With a jaunty cane, trilby, striped shirt and a hand shielding his eyes against the bright lights, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira looked as self-possessed at the Cannes film festival as any elegant Hollywood star.
But there again, he has plenty of experience: at 101, he is the oldest active film-maker in the world. In fact, 11 December 1908 must have been a propitious date. Perhaps the only other creative artist working at De Oliveira's level into his second century is the great American composer Elliott Carter, who was born on the same day.
And while patience is an essential virtue for directors – years may pass before a project gets off the ground – few can say they have waited 64 years. De Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelica, which was premiered at the festival conceived in 1946, and he took it to script in 1952. De Oliveira recently tweaked the story to take in such issues as global warming, the economic crisis and environmental pollution.
The film is about a young Jewish photographer, Isaac, who is called out in the middle of the night to take pictures of a woman just after her death. He falls in love with her image, which obsesses him.
According to De Oliveira: "I thought of doing the film just after the second world war. Hitler killed six million Jews in Europe and the Jews were fleeing to Portugal to fly to the States … Jews are still persecuted, as are Muslims. We also have pollution, economic crisis, heavy rains in Madeira and Rio de Janeiro. All these events have wreaked havoc; they make Isaac feel very ill at ease."
In fact, although De Oliveira does have some optimism about the fact that "nature is running wild" and the "economic crisis is very important indeed," he also believes "there is a loss of values in the world that reminds me of Sodom and Gomorrah. We could end up in a similarly drastic situation".
The film's eccentric vision defies categorisation. Two things lie at its heart, though: a painterly eye, and a meditative, almost elegiac feeling for the landscape of the river Douro, in Portugal, where it is set. Isaac is obsessed by photographing labourers turning vineyard soil in the old, traditional, backbreaking way.
It was as a farmer himself that De Oliveira sat out most of the authoritarian years in Portugal under António Salazar, before the Carnation Revolution of 1974 ushered in a new era of productivity – but the period of inactivity at least offered him the opportunity for introspection. "I had time for a long and profound reflection about the artistic nature of cinema, which transformed my previous certainties into new concepts between hesitations and doubt," he said recently.
His first film, made in 1931, was also set on the banks of the Douro – a document of riverside activity influenced by Soviet techniques. His second film, in 1963, was Rite of Spring – a Passion story set in a rural community.
It is in what for most people would be their autumn years, however, that De Oliveira has been most productive. He made only three features in the first 40 years of his career and has produced 19 thereafter – in the 1990s making a film a year and attracting such actors John Malkovich and Catherine Deneuve.
Today De Oliveira said he felt that Hollywood needed to undergo a "second youth". No need to say the same of this director. His inspiration clearly undimmed, he is already planning "another project for a film. But one never knows what fate will bring," he said.