Tuesday, 26 April 2011

how i ended this summer (w&d aleksei popogrebsky)

Two men, stuck on an island in the Arctic Ocean off the North Coast of Russia. It's a recipe for trouble, evidently. Especially when we learn early on that there's an 'isotope' on the island. What is an isotope, you might be asking? Well, it's a biggish radioactive device that looks like a half-submerged bomb. It gives off a satisfyingly dramatic racket when a Geiger counter is placed in its vicinity. It can also keep you warm if you find yourself stuck out in the wilds. Dangerously warm.

Popogrebsky's film begins as a lyrical meditation on life in a cold climate, before morphing into a kind of pointless existential psycho-thriller. In post-Soviet Russia the hard-bitten Sergei finds himself foisted with the young studenty type called Pavel, who drifts around the island listening to his Yo La Tengo-style music and getting a hit from the stunning scenery. Things start to go pear shaped when Sergei goes fishing and Pavel receives the message from the radio that Sergei's family have been in 'an accident'. How he reacts to receiving this message determines their fate. In a sense this is The Dumb Waiter with a polar bear thrown in for the video games generation. (Pavel plays a rather neat shoot-em-up video game with a distressed mural of Marx and Lenin in the background.) The narrative becomes reductive, but then there seems to be limited scope for its development. It's not as though Sergei and Pavel are going to become lovers in the Arctic circle, although that might have introduced a more dangerous twist than the way the story actually unfolds.

The unacknowledged character in the film is the landscape itself, which is ably captured by Pavel Kostomarov, the DOP. There are several effective time-lapse sequences and the polar bear moment works well. However, in spite of all the things that work, the whole project feels a little too contrived and a little too abstract. It maintains a certain discipline, never succumbing to melodrama (in the style of Scorcese's latest, for example). But all the same, it feels a bit cold. Maybe if we'd learnt what an isotope actually does, or why this island has been used as a base through so much of Russia's history, we might have cared a bit more about what Pavel and Sergei get up to in their mannish games. But the script adopts the clean slate approach: the island holds no ghosts, just a relentless capacity for driving its inhabitants radioactive ga-ga.

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