Bright Lights Film Journal

Russia, Godard, Frankenstein – Era New Horizons 2010

I recently got back from a few days at the Era New Horizons Film Festival in Wrocaw. When I was there, most of the excitement centered on Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men, and most of the bafflement concerned Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. I didn’t arrive in time to see either film, but I did see several films that struck me deeply.

None was bleaker or more mysterious than Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (Schastye Moe). Loznitsa is best known as a documentary maker whose work, like the superb Blockade on the Siege of Leningrad, centers on the history and legacy of the Soviet Union. My Joy, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year, is Loznitsa’s first feature.

My Joy is a moral horror story about rural Russia. It is made up of a series of vignettes, organized around a road trip which takes its protagonist out of civilization and into a realm of solitude and cruelty.  Watching it, I was reminded of a sentence from the liner notes to the French DVD release (from Wild Style films) of the crocodile-in-the-backyard bayou slasher film Eaten Alive: Nous sommes immergés dans une Amérique profonde, où ruralité rime avec perversité et folie.

Loznitsa takes us on a voyage into une Russe profonde (like the Deep South but…Russian). This is a country warped by decades of corruption, poverty and violence, where every traffic stop is the site of a potential ambush and every kindness invites a corresponding brutality. Our travel guide is Georgy (played by the Belarusian actor Viktor Nemets), a truck driver on his way from somewhere to somewhere else with a load of flour.

He begins his voyage in good spirits, eager to help passersby with a lift or a meal. By the end he is mute, almost catatonic, a shuffling figure kept alive by a dim spark of hate.  Nemets, who has a broad, honest face and at first seems so bluff and hearty he could have stepped off a tractor in a kolkhoz musical, manages the transformation so skillfully that at least one reviewer has been led to think that they are two characters, portrayed by different actors.

Georgy’s disintegration begins with a literal wrong turn. Once he is off the main roads, he enters a landscape stuck in a kind of temporal cul-de-sac, where the memory of secret crimes bubbles up out of the earth like so much swamp gas. An old man tells him about shooting an NKVD officer who tried to filch a present for his wife as he was coming home from WWII. Later, a flashback shows the murder of a pacifist school teacher by Russian soldiers fleeing the front. At the end of the scene, the teacher’s son stands in front of their house in his long night shirt, barely comprehending what he has just witnessed.

Loznitsa deploys these scenes carefully to suggest the roots of present-day dysfunction in the Soviet past, but for most of the film he is intent on observing degradation in the present: teen prostitutes patrol road intersections; corrupt police officers extort and torture passing drivers; drunken vagabonds steal whatever’s in reach. Even moments of respite, as when Georgy gets taken in by a family of gypsies, maintain a base level of ambient chaos.  A shocking (and in my view, excessive) dénouement shifts the burden of this violence from the environment to the individual.

As startling as this was, I left the theater most impressed with Loznitsa’s gift for capturing the texture of his surroundings. Midway through the film Georgy passes through the market of a backwoods town, and for a moment Loznitsa lets his camera drift, pausing one-by-one on the faces of its real inhabitants, registering everything he can about a particular place and moment, down to the graffiti on the wall that says “RASTA.”

There is a fair amount of drift in Jean-Luc Godard’s new Film Socialisme, though it’s of a different kind. The first third of the film or so is set aboard a cruise ship making a circuit around the Mediterranean. It pulls in at ports – Athens, Odessa, Alexandria – of some significance to the history of socialism or the development of Western Civ. No one disembarks. A voiceover explains that Athens is the birthplace of democracy. Footage from Battleship Potemkin plays over the Odessa steps.

Back on board, a sinister older man named Goldberg (Gold Mountain, as someone helpfully points out) wanders the halls with his teenage girlfriend. He seems to have been involved in the theft of a large amount of gold from the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. A young Russian woman on board might be determined to find out. A beautiful Afro-French woman strolls the decks with her photographer, saying things like “Poor Europe – humiliated by liberty.” Patti Smith is around. So is philosopher Alain Badiou.

Capitalist vulgarity gets the old double-underline. Did you know that cruise ships have casinos?  Godard shoots a disco floor on aggressively debauched video, blowing up the image and slowing down the music until it looks and sounds like a horribly garbled space station transmission.

The second act of the film takes place at a family run service station in the south of France. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Jean-Luc Godard ran a gas station, here is your answer: there’d be a llama tied up in front with and a donkey wandering around in back. Journalists would always be trying to get in and ask questions. The attendant would read Balzac by the pumps. Not a lot of gas would be sold on any given day. Everyone would be talking about socialism and the future of Europe. You’re welcome to listen, but don’t bother to ask for directions.

Film Socialisme is often opaque, but it’s not nearly impenetrable as it would like to be. There are a few ideas in here – about the sea and democracy, capitalism and film – and far more gesture – Hebrew written in blood over Arabic. Godard is at his most innovative in the film’s accessories: the trailer, which is a silent, speeded-up run through of the whole movie, and the subtitles, which are oddly spaced clusters of keywords instead of literal translations.

I have to admit to a feeling of inner conflict watching Film Socialisme. It’s the same conflict I’ve felt with all of his films from the past forty years: I approach them hoping for Lemmy Caution banging on doors and running up staircases, and instead I get Alpha-60 lecturing me in that awful Dictaphone voice. Film Socialisme isn’t the worst film from these decades – it has its moments of beauty and puzzles left to solve in between its slide shows – but it still feels like the work of an aging Professor Von Braun, whose last remaining talents are for provocation and typography.

Kornél Mundruczó’s Tender Son – The Frankenstein Project premiered at Cannes to nearly universal scorn. I have no idea why.  Maybe its mix of humor and dread, post-historical froideur and Romantic excess seemed intimidating or out of place.

On one level, the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. Mundruczó transposes the action to present day Budapest. This time, the doctor is a theater director, played by Mundruczó himself, and his lab is a crumbling apartment building.

At the start of the film he is holding auditions for a film, hilariously terrible auditions in which a series of expressionless teens try to cry on command. Most try a little bit of mime; one boy, even more stone-faced than the rest, does nothing at all. When Mundruczó asks him to try again, he replies that he is already crying.

The child, named Rudolf Nagy, is barely socialized. He doesn’t know how to react to emotional cues. His face hardly registers any affect, but neither is he capable of pretense. Like the overgrown teenager he is, he seems barely in control of his own body. He walks with an awkward shuffle and is prone to underestimate his strength. He has just left an orphanage. Getting off the bus by the city cemetery, he picks up a bouquet of white flowers for his parents, who gave him up at birth. Their meeting does not go well and its aftermath keeps getting worse. But each downward turn, however familiar from the book, comes as a surprise.

Mundruczó strips the Frankenstein story of all its science fiction paraphernalia, while leaving intact its beating Gothic heart. He reinterprets it as the story of an unwanted son whose very existence is an intrusion.  Over the course of the film, Rudolf’s blank face seems ever more wounded and uncomprehending; whatever his crimes, he has our sympathy.

The film unfolds over the week after Christmas. Steady snowfall gives it is visual leitmotif, culminating in a remarkable sequence in the Austrian Tyrol. A few scenes, especially those of sudden violence or childish intimidation, show the influence of Michael Haneke, but Mundruczó is best in quieter moments. My favorite comes right before his wedding night: the monster sits up in bed, eating peach slices out of a can with his bride, a pastoral moment in the middle of a blizzard.