The temperature of Invisible Life is as scorching as the hot pink title credits. In the Rio de Janeiro of the early 1950s, air conditioning is a mythical beast. Ceiling fans slice the thick stagnant air. Members of the Gusmão family, nuclear and extended, pace rooms because sitting still scores a victory for humidity. The winner of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard prize, Invisible Life traces the lives of sisters Guida (Julia Stockler) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte) as they separate at the moment of their greatest intimacy. After the first fifteen minutes, they’re not seen together again. Karim Aïnouz’s adaptation of Martha Batalha’s novel has the texture of a Tennessee Williams play and the pace and attitude of a telenovela.
That opening sequence is a bit of a red herring: the women, both in their late teens or early twenties, lose each other in the denseness of the rainforest, their names drowned out by bird calls. We could be in the world of Lucretia Martel or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Then Invisible Life shifts indoors. Eurídice has ambitions to become a concert pianist, an eyebrow-raiser in the hothouse machismo of Brazil. Guida makes no secret of her sexual attraction to a Greek lover: she runs away with him. When she returns months later, pregnant, Gusmão throws her out of the house. To worsen matters, he tells her Eurídice has also left — to study music in Vienna. The absence of spite is chilling: Gusmão follows the rules of acceptable conduct for families who want to keep their honor. In truth, Eurídice has made a poor decision of her own by marrying a man whom her father approves but with whom she has no sexual chemistry (their wedding night requires poppers to achieve, well, climax). While she accumulates kids and dreams of playing piano at concerts, Guida wanders the slums of Rio with her child and Filomena (a powerful Bárbara Santos), a prostitute who manages to preserve her dignity.
These are terrific performances, both of them. Wary of a dichotomous approach to character, Aïnouz cuts between the Guida and Eurídice sequences such that it takes a while to distinguish them; he adapts the iconic blurred-lines scenes between Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona for melodramatic ends. What a relief to watch a film in which a society’s condemnation of female sexuality doesn’t result in the director’s abjuring of that sexuality. As they age Guida and Eurídice seem to have richer connections to their bodies. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who knows something about capturing the female form in motion from her work with Claire Denis, ravishes their curves in deep sun-drenched hues; it’s possible to feel the earth warming as the film progresses.
There are moments when Invisible Life takes its distancing effects too seriously. Benedikt Schiefer’s score — synths wells in unanticipated places — is noticeably a thing. The moment when Guida, years later, spots her father in a restaurant depends on a serendipitously placed aquarium as a barrier and symbolic marker; you may find yourself asking, “What Fassbender film did Aïnouz have in mind?” But the affection for Duarte and Stockler — the camera’s in a bit of a daze as it watches them lean against walls or wipe sweat from their foreheads — and the genre conventions keeps Invisible Life from turgidity. By the time Fernanda Montenegro arrives for a late cameo the decision feels apt if not necessary. A standard bearer of Brazilian film nominated for a Best Actress twenty years ago (Central Station), Montenegro bestows a chef’s kiss on Aïnouz’s project.