A 200-minute conversation, set indoors, conducted mostly in stilted French and concerning late-19th-century views of religion, war and good vs. evil doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for a surefire hit, even in the art house arena. Very few filmmakers would think of attempting such a feat nowadays and even fewer would be able to find the necessary funding.
At or very near the top of the list of possible directors for such a proposition would be Romanian iconoclast Cristi Puiu, whose The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Sieranevada are highlights of the Romanian New Wave and who has now made Malmkrog, which is the unlikely feature described above. It is uncompromising filmmaking, certainly, but also insular filmmaking that will make a tiny little circle of intellectual cinephiles very happy while leaving everyone else — this critic included — completely cold.
A cerebral slog.
Malmkrog, named after the location of a sumptuous manor in Transylvania where the story is set, opened the new Encounters sidebar at the Berlin International Film Festival, which supposedly showcases innovative cinema (how it’s different from the festival’s Forum section, which has a similar goal, isn’t clear). This means that the programmers must have a wicked sense of humor, since Puiu’s latest is a talky drawing-room drama that’s appropriately stiff (for the period) and either wonderfully cerebral or severely punishing, depending on one’s inclinations. That said, people talking in rooms in period finery clearly can’t be anyone’s idea of cutting-edge cinema. Beyond festivals with art house audiences up for a challenge, this will probably only be shown on the big screen in future Puiu retrospectives.
The screenplay, also by Puiu, was inspired by a 19th-century work called Three Conversations by Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloy, which has also been published in English with the more explanatory title War and Christianity: From the Russian Point of View, Three Conversations. The action, in as far as philosophical discussions can be referred to as action, is set in the home of wealthy landowner Nikolai (Frederic Schulz-Richard), a manor in blushy pinks covered in virginally white snow, as seen in the picturesque opening scenes.
The host has several important guests staying with him over Christmas Eve, including a general, his wife, a countess and a politician. Without exception, they all seem to delight in discussing, for example, the paradox inherent in war as a Christian endeavor, since one of the commandments clearly states that one shalt not kill, or the nature of evil and the Antichrist — and this on the evening before the celebration of Christ’s birthday, no less.
The small but loquacious group is attended to by Nikolai’s staff, who mostly keep quiet and try to do their job lest they lose it, in sharp contrast to the people they are serving who clearly don’t have anything better to do than discuss the finer points of Christian parables between sumptuous meals. The proceedings are divided into several chapters, with the second one especially giving audiences some insight into the contrast between the have and have-nots of the late 19th century, though an inexplicable fuss somewhere mid-film that seems to foreshadow a kind of revolution in the servants’ quarters simply fades to black and things then proceed as if nothing ever happened. Was it a Marxist dream or is the company so polite even physical attacks or gunshots couldn’t possible be mentioned in public?
There are a few moments in which Puiu seems to nod, in a rather self-aware way, to the kind of film that he’s making, including a moment in which Nikolai suggests he has a story that “would be too long to tell now,” after they’ve been talking non-stop for more than an hour. But generally speaking, the tone of the conversation is not only deadly serious but also locked into the specifics of a 19th-century Russian outlook on the world, with the ideas discussed about religion, war and the different possible kinds of peace — including false peace, bad peace and true peace — all informed by Russia’s peculiar position between Europe and Asia and its connection to Christianity informed by the Russian Orthodox tradition, which separates it from much of its European Christian brethren.
Parallels to the world we live in today can only be drawn in the broadest of ways, as we live in a time where leaders use religious affiliation in completely different ways and have stopped themselves from appearing overly pious or even Christian — or at the very least get away with an awful lot of non-Christian behavior by focusing on just two or three culture-war issues than can drive a wedge between different factions. The definition of what it means to be a Christian has also become infinitely more complex than what the handful of characters discuss here, so Puiu can’t escape the faint whiff of mothballs that emanates from the conversations — however fascinating they might be for people with a historical and/or regional interest in Christianity, politics and philosophy.
In terms of how unapologetically it is its own thing, Malmkrog comes closest to Puiu’s most divisive effort, Aurora, though instead of one man’s amoral actions and how they fit into his otherwise numbingly quotidian behavior, there’s a constant back-and-forth here among a small ensemble about matters that always remain abstract ideas. Puiu clearly wants us to consider the characters’ positions in light of the historical events that would follow, though his focus is too diffuse and he’s thus much less successful at doing that than, say, Michael Haneke in the fertile-ground-for-Fascism fable The White Ribbon.
Someone supposedly naive and positive like Olga (Marina Palii) might like to butt heads with the argumentative Madeleine (Agathe Bosch), or Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaite) might worry about the Christ-loving Russian army while Edouard (Ugo Broussot) might argue about the differences between Europe, Russia and Asia (note to 21st-century audiences: Be prepared for some fin-de-siecle mansplaining and racist attitudes). But these conversations have no direct bearing on the real world — unless we take into consideration the viewers’ behinds and bladders.
The theoretical nature of the debates translates into a somewhat airless and theatrical mise-en-scene with shots that are always painstakingly composed by DP Tudor Panduru. But they quickly become repetitive, as there are only so many ways five people — one talking, the other four listening — can be arranged in handsomely appointed drawing or dining rooms. Puiu’s predilection for shots in which the person talking is turned away or invisible from the viewer adds to the sense that we are watching exquisitely lit paintings more often than a moving image from a film.
There is very little of the messy feverishness of Lazarescu or the entrancing choral work of Sieranevada, where each little piece helped build an increasingly larger understanding of how we function as human beings within our families and societies. Hopefully, Puiu’s next work will be made for more spectators than the number of minutes required to tell the story.
Production companies: Mandragora, Iadasarecasa, Sense Production, Cinnamon Films, Film I Vast, Doppelganger, Bord Cadre Films, Produkcija 2006 Sarajevo, Sisters And Brother Mitevski
Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frederic Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaite, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, Istvan Teglas
Writer-director: Cristi Puiu, screenplay based on Three Conversations by Vladimir Solovyov
Producers: Anca Puiu, Smaranda Puiu
Cinematography: Tudor Panduru
Production design: Cristina Barbu
Costume design: Oana Paunescu
Editors: Dragos Apetri, Andrei Iancu, Bogdan Zarnoianu
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Opener, Encounters)
In French, German, Russian, English, Hungarian