Dir: Alexander Sokurov. Germany. 2003. 81mins.
Alexander Sokurov's new film is the second part of a trilogy that began in 1996 with the esteemed Mother And Son, which brought the director to international attention. Subsequent appearances in Cannes competition have included Moloch (1999), Taurus (2000), and Russian Ark (2002), the last of which went on, somewhat improbably, to become a big hit in the niche art film market, both in the US and elsewhere. Many of the aesthetic elements, both visual and aural, that made Mother And Son so appealing to a small but committed following reappear, somewhat modified, in Father And Son, to the delight of hard-core devotees. But Sokurov's new outing is clearly a much lesser film, and its rigors will win him no new fans. The film, which Wellspring took US rights to, won the FIPRESCI award when it played in competition at Cannes.
To attempt to recount anything as mundane as a plot would be insulting to Sokurov's methodology and be a waste of time. But we can try. A father (Shetinin) and a son (Nejmyshev) live together in an attic apartment, less than 20 years apart in age and abnormally close. The son is a soldier in training, having followed in his father's military footsteps. He has a girlfriend (Zasukhina) but seems conflicted about loving her, since it might imply a diminution of his intense love for his father. He has bad dreams, and they torture his father as much as they do him. Mother seems to have died early on.
The first thing about this film is that it is no way based upon the realist aesthetics that dominate contemporary international cinema. For Sokurov, a film is a construct, and hence both the visual and sound tracks seem only incidentally to reflect real life. Characters are symbolic rather than representing real people. Here, they are The Father and The Son, not individuals. Both tracks are then built, as it were, from scratch. Sokurov's images are often pastel in hue, and the figures and objects are seen as if through a filter. Dappling light plays improbably through interiors, and the anamorphic lens is used ' if less frequently than in Mother And Son ' to provide Sokurov's signature visual distortion. Another piece of anti-realist evidence is that the few urban Russian exteriors shown were shot in Lisbon, a city Sokurov says he chose for its visual expressiveness.
The sound works in a similar fashion. The musical score is composed from classical music (based on themes from Tchaikovsky) recorded at a lower level than usual, and in fits and starts, which works on the audience's consciousness in a strange and subtle way. Even most dialogue by the main 'characters' is emitted in expressive, breathy whispers that give a unique otherworldliness to the drama. And the dialogue is often self-consciously poetic, if inscrutable, that will be adored by audiences of a mystical, romantic bent, while others will simply guffaw.
There are two main differences between this film and Mother And Son. The first is that the luscious gambols through a distinctively aestheticised nature that made the earlier film such a transcendent experience have now been reduced to the interiors of a banal apartment. This will disappoint many who admired the first film, as they realize that they don't actually like Sokurov much after all, just the pretty pictures.
The second change is that the earlier hinted-at sexual tension between the mother and son has been replaced by full-blown homoeroticism, with enough display of the well-developed male torso here to remind audiences of Beau Travail. And though the father and son never actually make physical love, the soulful mooning into each other's eyes, the laying of a sighing head on a chest, suggests that Sokurov may be announcing something about himself, though it is unclear exactly what. Whether this development beyond Mother And Son is to be welcomed or derided will depend on individual sensibilities.
Whatever one's final take on the film, Sokurov deserves credit for one thing: he is not, unlike similar idiosyncratic directors, a narcissist, and his film lasts a modest 83 minutes. Wisely, he knows that this is all the sublimity one can take at a single sitting.
Prod cos: Zero Film, Lumen Films, Nikola-Film, Mikado Film, Isabella Films
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prod: Thomas Kufus
Scr: Segei Potepalov
Cinematography: Alexander Burov
Ed: Sergei Ivanov
Music: Andrei Shetinin
Main cast: Andrei Shchetinin, Aleksey Neymyshev, Alexander Razbah, Fedor Lavrov, Marina Zasukhina