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A review: “DAU. Natasha” [2020, Russia, Germany, Ukraine]

Rarely does one bump into a film with an ambiguous origin, uncertain of the exact time that the first seed of an idea was sown. While we might have encountered films made from ‘found-footage’ or other reality shows, nothing comes close to comparing the first of some thirteen films to be released this year under the mysterious ‘Dau Project’.

 

The Dau Project:
Natalia Berezhnaya in "Dau. Natasha" [2020]Directed by Ilya Khrzhanovskiy and Jekaterina Oertel, but largely attributed to the former, whose only known feature until recently was the remarkable 2004 film ‘4’ (Chetyre), the films are part of an astoundingly grand project, the likes of which have never been tried before at this scale. The project apparently had its genesis when the Russian entrepreneur Sergei Adoniev, impressed by Khrzhanovskiy’s debut film, invited him to make a biopic of the Nobel prize winning physicist Lev Landau. Landau (widely known as ‘Dau’) was instrumental in many Soviet scientific, technological, and military accomplishments during the cold war era.

A year into production, Khrzhanovskiy seems to have become more interested in the sprawling set than the film production itself and started an experiment with hundreds of ‘non-actors’ not only taking on the role of Soviet characters, but also ‘living’ them, as officers, scientists, caretakers etc., (some of whom were actually in those jobs during Soviet times), to effectively metamorphose the set into a fully functioning Soviet time capsule that changed according to specific timelines set in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. The project involved more than just film-making; it involved art installations, performance art pieces, and so on. The project obviously requires more space than this film review can allow, so I shall leave you with links to two discerning articles published in The Guardian and GQ for more information on this unique attempt.

Natalia Berezhnaya and Olga Shkabarnya in Dau. Natasha [2020]" width="300" height="169" class="alignleft size-medium wp-image-17054" /></a>“Dau. Natasha” is the first of a series of films that finally get to be released as part of the Dau project this year. Set in the fifties in a top secret Soviet scientific institute, the film centres around Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya), a middle-aged waitress at the institute’s canteen. She has Olya (Olga Shkabarnya) – a young woman from a hitherto higher station and means, as an understudy with whom she has an interesting love-hate relationship.

Natalia Berezhnaya and Olga Shkabarnya in "Dau. Natasha" [2020]While envious of Olya’s youth and carefree demeanour, Natasha is insecure about her future in a dead-end job and worried that she’ll neither get married nor have a steady boyfriend. Their characters are fleshed out in the opening scenes of the film where Natasha tries in vain to stamp her authority over Olya, but later sits down with her to get drunk with the canteen’s leftover champagne and vodka.

A scene from DAU. Natasha [2020, Russia]When a visiting French scientist Luc (Luc Bigé) drops in with his Soviet colleagues for lunch, the women become friendly and invite him to Olya’s house later in the evening for a private party of their own. The party leads to a drunk Luc and Natasha having sex, with the latter quietly satisfied that she’s still ‘desired’, notwithstanding the language barrier and clumsiness of their sexual encounter.

Vladimir Azhippo and Natalia Berezhnaya in "DAU. Natasha" [2020]The encounter however doesn’t go unnoticed by the all watchful military intelligence, and the later part of the film is focused entirely, in excruciating detail, of Natasha’s harrowing interrogation and humiliation by KGB General Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), who suspects that her dalliance with a foreign national might have given away some State secrets. The interrogation is done in between seemingly cordial drinks and meals in Azhippo’s office. Natasha emerges towards the end as someone more aware than ever of how the system works and oppresses the people, but with a determination to press on in the only way she knew – by bossing over Olya back at the canteen…

Natalia Berezhnaya in DAU. Natasha, 2020, RussiaThe film, shot in an austere style befitting a Dogme’95, is nevertheless very Russian in its interpretation. The attention to detail and period-specificity is astonishing if not obsessive – we truly are transported to the early fifties. It is all the more unnerving that these actors were more than merely ‘playing’ their parts, by behaving and responding uninhibitedly as the characters would’ve done during the period. One wonders if the interrogation scenes had some kind of safe word, in case an actor wants to come out of character and end their ordeal. It certainly didn’t look so. Nevertheless, the viewer is transfixed by goings on, and combined with adequate knowledge of the project’s context, is totally taken in by the overall authenticity on display. Which also explains why any analysis or critique of the film’s intentions would ultimately sound inadequate. Highly Recommended Viewing..!

