In Sergey Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan, Godard’s proverbial “girl and a gun” becomes “girl and a yurt.” The setup: antihero Asa, after a mandatory Kazakh military stint, returns to the home of his nomad brother-in-law, an outpost conveniently located in the utter void of the aptly named Hunger Steppe. Asa will not become a full-fledged shepherd until he has a wife, and the only potential candidate would be Tulpan, the girl in the yurt-next-door—if “next door” means “within a five-mile radius.” Asa never sees Tulpan’s face—nor does the audience—and glimpses the rest of her so fleetingly she’s ostensibly a desert mirage. The background: Asa and his extended family tend to a hardscrabble herd of sheep afflicted with an unspecified disease. The animal ambience—a supporting cast of wailing camels, braying donkeys, and barking dogs—fills the air with Old Testament cacophony. For scenic variety, the location is periodically plagued by sandstorm tornados.
Rare is the film that captures a landscape and way of life with such veracity, intensity, and poetic empathy. If you can imagine a Kazakh-desert version of the Antarctic substation in John Carpenter’s The Thing, you’d be in the right ballpark. But in addition to the brutality of Tulpan’s environment, and its merciless impress on the inhabitants, the film succeeds foremost, most surprisingly, as comedy. The trials and tribulations of Asa are worthy of Samuel Beckett.