Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fierce Hearts in Icy Climes

One of the similarities between today’s two movies is that they take place in isolated places.

The first, How I Ended This Summer, takes place on an island in the Arctic circle; the second, Ondine (out on DVD now), takes place in a remote Irish village.

Summer features two meteorologists, a senior and his junior, Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis) and Davilov (Grigory Dobrygin), respectively. Their only connection to the outside world is a radio.

To say they are isolated and dwarfed by this hard, icy landscape doesn’t begin to explain it. Think of your index finger on your local cinema’s screen and you more or less have the scale.

Gulybin is a bear of a man, a boor and a bully. Davilov makes mistakes, he retreats behind his earphones and earring, and gets the odd smack when he makes wrong readings. So when he hears a bit of bad news about his boss, via the radio, he keeps it to himself. It’s the only power he’s got, and this simple omission gives the film its freezing tension.

The key to all of this is the pace. Nothing happens quickly in the Arctic wastes. The first third of the movie is all about their dull routine, but it’s fraught with expectation. Why, for example, doesn’t Davilov take a rifle with him when he goes outside? Does he not think there are real bears out there too? Or is he so bored, if not unhinged, already that he doesn’t care anymore?

Of course, a slow movie has to deliver the goods as much as a fast one has to. If the former has to reward our patience the latter has to convince us that it’s not just trying to bedazzle us.

How I Ended This Summer, directed by Aleksei Popugrebsky, delivers in a way that becomes a masterful display of deliberate, chess-like patience. There are no quick moves, nor are there any wasted ones. Every cliché is avoided as the film slowly becomes a metaphor for the old and the new Russia, with an endgame and conclusion that is startling in its simplicity.


Still on the theme of that country, Colin Farrell starred as a Russian recently, in Peter Weir’s The Way Back (also out on DVD now). If the others are political prisoners in the wastes of Siberia, circa 1941, he’s a lowdown Moscow gangster with comrades Stalin and Lenin tattooed on his chest. At least they care about his circumstances, Valka says.

When these escapees reach the border he cannot conceive of a life beyond Mother Russia and stays behind. The movie dies a kind of death at that point, because he is without a doubt the most interesting character in it.

In Ondine he plays Syracuse, a simple Irish fisherman who is divorced and has a daughter who has to have kidney dialysis. One fine day, however, he catches a woman in his nets and his daughter thinks she’s a mermaid.

The key here is that Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire), is the director: he who can make a woman getting dressed look as sexy as a woman getting undressed is cliched.

If his smart young protagonist, Annie (Alison Barry), looks a little like a fish in the most beautiful possible way, then he adorns his gorgeous leading lady, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), in a dress that not only accentuates her considerable curves but also her "mermaid-ness".

After all, when she sings her strange songs, out-of-season fish seem to magically appear in Syracuse’s nets. So who says his daughter’s belief is so far-fetched? And there are many who say that when the Atlantians left the ocean, the first land they stepped on to was that of Eire.

That may be one truth, but it’s not the only one. The “real” truth is as much in the headlines (Eastern Europeans flocking to Ireland during that short-lived boom) as it is in How I Ended This Summer (nuclear radiation, poisoning the food of “traitors”).

If Ondine is a bit too long, though Summer is longer, then they have another similarity: they both beat with a fierce, original heart.

More Notes on Rabbit Hole and Chess

Last week I mentioned that Nicole Kidman had to fight to get Rabbit Hole made. Due to the pressure of a ridiculously self-imposed deadline, it only occurred to me afterwards that producers probably objected to her character’s opinion about God in a country obsessed with creationism.

During a group session of bereavement a woman says God wanted her little angel. Becca says if he wanted an angel he could just have made another one – he’s God, after all. Later on, in a conversation with her mother, she calls him “a sadistic prick”. Talk about a woman scorned.

Nor would the PC brigade have liked the fact that Becca’s husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), and another woman, played by Sandra Oh, smoke a joint before a session and burst out laughing as someone talks about losing a child to leukemia!

So more power to Ms Kidman for making a very brave, quietly subversive movie.


Moaning about a doccy during the recent New Zealand Film Festival, I forgot to mention that there is an excellent film that captures the independent spirit of something mentioned in Bobby Fischer Versus the World. That is, after the sixth game his opponent, Boris Spassky, joined the audience in applauding the American genius’s victory, Cold War or not.

That spirit is perfectly captured in The Luzhin Defence (2000) as a whole and in a moment when an Italian GM is offered a bribe in order to win. Fabio Sartor’s look of withering contempt is a cinematic moment to savour for life.

Directed by Marleen Gorris and starring John Turturro and Emily Watson, the film is based on the novel by that lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, who was also clearly obsessed with chess. Like the man who made the bribe, of course, he was Russian.

Neil Sonnekus

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