is very well connected. You know what he reminded me of when I was writing him? In a strange way? Remember that character of Tracy Flick in Election by Alexander Payne?

AKT: Yes.

KMF: Played by Reese Witherspoon?

Kleber Mendonça Filho:
Kleber Mendonça Filho: "My father would take me to the beach at night and I would be playing in the sand."

AKT: I do!

KMF: That character was written with a very specific tone and kind of sarcastic sense of humour which is not really mine. The film is kind of like a comedy, Election. But she thinks she understands everything. She thinks she has everything figured out. And that's a little like Diego.

AKT: I can see that.

KMF: Diego, of course, is less of a comedic character than Tracy Flick in Election.

AKT: The scene when Clara is being interviewed and she is talking about "the message in a bottle" being inside the record, made me think about how memories are going to change. Digital taking over, objects disappearing. I just had a conversation with the Toni Erdmann director. Did you see it?

KMF: Maren Ade. I still haven't seen it.

AKT: The title made me think of a record I had as a child, about Erdmännchen, meaning meerkats. I looked it up and I saw the cover of the record online. It triggered something, but I'm sure it didn't trigger the same as it would have, had I had that record in my hand. And I thought about your film and what it says about memories in objects. The chest of drawers for Aunt Lucía [Thaia Perez]. Can you talk about that?

Kleber Mendonça Filho:
Kleber Mendonça Filho: "John Lennon Double Fantasy Yoko Ono record, that's my record that I actually bought …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

KMF: Yes. That's so much part of life. I even question whether that's going to disappear because this is so human. You know, these are the madeleines. The madeleine is not only a memory. It's a memory of touching something. The memory of taking a letter out of an envelope or, of course, a record. I thought the whole film should be not only about memory, abstract memory, but about physical memory. Tactile memory.

AKT: In a film!

KMF: In a film - which is actually digital these days. So it would start with the building itself. Which is, I think, the whole point of the opening segment in 1980. You get to know the building at a different time in its history. Not a spectacular evening in any way, but one maybe memorable evening back in 1980.

AKT: You changed the colour of the house from pink to blue then to white?

KMF: Which is factually correct. Because in 1980, the building was salmon, was pink. From '69 until '87 it was salmon. Afterwards it was painted blue, which it still is. And in the Sixties and Fifties it was white and that's what Clara does in the film, she paints it white.

AKT: But back to memories. I interrupted you with the colours.

"I thought the whole film should be not only about memory, abstract memory, but about physical memory."

KMF: I really like the idea of touching these objects. They bring me a very strong sense of memory. And something beautiful happened, which is, the part in the beginning of the film and the cars on the beach - they are personal memories of mine when I was a very young child in the Seventies. My father would take me to the beach at night and I would be playing in the sand. And a lot of cars would be on the beach with somebody playing loud music in the car.

And it was very strange, because I had money, I had a crew and technicians so that I could create the perfect tactile version of my memory, which is the party. And each little detail in the party comes from my own memories. And if I did not have a specific memory maybe about a bag, we would do research of course. And I would look at it and say, this looks very familiar, yes, let's go with that bag.

Somebody wrote a full article on a T-shirt that's in the party. Because it's a T-shirt from Recife's most mythical bookstore that ran from 1971 to 1998. And it's a bookstore that I was taken to as a child by my parents. There is a maid in the kitchen in the opening segment with a very specific T-shirt that I remember. And this has triggered so many memories in so many people - that one T-shirt in the film!

"I expected to get a record and I got these archeological findings about the past."

And one guy who now lives in Sao Paolo, he wrote a full article on that T-shirt. So this physical aspect of memory for me is very very important. I'm not sure you know, but the John Lennon Double Fantasy Yoko Ono record, that's my record that I actually bought in Los Angeles at Amoeba and took back home. Many months after I took it home, I opened it and there were newspaper cutouts about John Lennon before his death. I put that in the film. It was like walking into the supermarket and finding the remains of a cinema.

I expected to get a record and I got these archeological findings about the past. This article came out two or three weeks before he died, before he was killed. And it did say: John Lennon's plans for the future. This whole thing was like a mind-fuck for me because it's all about documents and history.

AKT: It resonates so much with other people. For me, never having been to that place, I remember a similar location. A hotel in Italy, near Venice where we spent every summer. Where the road and the beach are very similar. I remember those nights being on the balcony, and there is the ocean.

KMF: When you were a child?

AKT: Yeah. When I was a child. And all these adults in their cars having fun. I remember thinking, what a crazy world this is. These first thoughts, realising what the world looks like. That memory of balmy nights at the other end of the world was triggered by your opening scenes.

Aquarius poster
Aquarius poster

KMF: That's great.

AKT: It's so fascinating because it is about the tactile and it's something you see on the screen. That's the magic of cinema.

KMF: The record is quite easy to relate, because it's a record, it's John Lennon. But the wood chest - that I thought was very appealing because it wouldn't even fetch $100 in an auction. It has no commercial value, it's a very mediocre, nothing special about that piece of furniture. But Aunt Lucía puts some very valuable memories onto that object. Then it becomes valuable.

AKT: As we all do. The most precious possessions I have would not fetch much at an auction. They would be completely worthless to everybody else and to me they mean everything. Thank you.

KMF: Thank you. It was a very beautiful interview.

Read what Sônia Braga had to say on working with the director and her character in Aquarius.

Kleber Mendonça Filho on a changing world, on shooting wide, and the loss of Museum of Modern Art Department of Film Curator Jytte Jensen.

Aquarius will screen on Sunday, November 20 in New York's Museum of Modern Art Oscar Contender program at 5:30pm followed by a discussion with Sônia Braga.

Aquarius is in cinemas in the US.

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