The Movie Waffler New Release Review - THE ORNITHOLOGIST | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE ORNITHOLOGIST

Following a kayaking accident, an ornithologist attempts to escape his increasingly bizarre predicament.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: João Pedro Rodrigues

Starring: Paul Hamy, Xelo Cagiao, João Pedro Rodrigues, Han Wen, Chan Suan


The argument could be made that arthouse films constitute a genre in much the same way as westerns, romantic comedies, fantasy films, films noirs etc. (even if the possibilities open to an art filmmaker are far more limitless than those available to conventional genre filmmakers). There are genre films that stylistically and thematically explore the human soul in depth (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Shop Around the Corner, A Matter of Life and Death, Double Indemnity) and there are ones that are enjoyable merely because they indulge in beloved genre conventions (Destry Rides Again, Roman Holiday, The Thief of Bagdad, Murder, My Sweet). There are countless art films that probe the depths of the human soul, but there are also art films that are fun just for being kind of wacky - if not especially revelatory (Juliet of the Spirits, 10th Victim, Weekend, Samurai Rebellion, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me). The Ornithologist, a film by Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues, is one of these movies. It’s as impenetrable and mysterious as any artistically vigorous film, but you won’t get much satisfaction from The Ornithologist’s depth because it isn’t very deep. Instead you will find satisfaction in its goofy craziness and its scandalous unpredictability.


The titular ornithologist is the hunky gay Fernando (Paul Hamy) - the film opens with our scientist hero intently observing exotic birds as he kayaks down a remote river flanked by dense woods. While observing a particularly striking bird in flight, Fernando fails to notice that his kayak is swiftly approaching perilous rapids, and he capsizes. Later, his body is discovered by two Chinese tourists, Fei (Han Wen) and Ling (Chan Suan), who are on a Christian pilgrimage to Santiago. The two women revive Fernando, feeding him and giving him a strange tea. Fernando, grateful for food and warmth, falls asleep. But his troubles are far from over - he wakes up to find himself bound from head to toe, suspended from a tree. The rest of The Ornithologist deals with Fernando’s escape and a pilgrimage of his own as he attempts to find his way out of the mysterious forest and return to civilisation.

With its aesthetic reliance on heavy-handed sexualisation of religious imagery, The Ornithologist has more to offer as a work of blasphemous fun than it does as a commentary on the loneliness of a human soul. This is apparent from the first moment of religiously tinged bizzarerie. When we first meet Fei and Ling, they are wandering alone in the dense woods, playfully scaring one another. But when Ling realises that she’s cut her knee, Fei reflexively stoops to suck the blood. This throwaway moment of vampirism (an idea never returned to) is The Ornithologist’s first fun little shock of many fun little shocks, all of which dance around the ideas of Christianity and satanic paganism - just as the film’s actual bird-people pagans dance around a nocturnal campfire - without ever substantially engaging with those ideas. At one point, Fernando meets a deaf shepherd named Jesus. Not long after attempting - in vain - to solicit help from the shepherd, Fernando seduces him; after the seduction, a miscommunication results in Fernando’s murdering the shepherd. This episode plays with some fun, but fairly obvious imagery: the fact that a young man named Jesus is herding goats should immediately call to mind a facile sort of God/Satan connection, and the liebestod aspect of Jesus’ gay seduction and murder is giddily outré if not nuanced. It has been claimed that the events of The Ornithologist parallel the life of St. Anthony of Padua; I’m no scholar on medieval Christianity, but even if these parallels do in fact exist, The Ornithologist’s imagery would seem to serve as a simple (albeit delightful) perversion of that story as opposed to a revelatory reimagining of it (as Bruno Dumont was able to do with his fascinating new film, Jeannette: the Childhood of Joan of Arc).


The finely hewn tones of The Ornithologist function in much the same way as its slightly overwrought imagery; they’re amusing and well integrated on a superficial level. Rodrigues effectively works in a slow cinema mode; as Fernando patiently observes birds, the film itself patiently observes Fernando as the woods increasingly close in on and engulf him. Rodrigues succeeds in using nature to tease out the sensual side of slow cinema where someone like Julia Loktev failed with the pretentious The Loneliest Planet in 2011.

But Rodrigues also succeeds with this in part by regularly having his lush slow-burn film boil over into moments of suspense and eroticism. It’s genuinely creepy when Fernando wakes in the middle of the night to see a shadow of a pagan bird-person glide across the walls of his tent - an image reminiscent of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). In the scene with the deaf shepherd, Rodrigues mixes atmospheres of homoeroticism and suspense with a skill that rivals that of Alain Guiraudie, whose wonderful Stranger by the Lake (2013) strongly resembles The Ornithologist. Unlike Stranger by the Lake, however, The Ornithologist uses its enjoyably bizarre blend of atmospheres to maintain a certain detached distance from the depths of the human psyche into which Guiraudie’s slightly superior film plunges. The diverse tones that Rodrigues employs certainly are cohesive but, in a way, frothy.


What I’ve said applies to the vast majority of The Ornithologist; its ending, however, is a little more ambiguous. Towards the end, Rodrigues pulls off a trick involving Fernando that is shocking, unsettling, and eerily fascinating - yet this sudden twist cedes the film to something more tantamount to an indifferent bemused shrug (I won’t divulge all the details here). It’s hard to know if we’re being asked to ponder deep ideas about identity and transformation or if we’re being trolled. The former would be of a piece with the opaqueness of the film’s imagery; the latter would be of a piece with the ridiculousness of that imagery. Either way, it’s of a piece - a testament to everything that is, at the end of the day, strong about the film. Even if The Ornithologist isn’t especially profound, it’s always aesthetically interesting and always good sacrilegious fun.

The Ornithologist is in UK cinemas October 6th.