Film of the Week: Winter Song
All human life is present in Otar Iosseliani’s films—and a fair amount of animal life, too. In any given work of his you might find dogs, goats, cows, even the odd leopard, and in Farewell, Home Sweet Home (99), the undisputed star of the show was a highly unpredictable—and no doubt undirectable—marabou stork. His interest in this bestiary might lead you to think that Iosseliani has more patience with animals than with humans—and it’s true that the Paris-based Georgian veteran, now aged 82, is one of cinema’s great curmudgeons. I’ve seen him cause scowls at a London screening by complaining that young people no longer care about art—it was a predominantly young audience—and raise eyebrows in Cannes with a stunningly off-message onstage grumble about who gets to decide what is and isn’t real cinema. That latter address came across as all the more peevish considering that it was Iosseliani’s introduction to his least memorable recent film, Chantrapas (10), essentially an autobiographical comic lament on how true artists—the hero is a young Georgian artist—are bound to be misunderstood, whether by philistines in the East or in the West.
On screen, however, Iosseliani not only suffers fools a lot more gladly than in real life, he positively revels in the rich variety of human fallibility. His is not a compliant good humor, however. It can be savage, and deeply angry—which is certainly the case in his latest film, Winter Song, screening March 11 in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
It starts with a beheading, continues with the wartime rape of a civilian woman, and goes on to depict a world of robbery, gun-running, surveillance, forcible evictions, and general abuse of power. But you’ll have a good time. The film’s bottom line is, “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” but since it’s Iosseliani who’s creating and orchestrating these fools, he makes sure that they’re charming, in the best cases, and in the worst, at least entertaining.
Where Chantrapas was—unusually for Iosseliani’s latter-day films—focused on a central character, Winter Song is the sort of rambling, multi-stranded crazily populous ensemble frieze that he has specialized in since moving from Georgia to France for 1984’s Favorites of the Moon. It’s an entirely sui generis form, wholly Iosseliani’s own—although there are trace elements of Renoir, and at times echoes of Altman’s decentered cinema of the ’70s (Iosseliani outdoes Altman’s overlapping dialogue with the use of often inscrutable layered muttering), and at times it resembles less any familiar form of cinema than it does a sort of sprawling, melancholic circus performance.
Winter Song connects diverse historic moments, much as Iosseliani did in his extraordinary Brigands-Chapter VII (96), which gave us scenes of brutishness and skullduggery both medieval and modern, with the director’s dapperly bearded acteur-fétiche Amiran Amiranashvili appearing in both strands. Amiranashvili is also prominent in Winter Song, but the real connecting thread to this film is the figure played by a bald, bony French actor named Rufus, whom you may recognize from various Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies. Rufus first turns up in the opening episode, as an aristocrat beheaded during the French Revolution, who goes to his death with his pipe determinedly clamped in his mouth. It stays there even when his head is severed. This, Iosseliani seems to be saying, is authentic class. In what follows, a social panorama inhabited by aristos, bourgeois, and modern-day sans-culottes alike, the quality of true aristocracy for this director seems to reside in a general grace, elegance and ease, whether the person in question has a château roof over their head or just a sheet of yesterday’s Le Monde.
Winter Song then cuts to a war zone—in Eastern Europe, apparently—where soldiers sack, pillage, and burn before being cleansed of their sins in a river by an Orthodox priest. He’s also played by Rufus—and, under his holy robes, he turns out to be an officer too, tattooed torso and all. A younger soldier is then seen giving a bit of war-sacked jewelry to his girlfriend, with whom he shares a picnic. These two next appear on the streets of Paris, where the man is working as a majordomo and in-house spy to a large bald man (Mathias Jung) who’s listed in the credits as “the Prefect.” But I’m not entirely sure whether the bald man is always the same character whenever we see him (he appears variously in a silk dressing gown and some sort of military regalia), or whether his employee really is the young soldier—any more than Rufus is playing the same character when he appears in different guises through the ages, and across a single era. I’m fairly sure, though not 100 percent certain, that Rufus plays both a concierge in the contemporary Paris section, and a man who gets flattened by a steamroller in one of the film’s goofier gags. Identity is remarkably fluid here, possibly as a result of an extended joke in the film about the arbitrariness of movie casting and getting the maximum value out of versatile actors.
