The sea is often portrayed as a violent force, a thrashing maelstrom that draws on nature’s unstoppable energies to lay waste to men and their craft, destroying homes and livelihoods in a constant, churning blue vastness. It is also, they say, a cruel mistress. Yet there is another aspect to the sea, one that is mentioned rarely in literature and in film, and that is loneliness. The tremendous and violent physical nature of the sea is often slowed down to the point of abject stillness and its existential aspects extend, emotionally, endlessly inwards, reducing all movement to longing.
It is this melancholic notion that first-time director Evangelina Kranioti relies on in her essay film Exotica, Erotica, Etc. It is a remarkably bleak yet beautiful story of the ability of time beyond all else to taint nostalgia, even of the loving kind, with the patina of longing reflected in the sea, however fondly remembered.
In 2005, Kranioti embarked on this project, travelling around the world, from port to port, immersing herself in the world of career container-ship sailors and the women in the various ports across the oceans who share with them their beds and their bodies. This is a catalogue of the desire to leave and the desire to stay, how that which is fundamentally surface relies for its solace on that which is very much of the underbelly. There’s an age old exchange of sex for money here, though, as we learn throughout this film, separating emotion from this transaction is far more easily said than done.
Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is narrated by Sandy, former Spanish prostitute and lover of sailors, all sailors, her sailors. Now aged, she looks back over her life of carnal exchange in a constant stream of passionate remembrance, delivering in her soliloquy a poetic and lamented tale of ships in the night and ports in storms. Yet for all her wistful recall, there isn’t really any regret here, for we get the impression that she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She is remarkably open about her life as a prostitute, and painfully honest about the affect the many sailors have had on her, physically and emotionally. She opens herself, lyrically and literally, in sharing the story of her life. It’s like watching an ageing actress look back over her life in the spotlight, passionately remembering her best close-ups and her all-too-brief flings with leading actors, all of whom she loved dearly.
This is what we hear from her. What we see is the effects of time, of a hastily covered lost glamour – indeed her twilight of thoughts seeps out into the rest of the film, as it settles on the very sea itself. Which we see a lot of. Most of the film is made up of fantastic static shots of enormous container ships, their crew tiny figures on this massive, inert steel landscape, still rocked by the sea, as they quietly go about their business, sweeping decks, hosing walls, looking out over the crashing waves or the cracking icy floes heading ever onwards towards yet another shore, yet another embrace.
It’s a great juxtaposition. As Sandy gives us her views on love, both physical and emotional, her words are given weight by the way Kranioti interprets them into images of work and the never-ending slide of day into night. And it’s at night where these two elements collide. Sailors at play in their lounges, whether with each other or with their ladies, brought on board in rocking dinghies, their high heels poking through the metal bars of the stairs as they head up on deck, only to head straight down beneath it. And the next day to head back to shore.
All of this melancholy would become too much were Kranioti not able to temper it with a sensuousness of image and sound that it is astonishing, and were Sandy not able to imbue her own sadness with a fondness for what once was that is heartbreaking, despite our knowledge of what it all implies. Everything Kranioti’s camera looks at becomes fetishized, whether it is the prow of a massive ship crashing through the waves, soaked in the swell of the foamy sea or the strangely visceral sight of brooms sweeping lapping water off the decks and into drains. Everything becomes an elucidation of Sandy’s longing to be back in the arms of one of her seamen. This culminates in a scene of vivid exposure, which is, I suppose, fitting given what Sandy has told us, but is still jarring and throws Sandy’s frail daydreams back into the real world – the world in which there are no more sailors clamouring for her attention. Or was it her for theirs?
Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is a good film, incredibly emotionally taught and beautifully shot, poetic in its choice of images and how they’re used, though its one-note tone may wear a bit thin as its message of lost love and overbearing distance weighs a bit heavy. It’s also a personal film, and though Kranioti travelled the seas in search of the images, it is Sandy who is the whole of the picture, and one which I’m not entirely convinced needs 73 minutes to be shown us. For a first film though, Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is a remarkable achievement, and one which contains more emotion and romantic thrust in a single frame than many others mange in two hours.
Exotica, Erotica, Etc. screens at the 59th BFI London Film Festival on the 11th and 13th October as part of the Journey strand.
Director: Evangelina Kranioti
Stars: Sandy, the sea