Monday, April 11, 2011

My Joy (Philadelphia Cinefest)

I had big expectations for Sergei Loznitsa's "My Joy," a Cannes 2010 Competition film that piqued my interest from early on and has held it for the 11 months since then. Unfortunately, when I got to seeing it, it began to lose it. This is a film where a little tightening up would go a long way, as it develops a weighty thesis for much of its running time but loses its focus too often to come through. It is also an extremely dispiriting work, and its final scene sears with its notion of irreparability. If you don't want to be emotionally rocked, do not see this film. If you're sensitive, you may come out with some sort of scar. At the same time, it both is and isn't as harsh as people have said it is. You have been warned.

If you're okay with that... This film follows Georgy (Viktor Nemets, channeling sincerity and apathy), a trucker with a flour shipment who, after getting stuck in a traffic jam, travels with a girl prostitute (played pretty well by Olga Shuvalova) back to her hometown so he can get to where he's going faster. His sojourn, intended to take a day at most, ends up costing him much more time than he imagined and also goes to highlight that he wasn't really going anywhere in the first place.

The (nameless) town where he stops is the archetypal town which no one leaves, where people stop to lay low and end up staying forever. Loznitsa is perhaps somewhat trying to move people to action with this film, in a sort of Sherman Alexie-esque sort of way, but instead of showing positive action, Loznitsa instead is observing its counterpoint, crippling lethargy.

Georgy just centers the film, which operates in the way of Richard Linklater's "Slacker," by moving around to follow the people who come into contact with him. We see a man who was forever broken by the execution of his father by returning soldiers, and the execution of officers by a major who loses everything, including his fiancee and his name, as a result (due to his hiding away in the town). These characters foreshadow the person Georgy will eventually become. Their stories are dealt with in scenes set in the time of Second World War, shot with lenses and costumes that remind one of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains." This chronological scramble offers opportunities for Loznitsa opportunities for creating disorientation, and the fact that you don't know when the winter of the film's final third takes place is interesting.

The film's strongest asset in disorientation (and otherwise, perhaps), though, is Oleg Mutu's camera. It pulsates with intensity as it watches characters, and constantly favors busy compositions that are uncommon in cinema. At certain points, the screen shows many different actions occurring at once, which creates both the feeling of spontaneity and contrivance. There is also some beautiful embellishment of strange developments in the plot, such as a sex scene that is more interesting because it can't be entirely understood. (The art direction in the deteriorating house where it takes place is also sterling.)

So there's a lot going on here. It just doesn't all work. If this film was 10-15 minutes shorter (I would cut the scene in the prison and the one with the soldiers carrying the coffin), it would be much more successful. If it understood when to, as critics have said of it, lay it on thick and when to restrain itself, it would pack an better punch, betting meaning harder on an ideological level. But instead it pulls on too long and leaves you on the floor with your wind knocked out, locking the doors and leaving no one to assist you. I hope that "In the Fog of Latvia," Loznitsa's next work (set to be his second as a fiction filmmaker after many documentaries), proves more refined. B-

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