Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 27, 2008 9:56 am 
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A long haunting puzzle that's never really put together

Not as strong as Zvyagintsev's haunting 2003 debut The Return/Vozvrashcheniye (grand prize at Venice--I reviewed it the following year), this adaptation of William Saroyan's 1953 novella, "The Laughing Matter," is recognizable for its intense, slow-paced style and beautiful cinematography (by Mikhail Krichman). Izgnanie (the Russian title) takes us out to a remote country house where there are thin roads, grassy fields over gentle hills, herds of sheep, and old friends, because this is the childhood home of the protagonist Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko), who's brought his family out there for summer vacation. But before that (and a signal of a certain disjointedness of the whole film) we observe Mark (Alexander Baluev), Alex's obviously gangsterish brother, getting him to remove a bullet from his arm. this is also the first of a series of failures to seek adequate medical treatment. Now we move to Alex with his wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) taking their young son Kir (Maxim Shibaev) and younger daughter Eva (Katya Kulkina) out to the country by car.

Zvagintsev certainly takes his time with every action of the film. It's as if he thought he was writing a 500-page novel rather than making a movie. The effect is not so much a sense of completeness as a kind of hypnotic trance. Everything is marked by the fine clear light, the frequent use of long shots, and the pale blue filters that give all a distinctive look. Some of the long landscape shots are absolutely stunning, and the interior light and the way shadows gently caress the faces are almost too good to be true.

When another family comes into the picture and they all spend a day outdoors, the sense of familiarity, summer listlessness, and vague unease made me think of a play by William Inge or Tennessee Williams. That may seem odd for a Russian movie, but the names are only partly Russian, the location is deliberately indeterminate, and Saroyan's source story is set in a long-ago California, not in Russia. Zvyagintsev doesn't seem to work in the real world but in some kind of super-real netherland. Whether it is unforgettable or simply off-putting seems to vary. In The Return it as the one; here it is the other.

Vera drops a bombshell, when she announces she's pregnant and that the child isn't his. The tragedy that slowly but inexorably follows arises from a derangement in the wife and a misunderstanding by the husband. To deal with the problem Alex wants the children out of the way and he is happy to have them stay at the friends' house, where they're putting together a large jigsaw puzzle of Leonardo da Vinci's painting, The Annunciation. I'm indebted to Jay Weissberg's review in Variety for this identification; Weissberg adds, "That... isn't the only piece of heavy-handed religious imagery on offer. There's Alex washing his brother's blood off his hands, Eva/Eve offered an apple, and a Bible recitation from 1 Corinthians about love ('It does not insist on its own way'), handily set apart by a bookmark depicting Masaccio's The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden. OK, we get it, but that doesn't mean the parallels offer a doorway into personalities who offer little emotional residue on their own." And he is right: Zvyagintsev's fascination with Italian painting, and here also with the Bible, doesn't change the fact that the characters nonetheless remain, this time, troublingly opaque. Mark is an adviser and stimulus to action for Alex. Robert (Dmitry Ulianov) is a third brother who enters the picture later. I will not go into the details because the chief interest of the film is its slow revelations.

And yet the revelations don't quite convince, because for one thing they do not fully explain. The wife's behavior remains unaccountable. And a long flashback in the latter part of the film seems to come too late, and to explain too much, yet without explaining enough. None of this is the fault of the actors, who are fine, including the children.

Zvyagintsev's second film, then, is a disappointment and a puzzlement. I began to think after a while that the whole thing would be much more effective if it were done in a very simple style, with simply workmanlike photography, in a film trimmed of all externals, down to the bone, something noirish like Robert Siodmak's The Killers or Kubrick's The Killing. We are left to figure things out anyway, so why all the flourishes? Yet Zvyagintsev's style is nonetheless beautiful, and one only hopes he finds material that works better for him next time. I was thrilled with The Return and wrote "This stunning debut features exceptional performances by the talented young actors, brilliant storytelling in a fable-like tale that's as resonant as it is specific, and exquisite cinematography not quite like any one's ever seen before. " This excitement is why the new one is such a let-down.

Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center series Film Comment Selects, Feb. 25, 2008.

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