Clara, an ex music critic living out her retirement in a Brazilian seashore apartment, is effortlessly cool. She is completely at home in herself and in her environment, with nothing to prove and no shits to give. She also emanates power. When a man asks to drive her home after a night out, she informs him that she will get a taxi. That is the end of the matter: we cut straight to Clara getting out of the taxi as it reaches her apartment.
In fact, the camera can’t get enough of Clara – so much so that it feels lost when it can’t find her. In the very first shot of the film, the camera pans from the ocean and pans towards her travelling in a car. In the next scene, the camera trawls a party to find her face, and is then glued to Clara until she walks out of the frame. Later, the camera ponders aimlessly over the cityscape, before noticing Clara on the side-walk and regaining its focus.
Clara’s apartment complex is called ‘Aquarius’, which is slowly been bought up by developers who want to turn it into the ‘New Aquarius’. They can’t do anything until Clara sells up, and that is something she is simply not prepared to do. This, for better or for worse, is her space. The rest of the film sees Clara wafting away the developer’s escalating micro-aggressions, until their scheming becomes more sinister and she has to fightback.
The film never strays into sentimentality because it is not a simple story. Despite her gravitas, it is not obvious that we should be supporting Clara's defiance because it is unclear if she is being self-destructive. Her family thinks she’s being rash, and the empty building might be unsafe. Elsewhere, we see the construction workers who are losing their jobs because Clara’s stubbornness. In other words, her actions have consequences: this is not just a principled stand against sprawling capitalism.
Then, halfway through the film, Clara is woken up by some drunks who stumble past her door to the flat above. All the noise stops Clara from sleeping and her agitated, wild eye-movements captures the helpless anger of a disrupted night. Her serene exterior flickers; she suddenly looks lonely, scared and vulnerable.
But Clara knows better than that. She blasts “Fat Bottomed Girls” over the stereo and pours herself a fat glass of wine. She might not be helping the situation, but at least now it is her own noise keeping her awake.
This instinct to resist, and to not allow the whims of life bash her around, throws a new light on Clara’s doggedness in the face of the developers: this is not about winning, but the fight itself. Even though she might lose her battles in the end, she will lose on her terms and having taken a few chunks out of her opponent, never giving the gratification of a quick and early concession.
This is not self-destruction as much as it is self-affirmation, and her siege-like mentality loops through the film. Colossal powers loom in the background, from the relentless lapping of the sea, to the threat of her cancer returning, to the transformation of music journalism and technology. But she will not let any of this affect her daily routines, especially her morning swim. Indeed, the walls of her rooms are covered in vinyl’s, old movie posters and photos as if physical barriers against the tides of change.
“May the house you live in be a home of joy, refuge from the storm” is sung at the start of the film, but we only really understand its significance when we hear it again later in the film. The apartment is Clara’s refuge: she fills it with her music, her art and her people.
These ideas simmer beneath each scene, never being referred to explicitly, nor manufactured into neat conclusions. Instead, they feed into a thematic arc that shapes the characters and drives the plot. It is an exquisite film: adroit, modest and elegant.