If it’s possible to sum up what follows, it runs something like this: Rufus plays the concierge of an apartment block that has clearly once been grand, but now is just one of those slightly shabby, cluttered Parisian buildings that proudly carries the signs of its history. Other residents include the concierge’s drinking buddy (Amiranashvili), an antiquarian who collects skulls and is currently remodeling one into a replica of his friend’s head; a man who repairs musical instruments, whose wife or girlfriend is extremely loud and extremely discontented; and the bald man, who uses various surveillance devices to keep an eye on everyone, including his daughter, a classical violinist (Fiona Monbet). Also passing through the building are a group of young people who roller-skate around the streets, robbing passersby (sometimes just of their hats); an underworld figure (played by Romany filmmaker Tony Gatlif) involved with the concierge in a dubious traffic, swapping firearms for literary first editions; and a down-at-heel baron, about to be evicted with his family from the crumbling pile they inhabit in the country. (The baron is played by Italian critic Enrico Ghezzi; having seen him around the festival circuit, I’ve long thought of him as “that guy who looks vaguely like Jean-Luc Godard.” Here, he doesn’t really.) Also involved intermittently is a man played by Mathieu Amalric, if only because it’s a long-standing tradition for Amalric to turn up briefly in Iosseliani films.
Characters come and go, crossing paths unexpectedly, and occasionally turn up in different combinations at the site of some event, catastrophic or celebratory. Evictions, whether of the formerly rich or the chronically poor, are a consistent marker of change in Iosseliani’s universe: here we see protests against the forcible closure of a homeless people’s camp (an especially telling spectacle following the clearance of the Calais refugee camp known as the “Jungle”), and the driving out of the Baron’s family because they can’t afford the maintenance on their castle (or the upkeep on their keep).
In this world, all is uncertainty and flux, but by way of balance, after a fashion, Iosseliani likes to stage social events where the grand and wealthy happily rub shoulders with the poor. Here we get a party held by an elderly grande dame, attended by a group of snooty dowagers as well as assorted habitués of the street—including a pavement vendor of medals, played by the veteran comic maestro Pierre Etaix (whose inimitably delicate gestures are surely the epitome of la classe, as celebrated by Iosseliani). It’s this party that culminates in the film’s most farcical sequence—although Iosseliani always treats farce with a kind of distracted finesse—as the concierge and the antiquarian, both old flames of the chatelaine giving the party, have a spat, before the Amiranashvili character gets beaten up in the woods by the dowagers.
There’s never a dull moment in Iosseliani’s world, and rarely any point at which the shift and twitch of events settles into any kind of stability. It’s a world in which traps often open up as if by magic under characters’ feet—late in the film, Iosseliani makes magnificent use of the old unseen-manhole routine. Occasionally, too, we witness a surreal, barely explicable magic. At one point, a hidden door opens up in a nondescript city wall, behind which the concierge discovers a lush garden, with parakeets and pelicans and an elegant woman who seems happy to see him: you’re reminded of that utopian slogan of Paris 1968, “Sous les pavés, la plage” (“Beneath the pavement, the beach!”). Typically for today, that paradise is lost here because of a mobile phone call.
It’s a world in which high and low not only interact, but at different times are one and the same—a carnivalesque world of total fluidity, typified by the character played by Iosseliani’s producer Martine Marignac (credited as la princesse-clocharde), at once an aristocrat and a hobo living out of dustbins. This is a world of permanent revolution, of universal mutability elevated to a cosmic principle that transcends the historical facts of specific revolutions, such as those that result in the slaughter of innocents or the decapitation of classy pipe-smokers. (It’s no coincidence that this part of the action takes place near a certain Metro station—where else but Bastille?)
It’s a world of horror and absurdity, where war is always being waged underneath the surface of civilization. But it also reveals a constant background hum, a sort of laconic joyousness in which the human folly and the melancholy of mortality are at least mitigated by friendship, drink, and the pleasures of close harmony singing, and the redemptive, civilizing poetry of a neatly executed sight gag. Iosseliani remains a master of a form that arguably only he practices these days, although Etaix was a past master in his day. It’s an almost forgotten cinematic art, but an unmistakably noble one: philosophical slapstick.