Since Otar Left (15)
This is a charming, affecting and beautifully acted film about three generations of women, a grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter. It is yet another interesting film from one of the “new” European states and has something in common in terms of its plotting with the “east” German film, “Goodbye Lenin”. Like that film, the “west” German film, “The Edukators”, and, in a very different register, the excellent Czech documentary “Presky Cem”, it is interested in the nature and value of lying. “Goodbye Lenin” affectionately shows how the the old DDR may have been a fantasy but it’s values were not all bad, whilst “Presky Cem” shows how the ideologies of consumerism are just as strong as those of communism, and fly, just as enthusiastically, in the face of the evidence.
“Since Otar Left” addresses the nature of lying in the intimate confines of a family but in the context of older generations that have accepted lies as part of the currency of their (communist) state. Bertucelli worked as a Director of Photography with the great Polish director, Krystof Kieslowski, on his Three Colours trilogy (as did the actress Julie Delphy who appears in “Before Sunset” later this season) and for a while there is something of his cool, apparently distanced, dispassionate style. Watch how skilfully she uses candlelight, window and door frames in the narrow confines of their flat to suggest the strength of each character, their enforced intimacy and their contradictory feelings for each other. Like Kieslowski, Bertucelli leaves gaps for us to fill. Are they ethnic Russians who live in Georgia? Were they a French family originally? Where was the husband killed? In Afghanistan or in the forgotten war in Chechnya? The characters feel real because the film is not ‘telling’ us about them, so they remain mysterious just like real people. Early in the film, the granddaughter is walking home. There is a car accident but she walks on by. No explanation, no more information, but the sense of the arbitrary and sudden nature of fate then hangs over the film.
Life seems precarious and the texture of everyday life in newly independent Georgia is also a key feature of the film. The electricity is intermittent. Trying to live up to the entrepreneurial ethic of capitalism means selling family heirlooms in dusty impromptu markets and doctors want cash on the nail to give their care. Eka remembers Stalin (a Georgian himself) fondly. But there is still fruit from the dacha, a sense of solidarity as they sing and dance together with their friends, and a curious comforting interplay between French and massage.
In scenes that seem emblematic of the emotional universe of the film, Ada massages the old woman’s feet every day. At the same time she reads to her in French. In expressing affection and devotion within the family they use French, as if Georgian is tainted by deceit and self-deception. It expresses, too, a sense of their superiority, their secretly belonging, not to the tawdry marginality of post communist Eastern Europe but to the cultured metropolis of Paris. The pretence pre-empts self-pity. And when given the chance to rise above it all, they do. Eka, left to her own devices, buys a couple of fags and literally rises above it, as you’ll see. The massage, in contrast, seems to me to express acceptance of each other as they really are, with all their aches and pains, their yearnings, their imperfections – if you like their “Georgianness”. Massage is literally about sparing someone pain.
The plot is shaped by the silences the characters choose to try to spare each other pain. And like those other subtle nuanced films coming out of the old Soviet bloc, it tells us that Communism may have been a lie but it was based on the comforting notions of equality, mutual forbearance and respect.
“for which of us seen in the light could bear such scrutiny?”
Julie Bertucelli | France/Belgium | 2003 | 103 minutes | 15