DVD Review - Body Electric (Corpo Eléctrico)
Whitman was known as the father of free verse, a style of poetry not bound by a specific meter pattern or rhyme. Whitman was a humanist, which his poem makes explicitly clear. Whitman was also known for his sexual imagery, as the man would later be identified as queer, either gay or bisexual.
This film, directed and co-written by Marcelo Caetano, in his feature debut, doesn't make a direct adaptation of Whitman's poem. It uses the poem more as an inspiration, though certain passages become subtextual themes to what is essentially a character study. There is no narrative plot, at least not a very strong one that drives action forward. Caetano simply follows a young man from his job in the day to his interpersonal relationships at night, which ultimately aren't that substantial.
Kelner Macêdo stars as Elias, a 23-year-old fashion designer who works in a clothing factory in São Paulo, Brazil. He spends the day with dozens of others stitching together fabrics or cutting patterns. He doesn't seem all that engaged at work, despite having a passion for fashion. When he's not at work, he's hanging out with friends. Most of whom also work at the same factory. He's also frequently having sex with random men he encounters.
Whitman's poem begins, "I sing the body electric, The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them." Even though it's not clear what "engirth" means, it could be interpreted as "embrace." The line invokes the idea of a group of people wrapping themselves concupiscently. Caetano does stage an interesting shot, which is one, long, continuous take that's about five minutes.
Later, Elias meets ballroom drag queens through a friend at the factory named Wellington, played by Lucas Andrade, an adorably, skinny, black kid. When in the house of those drag queens, he eventually has a foursome, an orgy of sorts. These scenes are to me another expression of that Whitman line. Yes, engirth could have a prurient connotation and Caetano could be choosing to interpret it as such.
Further along in Whitman's poem, he wrote, "I have perceiv'd that to be with those I like is enough, To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough." Here, there isn't much of a prurient connotation. It's more just general mirth being in proximity to other people, a sense of congeniality. Caetano's film certainly has plenty of scenes here where Elias and friends hang out, party and dance, representing that idea of mirth and congeniality.
Whitman then wrote, "I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea." This disposition seems to be Elias' disposition as well. However, what makes Caetano's film slightly interesting is that it questions that disposition in some moments. It somewhat questions this hedonistic and non-ambitious idea from Whitman. Caetano doesn't question it as much as I would appreciate by way of providing his protagonist with enough consequences. Promiscuity, theft of fabrics and even potential alcoholism are rather brushed off.
Because he also doesn't challenge the quoted language, when that final shot arrives, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Are we supposed to be happy for Elias or relieved? Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? The filmmaker could want the ending to be ambiguous, and you can take from it what you will.
Not Rated but contains nudity and intense sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.
In Portuguese with subtitles.
Available on DVD and VOD on December 5.