reaching for the moon
Film, 2013, 3.5 stars
I am not generally a fan of films that work quite this hard to keep their audiences at arms’ length, but there is something beguiling about this biopic of this exceptional artist, in that life imitates art, and art reaches into the artist’s life and threatens to destroy it from the inside.
There’s no doubt that Reaching for the Moon celebrates beauty in all its forms. Pulitzer prize-winning Bishop’s poetry itself explores grief, love, and loss with pinpoint and disturbing accuracy. Bishop’s Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares was a famed architect and aesthete, and her tendency to surround herself with all things beautiful (including women) was infamous. Their Shangri-La, the gardens and house they live in, are spectacular. Rio itself, the backdrop to this gorgeously-shot film, is breathtaking and grungy. There’s plenty of art and beauty here to absorb yourself in.
The story begins in 1951 aboard a ship taking the exhausted and disillusioned Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) from New York to Buenos Aires, having accepted an invitation to holiday there by a Vassar classmate. Once there, Elizabeth is detained due to an unfortunate allergic reaction to a local fruit, and has an affair with Lota (the luminous Glória Pires), who was her friend Mary’s lover.
After much angst, they eventually settle into an awkward threesome of sorts, jointly raising a little girl together, an arrangement that does nothing for Mary’s mental health over the years.
For fifteen years Elizabeth continues to write and drink in Rio, never truly settling into her life with Lota who she fundamentally mistrusts, but not because of anything Lota has done, it’s simply the way she thinks. Alcohol becomes her closest companion, she becomes a concern to Lota and a laughing stock in society. Meanwhile, the country is collapsing around them - this is a period of immense political and social turmoil in Brazil - and we see the lovers and all the people closest to them rising and falling in the chaos.
It was here I began to feel dissatisfied with the story - it feels like either the film should either have chronicled their lives within the chaos of Brazil in the sixties, or focus inwardly on the dissolution of their relationship. It does neither really, at least not in any meaningful way. Instead we follow Elizabeth as she floats ghost-like through her life, not being able to attach herself truly to anyone or anything. She walks and smokes and drinks, and writes. Both her life and the film stagnate.
Elizabeth and Lota’s relationship, first so passionate and fundamental to both their ideals of happiness, becomes first a nightmare and then a burden. Yet again we see the trope of an artist flourish into the greatest of her powers amongst emotional and mental torment. Elizabeth is happiest when alone, sitting in the writing hut that Lota has constructed for her, forever searching for some sense of herself that she has never been able to find.
In a revealing scene, Lota tries to tell Elizabeth where she should place her desk in her new office, to be more aesthetically pleasing, but Elizabeth envisions something different. Finally, she drags the immense desk to exactly where she wants it by herself, her stubbornness of wanting to order her own universe always winning out, perhaps at the expense of everything around her.
The filmmaker (and I suspect the original story’s author) is enamoured of Bishop’s most famous poem, One Art.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Lota is one of these things. From its inauspicious beginnings that are based in betrayal, their love does seem to be intended to be lost, and for that loss to be a necessary loss in the end. Only, that in itself is a betrayal of self. The meaning is that every loss, no matter how big or small, eats away at your very soul, so that individually each appears not to matter, but when taken together have the effect of limiting a life, of being the greatest disaster there is.
Elizabeth eventually chases her dreams and her art back in New York, while Lota goes on to create and build Flamengo Park, the largest urban park by the sea in the world. They are huge ambitions, boldly realised by both women. The film seems to posit, perhaps these two artists are each so consumed by their legacy and vision that a relationship was truly never something that could be sustained?
When Lota shows up in New York at the end of her life in order to see Elizabeth one final time, we see how fundamental a loss each of them has allowed to occur, and we ache for them and what could have been.