A director’s thoughts

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On the matter of “Mercy”…

– By João Paulo Simões

João Paulo Simões

João Paulo Simões

A time comes in your filmmaking trajectory (perhaps when you’ve made 64 fiction films/documentaries/music videos) when you should look back and question. It’s the healthiest thing to do, because, for lack of a better reason, it’s way too easy to get tangled up in the fabric of your own mythologies.

Some earlier artistic expressions have become unavoidably exposed in their naivety, but retain a singularity that is, at the very least, reassuring. But I don’t need to look so far back into the past to find a more perplexing example…
It has become more than apparent to me that I needed to reflect upon “Mercy” – my 2012 medium-length unforgiving tale of family secrets and repressed desires.

A still from Mercy (2012)

A still from “Mercy” (2012).

Here’s what I set out to do, upon the conception of the project:
A film that explored the notions of family and identity through the brief encounter between two women and which retained its ambiguity until the very last frame.

And here’s what I got, upon completion:
A film that explores the notions of family and identity through the brief encounter between two women and which retains its ambiguity until the very last frame.

To what extent can a film be considered a failure, if its end result perfectly matches the original intention? Yet, by all other accounts, “Mercy” seems to have failed.

There was an initial enthusiasm at the time of its release – partly due to its peripheral (but very specific) connections to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But, for one reason or another, it soon died out. The feminist quarters directed some criticism towards its central message and approach, but that can hardly justify the fact that this has become the poorest-selling of all my DVD releases. Defenders of more conventional schools of acting attacked the film’s tone – which was carefully constructed in partnership with its actors – but, again, that cannot be used as a scapegoat.

In either case, I have previously delivered output that came far more under fire than this: being accused of female objectification, immorality and perversion in a feature-film like “Antlers of Reason” (2006) – which, coincidentally, remains my most widely-seen and best-selling project; or of embracing the Brechtian “distance in speech” approach a little too much in an earlier feature-length piece called “Duchess, Duchess” (2004) – which, paradoxically, was previewed at Cannes and had its worldwide broadcast rights bought by Sky TV. So, what is wrong with “Mercy”?

I don’t tend to watch my films again, but, for the sake of this reflection, I have sat through the complete 30 minutes of “Mercy”. I found very easy to detach myself and be objective. The film balances its subversion of role expectation and the absurdity at its core very effectively throughout. It’s perhaps the most ‘faithful to its characters’ piece that I’ve ever put together. From a spectator perspective, I find its tone and atmosphere really consistent, with very exact aesthetics (combining the grit with the stylised) and a sound design that perfectly underlies the tension.

Anything I would make different?

I would make it even slower-paced, for starters. From a technical angle, I would also probably re-dub the entire film. As far as the narrative is concerned, I would make the confrontation even more visceral and spread it over different scenes – more in a crescendo of barely contained violence and desire. I would also, maybe, push the boundaries of the intimate scenes. The film’s approach to memory and voyeurism would definitely benefit from it.

One last thought, as far as personal taste is concerned: maybe it’s just me, but any film which brushes on the supernatural with the presence of a ghost piano deserves some credit…
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