 

Streaming Link

 

The Nudity: Natalia Berezhnaya, Luc Bigé, and Olga Shkabarnya
The film features scenes of explicit nudity, sex, and rape. The sex scene between Natasha and Luc is long, natural, and doesn’t appear to be simulated. There are two other scenes of Natasha and Olya in the bath. The controversial interrogation scene involves the General forcing a naked Natasha to drink cognac and sexually assaulting her with the same bottle, in pursuit of ‘national security’! While I’m aware that these things might have happened in other parts of the world as well, the banal manner in which the General goes about his business shocks us, with the sobering thought that extreme misogyny is still widely prevalent today.

Natalia Berezhnaya, Luc Bigé, and Olga Shkabarnya from the Russian drama, DAU. Natasha, 2020.

Natalia Berezhnaya, Luc Bigé, and Olga Shkabarnya from the Russian drama,
“DAU. Natasha”, 2020.

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Posted in Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, Russian Cinema, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Standing against odds: “Dylda” [2019, Russia]

Dylda aka Beanpole (2019, Russia)Not everyone has the calibre to use a colour palette of festive greens and reds to accentuate jaded decay. At barely twenty eight, young Russian director Kantemir Balagov achieves that and more in only his second feature, “Dylda” [Eng. Title: Beanpole], a complex drama dealing with the physical and psychological aftereffects of war. Here is a director to watch out for, for he seems determined to prove himself a worthy successor to greats such as Tarkovsky and Sokurov.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Andrey Bykov in "Beanpole" (2019, Russia)Set in a devastated Leningrad after its liberation from the long Nazi siege of the Second World War, the film focuses on two young decommissioned women returning to their city. Nicknamed Dylda for her tall and lanky appearance, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) works as a nurse in the city’s hospital treating mostly the war wounded. The hospital’s chief medical officer Nikolay (Andrey Bykov) also utilises Iya’s services to secretly ‘help’ patients beyond recovery or rehabilitation, with the consent of the concerned family member.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in "Dyla" aka "Beanpole" (2019, Russia)Iya suffers from sudden and infrequent paralysing seizures (post-concussion syndrome) as a result of her time at the war-front. When discharged from service, she offers to look after the toddler-son of her close friend and army colleague Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). The well loved and cared for toddler nevertheless dies accidentally in Iya’s arms during one of her seizures in a painful and yet beautifully constructed passage of play.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina in "Beanpole" aka "Dylda" (2019, Russia)When Masha learns of her son’s death upon her return to the city, her atypical response was to decide on going dancing with Iya and getting laid. Masha, it appears, intends to make another baby to make up for her loss. Sasha (Igor Shirokov ), the son of an important government official, woos Masha and even takes her to meet his parents, but his hopes are dashed by his mother after some plain talking over dinner.

Vasilisa Perelygina and Viktoria Miroshnichenko in "Dylda" (2019, Russia)When doctors rule out the possibility of Masha ever conceiving due to the number of abortions she’d had already, she takes advantage of Iya’s sense of guilt and feelings of latent love towards her, to demand that she bear a child on her behalf. She even chooses the ‘father’ for the endeavour – none other than Iya’s boss, the chief medical officer. But the film presents enough anecdotes to prove that the damaged characters may require more than just a child to mend their trauma and rebuild their lives after the war…

"Beanpole" aka "Dylda" (2019, Russia"The above barely touches on the plot’s outline; the film itself goes much deeper at every level to flesh out these characters and offer a nuanced understanding of pain and loss, and to affect sympathy for those caught in the crossfire of war and national pride. The film oozes original insight and talent, right from the exquisite set design to the costumes, characterisation, and cinematography. Balagov’s debut feature ‘Closeness’ was itself an artistic triumph, but this film surpasses it by many notches, not least for its period specificity. Where can he go next – wherever it is, it’ll certainly be worth following someone intent on exploring their art to the fullest. Highly Recommended Viewing..!

MUBI/Amazon Prime Link

 

The Nudity: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, and others
There are a couple of scenes featuring nudity, the substantial one of which is at a communal bath where Iya first notices the scar on Masha’s belly and Masha expresses her need to have a ‘human inside of her’.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, and others in Dylda aka Beanpole (2019, Russia)

Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, and others from the 2019 Russian drama,
“Dylda” aka “Beanpole”.

