Baan, the first fiction feature from Leonor Teles, is an enigmatic, elusive film whose ever-increasing experimentation is both its strongest and weakest aspect.
Shades of red shudder around the screen’s periphery in the opening moments of Baan. These hazy hues permeate into the film’s overarching dreamlike atmosphere, with Leonor Teles’ (Ashore) choice to shoot in a home video style also reinforcing Baan’s searching, soulful journey of self-discovery. Carolina Miragaia as El is frequently framed in isolation as her search for belonging progresses, with seductive reds and clinical whites informing this character. Teles, here shooting her first fiction feature, struggles to break through to more memorable depths, but her invigorating style makes Baan a largely transfixing experience.
El is born and raised in Lisbon, but she never feels at home in her native city, or even in her country. Baan portrays her struggles with loneliness and depression; she is a young architect who we see sketch this urban world of Portugal, but she never truly understands Lisbon. Teles’ depiction of this young woman ghosting through a city feels akin to Lost in Translation (2003) at times, whilst her use of slow motion and flitting camerawork set against neon-drenched urban backdrops brings notions of Wong Kar-wai (Fallen Angels, In the Mood for Love). We see El’s fleeting but deep relationship with Kay (Meghna Lall, Faces), a woman who meets El in Lisbon and experiences a similar soul-searching journey herself.
Whilst Teles’ depiction of urban isolation is interesting, it doesn’t always successfully translate into something cohesive, with the narrative peppered with thematic hints as opposed to anything fully concrete. Furthermore, the parallels she draws between El’s own journey and the xenophobia that Kay experiences feels cloying. This bungled handling of racism is fleeting, but difficult to face, and Baan’s clunky dialogue does little to improve the situation. Indeed, the film’s themes, which are generally informed by admirable left wing views, never fully form, coming at the viewer like a barrage of a tick box exercise at times.
Despite this, Teles shows a keen eye for painting complex characters and utilising city backdrops to enhance their personalities. El’s journey takes her from Lisbon to Bangkok, and the settings are always as important to Baan as the people on screen. At one point, El looks at a building upside down, her POV captured by the camera, and it makes no less sense than if it was the right way up; to El, the world is unclear at any and every angle.
Miragaia is entrancing as El, infusing her character with a youngster’s charisma as well as an unerring, disturbing sadness within her eyes. As Baan progresses, the number of shots of El wandering through streets or smoking and looking at a cityscape become slightly repetitive, but the combination of Miragaia’s performance and Teles’ visuals still make these moments arresting. Teles also utilises natural light to great effect, with darkness casting imposing shadows or sunset rays radiating romantic hues.
Music fades in and out, as memories and feelings come and go too. Baan meanders in this very loose, poetic tone for all of its runtime, with the plot growing ever more erratic and unpredictable; it is refreshing, but also confounding at times. More depth to El’s character would have been helpful, and as her journey continues, setting and time become increasingly hard to follow. As Baan proceeds, Teles operates in an ever-increasing experimental tone, showing great abandon for conventional storytelling. The result is simultaneously compelling, challenging, and confusing.
Baan premiered at the Locarno Film Festival on August 8-10, 2023.