Reportedly, Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington (Me You Them) designed his new feature House Of Sand specifically around his wife Fernanda Torres and her mother Fernanda Montenegro. Watching the film, it's easy to believe: The lead roles are meaty, complicated, plum parts, challenging even to accomplished career actors like Torres and Montenegro. Problem is, the actors are likely to get more out of them than the viewers. House Of Sand is stunningly beautiful, but it has the whiff of a vanity project for all concerned. Half dream, half exercise in art for art's sake, it begins with a compelling narrative, then lets it drift away on the ubiquitous titular sand.
The film begins in 1910, with Torres as a miserable bride whose husband Ruy Guerra (looking like a half-crazed Kenny Rogers) is determined to settle on the blasted dunes of Maranhao, Brazil. Never mind that the land is already occupied by a colony of fugitive slaves who don't respect Guerra's deed, or that the blistering winds and arid conditions are inimical even to the healthiest and hardiest, let alone to Torres' aging mother (Montenegro) and unborn baby. Guerra is nonetheless stubborn up to the day he dies, stranding his wife and mother-in-law in a seemingly uninhabitable environment that Torres profoundly hates. Torres and Montenegro struggle to escape, or alternately to build a life of sorts, but Waddington's abrupt leaps forward in time elide over many of the difficult parts. And while his habit of enlisting Torres and Montenegro to play their own descendents says touching things about the continuity and connectivity of generations, it can be unnecessarily confusing on a first viewing.
Waddington drew heavily on Hiroshi Teshigahara's classic Woman In The Dunes when developing House Of Sand's story, and he mimics Teshigahara's imagery closely as well, alternating immense, desolate vistas with starkly beautiful but symbolically nightmarish close-ups of constantly trickling, eroding sand. And like Teshigahara, Waddington focuses on the effect such a raw, unstable environment has on its inhabitants, who cling to each other for comfort but largely withhold their trust. But as decades pass, his story unravels rather than cohering, and while each new iteration of his desert family comments differently on human connection and expectation, each one also has less to say. House Of Sand is a gorgeous piece of cinema, but by the end, it just dries up and blows away.