Into the maelstrom of Russian road travel without a compass
The Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa has produced a frustrating first feature in My Joy, a film that joins together a series of mostly violent and increasingly repugnant anecdotes he was told during a decade of wandering the Russian provinces making his documentaries. When you have seen this film, you will cross visiting Russia forever off your “to-do” list. The trouble is, Loznitsa doesn’t abandon narrative — a sacrifice that can work very well when a filmmaker knows how to spin out visual poetry. He simply violates all the rules of narrative, which is quite another thing.
Mike D’Angelo at AV Club writes of My Joy: “For about an hour I was sure I was witnessing an exciting new talent, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell was going on. Following a nondescript truck driver en route to deliver a load of flour, My Joy (WARNING: titular irony) initially has an engaging shaggy-dog quality, as the trucker’s encounters with folks along the road — an elderly hitchhiker, a scarily young hooker — spin off into unrelated mini-narratives of their own… About an hour in, however, the film goes well beyond discursive and becomes almost completely random, abandoning the trucker entirely (in a startling way) and flitting around without even that vague semblance of a narrative skeleton.”
Actually, the opening shots do not bode well because they show clumsy editing, a series of images of unappetizing landscapes and a work site drainage ditch in which a body is dumped, then covered with cement. A hand on the body has what looks like a Russian Mafia tattoo on it. Fine. A story to be revealed later? But later there are so many bodies, and this one could be any of them. The young trucker D’Angelo speaks of — Georgy (Viktor Nemets) — could be and at first is the connecting thread, obviously. His unsolicited “elderly hitchhiker” (Vladimir Golovin) — is indeed elderly, since the anecdote he tells is of World War II. In it, the teller is an army officer stopped by police in a station. They take him aside, entertain him with tales of the loot they’ve collected, let him go — and then stop him again. They seize his suitcase. The revenge he quickly takes makes him into a fugitive. He admits “losing” his name, and his fiancee.
Fine. Ugly, violent, but fine. And intriguing enough is the truck driver’s detour, when the highway is blocked by an accident, led by a teenage prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) to a village. The camera wanders magically among the crowd in the center square, exploring a series of faces that could be by Paul Strand, had he visited contemporary Ukraine. Eventually the driver gets stuck in a field, where a trio out of Beckett coax him out of his cabin — and, after serving him some baked potatoes, bash him on the head.
Here is where Loznitsa stops playing by the rules of story-telling, because the next morning we wake up back in World War II watching two figures crawling in the grass. No link, no explanation. Okay, the elderly hitchhiker, at a moment in time somewhere after his previous story, is one of the figures. But there is no logic. And from there on the people and incidents just get uglier and more incomprehensible. There was trouble even back in the village, because when the camera abandoned the truck driver one had the feeling that he was the film’s only anchor, and that without him one would be lost. And it was finally true: lost one was, abandoned by Loznitsa, and very eager to get out of there.
One or two writers when this film showed at Cannes described it as a horror movie; others called Loznitsa an “original director with strong potential.” Probably the secret to the film’s festival success is that it’s so unpleasant it leaves an impression. Its disjointedness is intellectually stimulating in one way: My Joy is a puzzler. Eventually one may figure out who all the people are, and though the rules of narrative have been broken, and the oscillation back and forth between eras causes much confusion, the puzzle can be solved. But so what? The events depicted have no redeeming social value. They have no meaning (other than that one should stay away from the Russian provinces) . But film buffs like being “challenged,” even if the challenge is not rewarding. My Joy evokes little emotion, only repulsion. If that is “promising,” it promises only further repulsion.
“A devastating critique of Russian society”? Well, not quite. It’s a devastating representation of Russian society, a totally negative one. To be a critique it needs to recognize and show positive aspects of the country and show us why they aren’t adequate compensation for the bad stuff.
My Joy is, nonetheless, the work of an experienced filmmaker who has found convincing actors for every role (though their meanness or violence sometimes almost defy belief), seamlessly blending actors with non-professionals so that rather than horror or fantasy the scenes feel quite realistic, and the steady widescreen cinematography of of Moldovian d.p. Oleg Mutu (who has done some of the new Romanian films, including The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) maintains the realism and provides a pleasing clarity in the landscapes. If Loznitsa would settle down and not try to film every horrifying true story he’s been told but just one good one, he might make a more satisfying feature.
Seen and reviewed at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, September 2010. Also shown at Cannes where at least one critic thought it “an outside bet for the Palme d’Or.” Other festivals, including Melbourne and Hamburg.
DIRECTOR: SERGEI LOZNITSA
WRITER: SERGEI LOZNITSA
CAST: VLAD IVANOV, VIKTOR NEMETS, OLGA SHUVALOVA