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A brief review: “Capri – Revolution” [2018, Italy]

Mario Martone’s drama “Capri – Revolution” looks back at a period in Capri just before the onset of the First World War, to tell a story of a young woman becoming an agent of change within the island’s conservative community.

Capri - Revolution, 2018, ItalyOne evening, while looking for one of her goats that wandered off, goatherd Lucia (Marianna Fontana) ends up on the other side of the ridge of her rocky island. When she finally catches up with the goat, she notices to her bewilderment a group of naked foreigners gazing reverently at the setting sun. She hurries back before anyone from her village could know she was there.

Donatella Finocchiaro and Marianna Fontana in Capri - Revolution [2018, Italy]After her ill father dies, her two brothers become head of the household and impose restrictions on Lucia’s freedoms, now that she’s no longer a young girl. Much to the surprise of their mum (Donatella Finocchiaro), they go as far as to choose a wealthier, albeit older groom for their sister. Lucia however, makes her displeasure at the proposal felt in no uncertain terms and openly rebels against the brothers.

Marianna Fontana, Reinout Scholten van Aschat in Capri-Revolution, 2018, ItalyDuring this time, Lucia also keeps frequenting the ridge to observe the naked foreigners from a distance. She soon encounters one of its charismatic members, Seybu (Reinout Scholten van Aschat), an artist and mystic, who happens to be the leader of the naturist collective made up largely of educated (and privileged) young northern Europeans.

A scene from Capri - Revolution, 2018, ItalyDespite being illiterate, Lucia is increasingly drawn towards the collective, who welcome her with open arms. They teach her how to read and before long, she flees home and the villagers’ constant taunts alluding to her ‘loose morals’ to live in the commune. But even in this seeming Utopia, frictions and factions with conflicting ideologies begin to appear, along with headwinds of a war that’ll change the island and its inhabitants’ lives for ever…

Mariana Fontana in Capri-Revolution [Italy, 2018]Martone’s film impeccably captures the beauty and simplicity of Capri and the people before its tourist invasion, and it breezes through the narrative without getting too much involved in characterisation. While it is quite appealing to watch beautiful young people in the nude enacting a Mattisse or Manet style art piece, the film does feel surprisingly lightweight on the whole, and it’s hard to take any of Sebu’s philosophical musings seriously. The film nevertheless collected a handful of awards in Italy and is easy on the eye and ears, deserving its Recommended Viewing tag.

 

Amazon Blu-ray Link

 

The Nudity: Marianna Fontana, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Jenna Thiam, Lola Klamroth, and others
The film features extensive scenes of frontal nudity from main and supporting cast, and is perhaps my reason for choosing to write about it, despite there being other films that have either moved or affected me more profoundly during my long (and still ongoing) hiatus. Save one sex scene shot from afar, the rest of the nudity in the film is of a liberating and romanticist kind most agreeable to thirstyrabbit. 😉

Marianna Fontana, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Jenna Thiam, Lola Klamroth, and others from the Italian drama, "Capri - Revolution" (2018).

Marianna Fontana, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Jenna Thiam, Lola Klamroth, and others from the Italian drama, “Capri – Revolution” (2018).

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A celebration of the female: “Las hijas del fuego” [Argentina 2018]

Las hijas del fuego (2018)Albertina Carri herself has gone on record for describing her latest film “Las hijas del fuego” [Eng. Title: Daughters of Fire] as feminist porn. But the ever so modest Carri has also packaged something extra in it, as the title suggests. It is an obvious reference to feminist angst, while also paying homage to the place where the (porn) road movie begins its journey – Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of Argentina, and a mere ‘hop’ away from Antarctica. Now that’s shooting porn in some style!

Mijal Katzowicz and Carolina Alamino_in Las hijas del fuego (2018)Agustina (Mijal Katzowicz), an aquatics athlete training in the tundra, is thrilled when her filmmaker-lover (Carolina Alamino) comes visiting. Together they decide to go on a road trip up north to stop Agustina’s mother (Cristina Banegas) from disposing off her dead dad’s old banger – well, it holds an emotional value for Agustina.

