Dir:- Fred Kelemen
Starr:- Egons Dombrovskis, Nikolaj Korobov, Aija Dzerve, Vigo Roga
Scr:- Fred Kelemen
DOP:- Fred Kelemen
Producer(s):- Fred Kelemen
When does the radical or avante-garde become as bloated and clichéd as the mainstream aesthetics it opposes? Back in 1995, Susan Sontag wrote an elegiac essay entitled ‘A Century of Cinema’. In this essay Sontag decried the gradual diminution of cinema’s vital significance as a contemporary art form and posited that a young German director called Fred Kelemen was one of the few filmmakers who was still seeking to create “something special, necessary from film”. Kelemen had just scored a resounding critical success with his second feature Verhängnis (Fate), a peculiarly bleak look at otherworldly Russian immigrants adrift in the new Berlin of the 1990s. At the time it seemed that Kelemen was a daring visual stylist, worshipping celluloid, the long take (beloved of his mentor/collaborator Bela Tarr) and densely abstract sound design. The former Soviet Bloc countries still had a certain post-industrial exotica attached to them in the mid-nineties, which enabled the likes of Kelemen, Tarr, Bartas and Helmer to mainline much of the existential misery and decay inherent in their brutalist architecture and closed ‘milk bar’ culture. In the hands of a cinematic maestro like Tarr such forbidding elements coalesce into a satisfying and frequently awe-inspiring meditation on the inscrutable metaphysics of human existence. Despite, or perhaps because of, his schooling at the hands of Tarr (Kelemen also served as Tarr’s cameraman on Journey on the Plain, The Man From London and, most recently, The Turin Horse), Kelemen’s work has a forced quality to it, that at times veers dangerously close to either parody, or preciousness. In Krisana (Fallen), a Latvian-set existential detective story, Kelemen’s own portentous mutterings on the ‘end times’ of cinema, seem to have finally weighed down his work, making the film one of the most dispiriting, dull and insipid movies of the last decade, outside of Hollywood/Bollywood’s production line methods.
The film is a wafer-thin confection of moody pseudo-noirish lighting, Camus-inspired existential angst and Tarr-ian homage. Kelemen is clearly so in thrall to Tarr’s work that at times it appears he is engaged in a comparable exercise to Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, replicating almost exactly shots from Tarr’s breakthrough masterpiece Karhozat (Damnation). The slow trundle through dated bureaucratic archives, squalid wastelands and old-fashioned bars, seems to have almost entirely ignored fifteen years of Latvian history, as well as establishing a kind of heavily fetishised ‘kitsch’ space that, with the exception of an external church shot, almost entirely strips Riga of any specific, or unique, municipal identity. This is almost certainly a deliberate aesthetic choice on the part of Kelemen, yet it only serves to highlight how tediously like a Hollywood remake the film is patterned. Here Tarr’s worldview has been blanched of all philosophical pretension, or local specificity and put to the purposes of merely signifying, vacuously, a particular ‘style’ of cinema. It is the very antithesis of what Sontag commended Kelemen for back in 1995, looking less like a groundbreaking reinvention of cinema, than the very definition of cinema’s inexorable decay.
Krisana begins with the central figure of Matiss Zelcs (Egons Dombrovskis), a lowly archivist, scaling a bridge across a river on his way home. On the bridge he comes across Alina (Aija Dzerve), a beautiful young woman who appears to be about to commit suicide. Zelcs walks on by and Alina jumps into the water, then screams for help. Going back to where Alina was standing, Zelcs looks into the water impotently, before calling the police from a nearby phonebox. It is these moments of ignorance, indecision and passivity that define the thematic concerns of the film. Alina’s body is never retrieved and a philosophical police Inspector (Roga), in dialogue that if featured in an English-language film would be dutifully shot down for the pontificatory codswallop it is, informs Zelcs that: “Hundreds of people go by us every day and we take no notice of them. But if one of them dies, we start to be interested in them right away”. From this point onwards Zelcs, almost somnambulantly investigates this woman’s life, out of guilt, a sudden awareness of humanity, or as a means of staving off his own crushing loneliness.
The movie rather uninspiringly goes through the motions of establishing the stultifying conditions of Zelcs employment in medical archives, his vodka anaesthitized loneliness and his increasing obsession with the dead girl. After lying to a barman to procure the dead girl’s handbag and failed attempts at a suicide note, Zelcs collects some photos she’d had developed – a plot point that allows Kelemen to crowbar in a brief homage to Antonioni’s flawed take on the swingin’ 60’s, Blowup. Zelcs then contacts the girl’s lover Alexej (Korobov) and awkwardly tries to transfer some of his own guilt on to the man who spurned her affections. The introduction of Alexej, shows up the profound limitations of Kelemen’s scriptwriting (with the characters appearing as less than ciphers, holed up in their mutual misery), whilst simultaneously highlighting the strengths of Kelemen’s camera technique. In an extravagant shot in which the camera encircles the two men bound up in their inadequate response to a woman’s appeal for help, some of the talent that Sontag recognised clearly comes to the fore. Yet the dumb irony of Alexej’s Chekhovian suicide and the crass obviousness of a later sequence in which Zelcs vomits up his vodka in church, makes it seem like Kelemen has spent the last decade regressing to the level of film school student fare.
Another side of Krisana is its overweening desire to intellectualise itself. Underpinning the narrative minimalism is an undercurrent of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is pushed into the realm of oblique irony with the underscoring of a suicidal rivalry with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Lensky’s Aria’. More satisfyingly Kelemen establishes the camera as a subtle metaphysical presence, always maintaining its distance from the characters, yet scrutinising their actions nonetheless. Against the film’s title Kelemen ensures that it is only his character’s that descend, the stalking camera always holding the level when Zelcs, or another character, seek to go downwards. This sly camera patterning adds a little weight to Kelemen’s dubious sub-Tarr-ian meditations. The ‘twist’ ending to the film seems like a final insult to the viewer, appearing to return Zelcs ‘investigations’ back toward an all-encompassing sense of the mysterious, but in actual fact coming across as something similar to the ‘teenage’ revelations of Fight Club.
- As ever Kelemen’s cinematography is strongest in isolated shots, such as the magnificent encircling shot of Alexej and Zelcs, or the shadow festooned opening bridge shot.
- The actors do an admirable job with the scraps Kelemen has fed them. Dombrovskis does blank neuroses very well.
- The few brief moments of humour that crack through Kelemen’s unremittingly glum pose are actually rather well rendered, particularly the abruptness of the bartender.
- Kelemen simply can’t write dialogue. Some of the lines here would appear turgid in a philosophical treatise.
- Latvia, as a setting, is completed wasted. A great shame as it is one of the lesser visited international cinema destinations.
- Derivative, bland and preciously dull. If you’ve seen the majesty of Tarr, or the brutal awkwardness of Bartas, why even bother?