A time-jumping triptych of female character studies, The Manslayer/The Virgin/The Shadow is a long-gestating, ambitiously scaled portmanteau project from veteran Estonian art house director Sulev Keedus. Winner of the top cinematography prize at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn earlier this month, this visually ravishing epic is a stellar showcase for rising Baltic screen star Rea Lest, who plays different heroines in each of the three chapters.
The first two episodes are excellent, each with the dramatic depth and bite of stand-alone full-length features. Sadly the third is a misshapen muddle, dragging down the overall quality. A marathon running time of 141 minutes, just a shade shorter than Star Wars: The Last Jedi, will also likely limit the film’s potential to play outside festivals and specialist outlets. But even with its flawed third act, The Manslayer/The Virgin/The Shadow is a beautifully crafted work whose strong performances, novelistic textures and painterly visuals deserve a wider audience beyond the Baltic region.
Dramatically uneven but visually stunning.
Opening story The Manslayer takes place in a purgatorial 19th-century backwater where pagan superstitions still have currency. Lest plays Maara, a rebellious peasant girl fighting to escape her tyrannical father Mito (Toomas Suuman), who has promised her in marriage to a grotesque middle-aged widower. Subdued by witchcraft, she grudgingly submits to the wedding even as her young sweetheart Saska (Jorgen Liik) crashes the ceremony, blind drunk and howling with rage.
This chapter has unavoidable echoes of Estonia’s latest Oscar submission, the gothic folklore fable November, which also co-stars Lest and Liik. But the mood here is less fantastical and more fatalistic, its bleakness elevated into gorgeous high art via a desaturated, blue-tinged, almost monochromatic palette.
The color scheme shifts for the next story, The Virgin, taking on the sepia-tinted look of vintage postcards. This time Lest plays Elina, a mineworker in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1949. As a member of the Ingrian ethnic minority from southern Finland, who were deemed politically suspicious under Stalin and deported to the Russian hinterlands, the virginal Elina is vulnerable to blackmail and sexual exploitation by callous co-workers.
Her kindly foreman Volli (Ain Lutsepp) offers protection by proposing a sexless sham marriage to his nephew Heino (Risto Vaidla). But jealous tongues and malicious gossips betray the newlyweds to the Communist authorities, forcing Elina to undergo a brutal test to prove she is no longer a virgin. Based on true events, this gripping excoriation of state-sponsored medical sadism is the strongest of the trio dramatically.
After two superlative acts, Keedus falters in the third. Set in the present and shot in more naturalistic tones, The Shadow again stars Lest as Luna Lee, an emotionally brittle drifter who encounters a Fellini-esque gallery of eccentrics on her travels, including a hip-hop-loving priest seeking to recreate the Garden of Eden with stuffed animals.
The writer-director brings back castmembers, subplots and visual motifs from the previous chapters to suggest an almost musical continuity, but the parallels feel tenuous and the plot disjointed. Most damningly, Lest’s wan heroine comes across like a minor player in this whimsical yarn, too passive and listless to register. Which may be the filmmaker’s intention, but it makes for an oddly anticlimactic finale.
If Keedus was aiming to loosely chronicle the fluctuating fortunes of women across 150 years of patriarchal history, that feminist subtext gets buried in the closing episode, which is a shame, but The Manslayer/The Virgin/The Shadow still scores highly as a feast for the senses.
Skilled at suggesting inner torment behind a placid facade, Lest’s quiet intensity and moon-faced magnetism serve these anguished characters well. A strikingly avant-garde score, by Latvian composer Martynas Bialobzeskis, amplifies her emotional dislocation with its discordant scrapes and doleful drones. Most of all, the cinematography of Erik Pollumaa and Ivar Taim is exquisite throughout, with a lyricism to rival Tarkovsky and chiaroscuro worthy of Caravaggio.
Production companies: F-Seitse, Era Film
Cast: Rea Lest, Jorgen Liik, Toomas Suuman, Ain Lutsepp, Risto Vaidla, Ullar Saaremae
Director-screenwriter: Sulev Keedus
Producers: Kaie-Ene Raak, Rasa Miskinyte
Cinematographers: Erik Pollumaa, Ivar Taim
Music: Martynas Bialobzeskis
Editor: Kaie-Ene Raak
Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
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