These two mysterious Eastern Europeans would make a fine double-feature. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy, a Cannes 2010 entry, reminds me a bit of The Saragossa Manuscript, or a less transparent Gomorrah. Ostensibly the tale of a trucker Georgy (Viktor Nemets) who gets drawn into the strange Russian underworld of mobsters, gypsies and corrupt cops, the film is vignette-style, moving between past and present, not in the form of expository flashbacks, but rather as thematically-relevant stories that ultimately fill out a bleak portrait of past and present Russia.
Nemets is fantastic as an idealistic trucker whose outlook becomes considerably more pessimistic after a number of somewhat random interactions and violent ordeals. Loznitsa’s direction is murky and difficult, though his handheld camera always finds a gorgeous frame. The cinematography is literally rather dark, and Loznitsa favors edits that don’t immediately reveal the when/where of things. Consider the following several shots.
In one of many vignettes, two soldiers ransack the home of a dead man, while the victim’s son looks on:
Loznitsa cuts to a wide-shot where, in one of the more heart-breaking shots of the film, the lone boy walks out and sits on the bench, waiting for his never-to-return father:
Loznitsa then cuts through time, to a very similar frame (both are also handheld), but now on a house in winter, and with indicators (the car) of a new time:
The first two shots are pretty basic stuff. The first frame there keeps the child front and center, and his action continues in the middle frame when he walks outside. It’s the cut from the second to the third image that calls for further examination.
Basic film teaching tells us that, to make a cut work, we edit either to a significantly different frame size (ie wide-shot to close-up) or change the camera angle by at least 30 degrees. Doing one and/or the other avoids the jumping kind of edit that is yielded in this example.
Loznitsa changes neither frame size nor angle as he jumps ahead in time. Is this the same house? I think so – the trees on frame-right and behind are the same, the basic structure is the same. It’s a very subtle, purely visual way to keep us in the same location but change times, without anyone saying as much. What’s the point?
Well here, Loznitsa seems to be giving a history to his locations. This is what happened before, this is what happens now. It’s kind of haunted-house logic.
Loznitsi does this over longer stretches of the film. Here’s a still from the first ten minutes:
And here’s one from the end:
That’s the same guy. And the same bulletin board frame-left. The point, whether taken in this extended “juxtaposition” or the immediate contrast as demonstrated before, is the downward spiral of inevitable violence.
Hukkle is a stronger film than My Joy, though both take a similar approach. Hukkle is perhaps even more obtuse. It’s mostly devoid of dialogue. On the surface level it appears to be a cross between Koyaanisqatsi and Playtime (one of my favorite films) in its emphasis on an exaggerated sound design, largely silent characters, visual gags, sprawling landscapes, and long dolly shots.
But upon further examination Hukkle is much more. In fact, it’s a murder mystery and meditation on the cycle of life, not unlike the more recent Le Quattro Volte (which I also compared with Tati when I blogged on it). It’s unpredictable in the direction it will take – fascinatingly so – and is possibly the most creative aurally designed film I can think of.
Check out this clip from the film, (‘hukkle’ means ‘hiccup’):
Those sounds – the bench shaking, the milk can rattling, the grain sifting, the incredible shot/sound of the crack in the ceiling at 1:04 – build and build and echo one another. The flower buds at 1:35 sound like the original hiccups. The distant jet is the wind in the trees. And so on.
And then that heart-stopping moment at 2:01. A use of slow-motion that Zack Snyder should be jealous of. The cycle of life, the inter-connectedness of everything – is momentarily interrupted by an absurd display of progress and power. All the prior sounds that created such a musical cacophony are drowned and gone for the time being and all we can do – contrary to much of the rest of the film – is watch.