Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Feb 23, 2016 3:11 pm 
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Strings of puzzlements

The longtime French resident Georgian filmmaker Otar Iosseliani may by now, at 82, be in his own quirky way more French than the French. But the pleasant superficial gloss that implies (his new offering is full of Parisian parks and streets and cafes) can't save us from the fact that his sui generis films, which have long made him a minor festival darling, require the kind of attention only fans and ardent auteurists can provide -- those willing to spend the time it takes to make sense out of strings of conundrums. Though there are the usual occasional almost-but-not-quite Jacques Tati moments, Winter Song requires an appreciation and knowledge of Iosseliani's oeuvre and patient note-taking and second viewing to parse. Or, as mere surreal sequence of watchable but not particularly involving scenes, you can just let them flow past you and move on to something else. But the previous Iosseliani films I've seen, the 2006 Gardens in Autumn (NYFF 2006) and 2010 Chantrapas frankly made more sense than this one, as did the documentary celebrating the director, Otar Iosseliani: The Whistling Blackbird (SFIFF 2007) -- though that survey (by Julie Bertucelli) made me observe that his films are the kind that are more fun to talk about than to watch.

Winter Song provides an endless chain of similar and intertwined sequences. There are the two tall, bearded men with scarves who squabble and make up. There is the young man, respectable looking but, it turns out, member of a pickpocket ring, who keeps pursuing a young women with a violin, who's not interested, until she finally is. Does everybody really live in the same old building? What is the meaning of the several scenes where homeless people are expelled from their settlements, or their live-in car towed away? What is the point of the fat potentate in uniform, or head of police, who dines, bathes in a pool, and refuses calls about the homeless expulsion?

Why does the film begin with the beheading, by guillotine, during the time of the French Revolution, of an aristocrat who refuses to take his pipe out of his mouth -- an event blandly observed by a seated group of ladies busy with their knitting? This fellow turns out to be one of the two tall bearded, who, in a late scene, sample a white wine at a cafe table, then spit it out and suddenly leave. (What does that mean?)

Well, the skull of this executed aristocrat keeps reappearing in subsequent scenes set centuries later, and someone who specializes in skulls works on it and restores the fleshy head it originally represented -- which also is the fabricated head used in the guillotining aftermath in the opening scene. Above all -- since it seems to connect so little to anything else, except that quite a few scenes end in a minor kind of violence -- what it the significance of the semi-comic (but then not so funny) and elaborate sequence early on of modern warfare, taking place amid urban rubble, where enemies take shots at each other, and then are immediately gunned down? Press notes tell us this is the Russo-Georgian war. And so, then, it has a personal significance to the director, who comes from Georgia. But does he communicate this significance to the audience? Not without study, care, knowledge of the Iosseliani oeuvre, and repeated viewings.

The film includes Rufus, Pierre Étaix, and Mathieu Amalric. but it's hard to single anybody out. That's not the point. Everyone is used as a distinctive, thematically repeated figurant or "extra," an actor/model to move about, recognized, but not further individualized.

Winter Song/Chant d’hiver, 117 mins., debuted 9 Aug. 2015 at Locarno, also showing at Warsww and Busan; French theatrical release 25 Nov. with fair reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.0/14). Neil Young reviewed the film at Locarno for Hollywood Reporter.

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