Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 30, 2011

How I Ended This Summer

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Opening February 4th at the Lincoln Plaza Theater in New York, the Russian film “How I Ended This Summer” has the same creepily claustrophobic atmosphere of any number of science fiction movies also set near the North or South Poles, especially the 1951 classic “The Thing”. There’s nothing like being surrounded by mountains of snow, living in cramped quarters, and stalked by creatures from outer space to make for a thrilling two hours.

Directed by Aleksei Popogrebsky, who also wrote the screenplay, “How I Ended This Summer” is also a horror story but without any monsters—except for the two men working at a meteorological station in the far north of the former Soviet Union. If “the Thing” has the capability of turning an ordinary man into a wanton killer by using his body as a host, the two main—and only—characters in Popogrebsky’s psychological thriller are transformed by social isolation and extreme conditions. This is essentially a “cabin fever” drama but one much more geared to exploring the psyche than gun battles in the snow, although they do occur.

Grigory Dobrygin plays Pavel, a neophyte who wanders about the site using the equipment for exercise when he is not playing video games. It is easy to understand why he might become bored with the job considering that mostly it consists of reading instruments and entering the figures into a computer.

Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) is a gruff and physically intimidating older man who is Pavel’s superior. He belittles him constantly as if he were a drill instructor, even though they have bonded sufficiently to sit naked in a sauna together.

As time wears on, Sergei’s behavior becomes increasingly abusive, reaching the point of slapping Pavel in the head when he screws up an instrument reading. Around the same time, he has told Pavel a story about how a former staff member at the site put a bullet through his partner’s head for getting on his wrong side. Since there are rifles at the meteorological station to protect them from polar bears, there is no good reason to think that the same thing could happen again if either one of them was driven to extremes.

Their only company, besides each other, is a two-way radio over which they communicate with the two other members of the cast who remain unseen. One day when Sergei is out on a fishing trip, Pavel receives news over the radio that Sergei’s wife and son have been gravely injured in an auto accident. Fearing Sergei’s reaction when he returns, Pavel keeps this a secret. In keeping it a secret and worrying to distraction about what will happen to him if the truth is revealed, Pavel’s mind begins to fray at the edges and finally explode into madness. For his part, Sergei goes over the edge when he too learns the news. While it would have been tempting for director Popogrebsky to turn this into a conventional action drama, he is far more ambitious. His main goal is to dramatize the vulnerability of the human soul in extreme climate conditions and in social isolation.

In many ways, this film reminds me of another excellent Russian work titled “The Return” that I never reviewed and that is now available from Netflix. Rather than trying to say something of substance a good six or so years after having seen it, I will let J. Hoberman’s Village Voice review say it for me. I would only add that his description of “The Return” as “suggestive of a lost era—the highly crafted allegorical Eastern European art films of the ’60s and ’70s” applies as well to “How I Ended This Summer”.

Catching the big one with Dad: A Russian director’s debut

Winner of the same Venice Film Festival that gave a decidedly mixed reception to The Dreamers, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return is also suggestive of a lost era—the highly crafted allegorical Eastern European art films of the ’60s and ’70s.

Zvyagintsev, a former actor and TV director, locks on to a compelling story that has both psychological and political resonance. After an absence of 12 years, the father of two adolescent boys abruptly materializes in the home of their pretty blonde mother and, by way of getting acquainted, insists on taking his confused sons on a fishing trip. Rough-hewn, handsome, and casually brutal, the father (Konstantin Lavronenko) seems to be a proponent of tough love. Fifteen-year-old Andrey (Vladimir Garin) is eager for paternal attention, but 12ish Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov)—prone to be picked on, overly attached to his mother, and scared of heights—is considerably less enthusiastic.

The battle of wills commences when the reconstituted family stops in some backwater and Dad sends Andrey to find a restaurant, a task that takes him hours. After a stressful meal, Dad gives the brothers his wallet and then has to demonstrate his fearsome mettle when they’re mugged by local urchins. Disgusted Dad is about to send Andrey and Vanya back on the bus to their mother but inexplicably changes his mind. (Is he intentionally cruel? Distracted? Crazy?) At this point, the movie too makes an enigmatic shift in location. Expertly shot by Mikhail Kritchman, The Return unfolds in a somewhat emptied-out world. The look is austere but lush, the color slightly leached. The boys live in an underpopulated settlement in a stylishly povera house; the town where they stop for lunch is largely devoid of human presence; their father takes them through wilderness to a seemingly deserted island. While the natural world is photographed with an elementalism strongly reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky, what’s most concrete in the movie are the performances. The kids are terrific. While Andrey is wide-eyed and incredulous, pinched, angry Vanya turns out to be the tougher of the two. No less surprising, the taciturn father is not completely uncaring.

The Return begins as a mysterious quest, shades into a discomfiting thriller, then a survival story, and finally a tragic parable. Primordial and laconic, this remarkably assured debut feature has the elegant simplicity of its title. The mode is sustained, the structure overt. Some may be put off by the movie’s cool technique and boldly closed form, but it clearly announces Zvyagintsev as a director to watch.

1 Comment »

  1. […] strongly recommend Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 film “The Return” that I mentioned here and that is now available on Netflix streaming. Like “Elena”, the politics serves as a […]

    Pingback by Elena « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 15, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

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