‘Roukli’: Film Review

A group of artists try to escape a near-future war in this experimental Estonian drama.

A dystopian fable rooted in classic European auteur cinema, Roukli wears its lofty ambitions proudly, but it lacks coherence and conviction as straight drama. The Estonian writer-director Veiko Ounpuu has a solid track record of festival prizewinners, most notably his 2007 ensemble piece Autumn Ball, but his fifth feature is his most perplexing and offbeat project yet.

Shot on a minimal budget, much of it crowdsourced online, Roukli was largely improvised on location at the director’s own rural farmhouse. Already touring on the festival circuit, it screened on home turf at Black Nights in Tallinn last week. Not without its charms, but with no obvious must-see angle for either mainstream or art house audiences, this cultish experiment will have limited theatrical potential outside specialist cineaste circles.

The Bottom Line

Muddled dispatches from the war on knitwear

In a near-future Europe, an unspecified war is raging. As the cities become deadly battle zones, a group of young bohemians shelter on a remote farm near a desolate stretch of coastline. Music teacher Eeva (Eva Klemets) and her composer husband Villu (Peeter Raudsepp) are the owners in residence. Eeva’s cynical, prickly, dissolute writer brother Jan (Juhan Ulfsak) is their guest, and angers his hosts by inviting his ex-girlfriend Marina (Mirtel Pohla) to join them. Tensions crackle between the couples as they drink, dance, flirt, play music, and debate the nature of love and art. But the war soon intrudes into their cozy private party with the arrival of two desperate refugees, who are fleeing a fearsome local outlaw called Peedu (Taavi Eelmaa).

Roukli contains inescapable, possibly intentional echoes of Nordic masters like Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier: in its austere Baltic location, its smattering of biblical symbolism, its tastefully washed-out color palette and its ominous suggestion of some existential apocalypse lurking just beyond the horizon. But even if Ounpuu invites such parallels, they do not always flatter him, since his freewheeling home movie lacks the formal and philosophical rigor of vintage Scandinavian art cinema. Indeed, in places it could almost be a parody of the genre, like a stylishly moody Calvin Klein commercial straining to bestow profundity on sulky supermodels in expensive knitwear.

A collection of characters in search of a plot, Roukli is flawed but sporadically absorbing. At its worst, it feels like an uncritical celebration of tedious narcissists whose angst-ridden confessions and pointless arguments smack more of theater improvisation workshops than real life. But Ounpuu sifts a few gold nuggets from the pebbles, including a mysterious interlude in which Marina goes on a wordless woodland walkabout with the refugees, and a tense late twist in which Jan is abducted by Peedu’s henchmen. These sequences make striking use of iris screenwipe edits, disorienting sound design and trippy camera effects to suggest some kind of rupture in the cosmic order. Chaos reigns.

While Ounpuu’s fifth feature will most likely be remembered as a failed experiment, it has the high-minded feel of a cult curio, and never looks less than beautiful. Cinematographer Erik Pollumaa and editor Liis Nimik both deserve mention here. Somewhere deep inside this listless jumble of half-realized ideas is an ambitious, atmospheric, eye-catching thriller struggling to be heard.

Production company: Filmiuhistu Roukli

Cast: Juhan Ulfsak, Eva Klemets, Mirtel Pohla, Peeter Raudsepp

Director, screenwriter: Veiko Õunpuu

Producer: Tiina Savi

Cinematographer: Erik Põllumaa

Editor: Liis Nimik

Sales company: Filmiuhistu Roukli

99 minutes