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This doesn't approach the achievement of Manoel de Oliveira's previous feature, Inquietude, the highlight of last year's festival and my favorite film of 1998. But the 34th film of Portugal's greatest filmmaker maintains his usual cool audacity, fearlessly courting absurdity at every turn. Now that he's in his early 90s—making him the only living filmmaker who worked before the coming of sound—you might say he's entitled to his dry conceptual wit; but this wasn't the position of the members of the American press at Cannes when The Letter won the jury prize, many of whom seemed scandalized. An adaptation of Madame de La Fayette's classic 1678 novel about court intrigue and unrequited love, La princesse de Cleves, transplanted into contemporary European high society and played out in designer clothes, it simply and brutally juxtaposes two eras 300 years apart to elicit not easy laughs but sustained, amused disbelief. The heroine, suffering stoically in a passionless arranged marriage, is not so much played as embodied by Chiara Mastroianni—whose mother (Catherine Deneuve) was cast in de Oliveira's The Convent and whose father (Marcello Mastroianni) was in his Journey to the Beginning of the World. Even less acted is the object of her concealed love and lust, the famous Portuguese pop singer Pedro Abrunhosa, imperturbably playing himself as an incongruous stand-in for the duke of Nemours. Most of the action is summarized in long intertitles, leaving de Oliveira free to ponder the imponderable with his usual aristocratic distance and patience.

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