More on the mostly-virtual, now-concluded New York Film Festival, Ed. 58, focus on the bad boys — Romania’s Cristi Puiu and France-by-way-of-Brooklyn’s Eugène Green — and the degree to which extracurricular behaviors taint an artist’s work. Separate creator from creation? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Each situation is different. It’s like my underwear…Depends.
Puiu’s rumored anti-LGBT right-wingery and his anti-mask rant during a COVID-19 restricted fest screening (though his words in context and his overall points seem slightly more nuanced) didn’t at all mitigate my enjoyment of the three-hour-plus Malmkrog, a rigor-mortised, yet perversely invigorating adaptation of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s forbiddingly titled War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ (1915). (Only a short story?)
Puiu makes hilarious comedies at which I never once laugh, and Malmkrog (English title: Manor House) is among his bleakest and blackest farces. Abstract: A bunch of Euro rich twits gather at an isolated mansion around the turn of the 19th-century. They argue about the state of the world, their afternoon-to-evening discourse stretching on and on, past the point of dying. The ultimate curse/the ultimate privilege: not even death can keep ’em from it. ‘It’ being a dense, in all senses of the term, confab that reinforces these cloistered characters’s of-the-moment anxieties and obstinate perspectives until mortality itself is transcended (or negated — depends on your POV).
Dread permeates every frame, though the subtle aesthetic shifts in Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s camerawork (sinuously tracking full-body shots early on; locked-down tableau in the middle; eerily isolating close-ups near the end) across each of the film’s six chapters keep the ambient angst at a low hum, even when the worst comes to pass. Despite its period setting, Malmkrog is very much applicable to the fraught Now. Though the affliction it’s diagnosing — the capital-F Fear of our capital-E End and the oft-cruel and callous ways in which each of us contrives to elude the inevitable — is eons-old.
Onto Eugène Green, a hirsute Albert Einstein-looking motherfucker with a paradoxical eye for silky male beauty. In the past, I’ve grooved with this U.S.-to-Euro expat’s mo-pics primarily for their fleshly pleasures; easy to be seduced by pretty young men declaiming directly into camera for two hours about matters of the (he)art. Yet Green’s recent assholery at the San Sebastian Film Festival (he was expelled after continually refusing to abide by COVID-19 preventative protocols) colored my viewing of his latest, the modern-dress Basque fable Atarrabi & Mikelats. Green’s idiotically defiant real-world shenanigans illuminated something I’ve long suspected about his artistic credo, namely that his sub-Rohmer resurrection of an antiquated aesthetic (the Baroque, in his case) is overall more poseurish than principled. Taking a stand is, for Green, more important than the ideas and aims undergirding his actions. He rises, inflexible, and now, finally, breaks.
The guys are gorgeous, of course. Real-life brothers Saia and Lukas Hiriart play the eponymous siblings, born of a goddess and a mortal and raised to maturity by the devil (Thierry Biscary). His Unholiness dresses in form-fitting crimson suits, adores rap music, and makes odiously sincere pronouncements like “We’re at the height of hipness here.” Mikelats eagerly partakes of all the underworld’s salacious delights, while the pious Atarrabi longs to escape this adoptive Inferno and its frat-house-meets-Medieval-Times ambience. (Though, really, where else can you have an impromptu musical bar brawl-cum-brodown presided over by a goat-headed demon who resembles The VVitch’s Black Phillip?)
Atarrabi’s I-want-to-break-free! hankerings lead to the loss of his shadow and his immortality. He takes refuge at a country monastery where the Father Superior (Pablo Lasa) and a local village girl (Ainara Leemans) aid him on the slow path to redemption and sanctification. Mikelats, meanwhile, becomes demonic heir apparent. Infernal Andy Samberg-esque sneer at the ready, he’s an enduring thorn in his virtuous brother’s side.
So it’s Good vs. Evil (pace Ecks vs. Sever). Yet beyond an affecting resurrection sequence that’s equal parts Bergman, Bresson and Dreyer and an absurdist aside with a Bigfoot-like creature who acts as Atarrabi’s guru and confessor, Green’s handling of godliness is dully dutiful, pro forma as opposed to impassioned. Defiance and depravity are more his speed, though those tend here toward “ain’t I stinker?” levels of provocation. Several of the female supporting characters are photographed like buxom wraiths out of an Argento giallo, and there’s a pair of shadowy demons who for some, gonna guess provincially phobic reason are clad in burkas.
Green would still do better to indulge his heathen instincts — in art, that is (he seems to have life covered just fine). As is, his philosophical inquiry in Atarrabi and Mikelats is feeble kin to the derisive decree of one Dark Helmet: “Now you see that Evil will always triumph because Good is dumb.”