Josh Slater-Williams

A brilliant film about pregnancy plays at IndieLisboa

Olmo and the Seagull deserves its comparison to Rosemary’s Baby, despite being a very different beast.

When it comes to browsing a festival programme, it’s usually wise to take any blurb comparisons to other filmmakers or famous films with a pinch of salt – just how many times have you seen anything with dark, violent comedy get explicitly compared to the Coen brothers?

The catalogue for this year’s IndieLisboa International Film Festival, based in the Portuguese capital, offered a particularly curious comparison point, describing Petra Costa and Lea Glob’s Olmo and the Seagull as, ‘the most powerful film about maternity since Rosemary’s Baby.’ Considering that the film is a fiction/non-fiction hybrid and not an out-and-out genre piece, the reference to Roman Polanski’s classic chiller certainly creates some intrigue. While it never veers into the realm of the fantastical, the link does feel appropriate, particularly in how Glob and Costa create a fragmented, hallucinatory portrait of the toll of pregnancy which comes with an element of the claustrophobic – a documentary by way of psychological thriller.

Real life stage colleague couple Olivia Corsini and Serge Nicolai play veiled versions of themselves preparing to star in a production of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’. At which point, they discover they’re going to have a baby. Serge can continue with the play, but the physical requirements of her role and proposed touring schedule means Olivia can’t. Glob and Costa originally conceived this project as being based more around the production of the play itself, but Corsini’s sudden pregnancy inspired a considerable change in the film’s form.

The unique result sees a fictionalised pregnancy, largely told as a linear narrative, gain a new layer of power and meaning. The lead actor’s real, physical transformation infuses both her performance and the viewer’s relationship with that performance – where does the actor end and her fictional character begin? It’s an approach befitting of questions brought up in the film itself, where Olivia starts to see both lead female characters of the play she’s had to leave – an ageing actress, and one who falls into madness – become uncomfortable reflections of her own self.

As home movie footage is used for context, Olivia describes how she has always acted throughout her life: “Doing all I could to be loved,” is how she movingly describes it. One particular scene sees her examine her face in the mirror, tracing the ways in which various parts she’s played over the years have left inscriptions upon her features. A smile-heavy role may have contributed to a specific line, or a part reliant on much grimacing leaving a notable wrinkle.

It is during one of these mirror confessionals that Olivia Corsini breaks character as the Olivia of the film, acknowledging the camera’s existence to express dissatisfaction with an element the director behind the camera has suggested for one of her monologues; in this case, it’s an objection to incorporating the idea of flirtations with infidelity into the role that’s so intrinsically linked to her real persona. This is one of the film’s more potent ideas regarding the whole fiction/non-fiction divide: how far can a director go with conducting real people when asking them to portray an interpretation of themselves?

As much as Olmo and the Seagull deals with psychological torment, it ultimately doesn’t demonise the pregnancy process. Rather, it’s a frank and cinematic study that counterpoints the existential lows against the more beautiful, life-affirming elements. Plus, Corsini’s commitment to putting every facet of her nine month experience out there is truly commendable. The end credits show us some home movie footage of Olivia just after the birth, and the now toddler-age child (Olmo of the film’s title) was in attendance at the festival screening. If the all-smiles, toy ukulele-strumming boy on stage is anything like the rule-imposing alien that Olivia describes in the film, he’s certainly hiding it very well.

Portugal’s IndieLisboa Film Festival runs from 20 April to 1 May

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