Wanda Rzonscinsky and Rocio Zuviria in Las hijas del fuego (2018)This is the premise, but in keeping with the diktats of feminist porn, their journey will turn into an estrogen-fuelled voyage of promiscuity and rebellious hedonism. Picking up like-minded women along the way, they will indulge in threesomes, partner-swaps, and generally ‘go with the flow’ as often and wherever they can, as is expected in porn films. They even have to exchange their stolen SUV for a camper van, for lack of room.

Las hijas del fuego (2018 Argentina)But unlike your average Internet-era porn, we get to feast our eyes on threesomes against a stunning Patagonian backdrop, and lesbian re-enactments of Armando Bo’s film-scenes in resplendent black and white. There’s also a lesbian threesome in a church-setting while Agustina watches and masturbates from the door; deviant porn indeed!

Erica Rivas and Wanda_Rzonscinsky in Las hijas del fuego [2018]The film features a grand sadomasochist-themed orgy mimicking what we might have seen in films elsewhere, the only difference being that this is organised by females, for females. Amidst their frolicking in the fiery tongues of unbridled sexuality, the girls find time to take on altruistic duties as well, like rescuing battered women from their horrible husbands, and showering love on women with low self-esteem; they truly become the daughters of fire. There in also lies Ms, Carri’s message.

Mijal Katzowicz, Carolina Alamino and Rocio Zuviria in Daughters of Fire [2018, Argentina]It’s interesting to see Ms. Carri join a growing list of auteurs, from Gaspar Noé to Lars von Trier, dabble in porn-making just because they can. But her film is different from the others in that not all her protagonists conform to mainstream ideals, specifically male ideals of beauty and desirability. The dolly-mixture cast come in all shapes and sizes, and also include established mainstream actresses, albeit in non-sexual roles (Sofía Gala, Erica Rivas, and Cristina Banegas). Ms. Carri certainly believes that there is no difference between women despite appearances; that they are all truly beautiful and sexually desirable. She urges women (and probably men) to challenge male constructs, so who can argue with that. And yes, this isn’t exactly porn, it is rather a celebration of the female, and definitely Recommended Viewing..!

 

No DVD-Link (yet)
Not sure if it was screened in MUBI at some point, but will update this part when more information becomes available.

 

The Nudity: Mijal Katzowicz, Carolina Alamino, Rocío Zuviría, Wanda Rzonscinsky, María Eugenia Marcet, Ivanna Colona Olsen, Carla Morales Ríos, and others
The film features intermittent sex scenes of an explicit or kinky nature, and all the main cast perform non-simulated sex. There are BDSM-themed scenes, and one even suggesting female ejaculation (probably for the first time in any non-porn film). The alpine-meadow sex scene reminds one of German sex-comedies from the seventies, but the pièce de résistance is certainly the in-your-face masturbation, shot in real-time, as the group of revellers in the background gradually thin away. This long scene is the film’s closing shot, suggesting in auteur-terms perhaps, that she is the female voyeur as well as the participant. Hurrah to self-love!

Mijal Katzowicz, Carolina Alamino, Rocío Zuviría, María Eugenia Marcet and others nude in "Las hijas del fuego" aka "Daughters of Fire" (2018, Argentina)

Mijal Katzowicz, Carolina Alamino, Rocío Zuviría, and María Eugenia Marcet from Albertina Carri’s
“Las hijas del fuego” aka “Daughters of Fire” [2018, Argentina]

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Should artists stay above politics? “Werk ohne Autor” [2018 Germany]

Lars Eidenger in Werk ohne Autor (2018)Though this is not the central theme, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in his Oscar-nominated semi-biographical epic “Werk ohne Autor” [Eng. Title: Never Look Away], poses a rarely discussed question; Are artists – as liberators, revolutionaries, and thinkers, letting themselves down by endorsing one or the other political party? The argument, as expounded by the art movement in the Düsseldorf Art Academy of the 60’s, assumed that artists cease being revolutionaries the moment they try to answer the questions that their own art raises. These days, many dismiss the thought as elitist and often root for a particular party that they consider the lesser of the evils, while some go all the way to establish their own political party. It’s an interesting thought nevertheless, one that will shape the art and work of the film’s protagonist Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling), whose character was inspired by the life of one of modern Germany’s celebrated painters, Gerhard Richter.

Saskia Rosendahl in Never Look Away (2018, Germany)Young Kurt lives with his parents and his mother’s extended family in a middle class household near Dresden. He has a close relationship with his beautiful teenage aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), who would sometimes take him to modern art galleries, or stop by the bus station to listen to buses blaring their horns in unison when requested; little Kurt and Elisabeth were close friends who shared their thoughts and secrets.

Saskia Rosendahl in Never Look Away (2018, Germany)Unfortunately for Kurt, he’s also growing up in 1930’s Germany after the Nazi’s took power, and whose presence and ideology were fast infecting all aspects of life. Their Eugenics-supporting family doctor and Nazi member forcibly removes Elisabeth from the family home after falsely attributing her eccentricity and creativity to schizophrenia.

Saskia Rosendahl and Sebastian Koch in Never Look Away (2018, Germany)Elisabeth languishes in a mental institution bereft of any legal recourse, and thanks to another evil Nazi Medical Officer, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), is sent to the gas chambers during the last days of World War II. Kurt’s father is forced to join the Nazi party in order to keep his teaching job, a move that’ll hinder his prospects for the rest of his life.

Tom Schilling and Paula Beer in Never Look Away (2018 Germany)Kurt’s life changes after ending up in the Communist Eastern side following Germany’s postwar partition. As an art student, he finds the Communist approach to art not too dissimilar to that of the Nazis. He however falls in love with Ellie (Paula Beer), a fashion design student at the academy, who bore a striking resemblance to his beloved late aunt ElisabethEllie’s father, none other than Professor Carl Seeband himself, had cleverly managed to evade the War Crimes Tribunal and also found for himself an important position within the Communist establishment. But Kurt is unaware of Seeband’s role in Aunt Elisabeth’s tragic fate, and neither it seems, is Seeband aware of Kurt’s relationship to Elisabeth.

Tom Schilling in Never Look Away [2018 Germany]Kurt and Ellie get married and defect to West Germany just before the Berlin wall goes up. Determined to pursue art in Düsseldorf, Germany’s most avant-garde academy, Kurt finds himself creatively challenged by professors and peers alike. The fertile environment, not least his father-in-law’s overbearing put-downs, enable him to evolve his own style and eventually discover himself…

Tom Schilling in Never Look Away (2018 Germany)After exploding onto the world of cinema with a BAFTA and Academy Award in his magnificent debut feature ‘The Lives of Others’, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck returns to form with a beautifully scripted and ‘complete’ film. At over three hours, it is epic in its scope, but it has its audience engaged all the way through, to the extent that one might even be inclined to endure another hour of this saga without losing interest. Adapting freely from Gerhard Richter’s life story, von Donnersmarck nevertheless stays true to essential facts and details (including the staircase portrait), and gives it a life of its own. The cinematography, production design, casting, and script is award-worthy, with notable performances from the main cast. The only jarring note I felt was the Hollywood-style music score which was unnecessary for a film of such substance (perhaps it has something to do with the Walt Disney connection). And for a pleasant change, one finds the English title for the film being much more apt than the original German title. Needless to say, this gem is Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon.de DVD Link [PAL] | Amazon.de Blu-ray Link

 

The Nudity: Saskia Rosendahl, Paula Beer, Tom Schilling, Eva Maria Jost, and others
The film features some of the most delightful nude scenes seen in cinema after a long time. A sweeping statement this might be, but here’s my explanation; the scenes are liberating rather than exploitative, and they’re unapologetic about depicting it in a matter-of-fact manner. They give an artist’s point of view, and more importantly, they don’t pander to trendy nonsense such as the so-called concern regarding the ‘male gaze’ – this is after all a film about an artist who actually painted nudes as part of his art, and as the title suggests, never shied away from looking. Coincidentally, some of the scenes do remind you of Eliseo Subiela’s similarly titled ‘Don’t Look Down’. There are at least eight noteworthy scenes in the film, of which four feature frontal nudity.

Saskia Rosendahl, Paula Beer, Tom Schilling, Eva Maria Jost and others in "Werk ohne Autor" (2018, Germany)

Saskia Rosendahl, Paula Beer, Tom Schilling and others from the German epic, “Werk ohne Autor” aka “Never Look Away”, 2018.

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