Thursday 10 June 2021

Streaming on MUBI - Janice Tong twice views MALMKROG (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2020)

Cristi Puiu directing the drawing room scene

How does one approach the problem of evil? 

Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog  is a filmic meditation on the Russian philosophical text Three Conversations by Vladimir Solovyov, published at the turn of the nineteenth century. I haven’t read the text in full. I didn’t mind the archaic language, it’s formal to a lovely degree, but without a good enough knowledge of Russian history and understanding of Christianity, or politics at that time, I found it tough to give it my full attention.

Malmkrog is a filmic response to the text. Puiu makes these conversations not only palatable, but completely absorbing. His aim (outlined in a press pack) was to render Solovyov’s text into cinematic form by paying due diligence to the tone and mood of the turn of the century; so the setting, the clothes and mise-en-scène had to be pitched just right to ‘house’ the narrators of this conversation. Puiu also said that he made decisions during the shoot that were ‘prophetic’, thereby paying respects to Solovyov, whose text was always regarded to have a prophetic nature - but the latter, is in the context of the text’s arc of the imminent arrival of evil. I think for me, what Puiu is saying is that he makes room for the fluidity of the moment, as every gesture, laughter, listening face, or gaze in the film has deep resonances and meaning - to choose one over another would be to invariably change our reading of the film.

The film shows many approaches to the problem of evil. They are oft conflicting and, problematically, they all seem to carry a natural truth with each argument. Tied to a belief system, the arguments presented here only go to show that morality isn’t an easy subject to foreground, on or off screen. But one that must be sought, discussed, argued for at the dinner table.

If you’ve read critics who called this film a ‘talkie’ or a ‘yakfest’, please don’t be put off. Very few times has cinema been so formally presented, and yet succeeds in delivering ideas that are so poignant and urgent for our times. And to achieve this through conversations- all the while, gracefully and skillfully acted, the players’ unstudied deliverance of these complex ideas lifts the film from its theatrical setting. Think about this, a Romanian film from a director who is well-known for initiating the Romanian New Wave movement in film, who writes and directs a 200 mins film based on a Russian philosophical/spiritual text from the 1900 whose dialogue is in French. The result is nothing short of spectacular.

I am envious of these actors who were able to immerse themselves in the dialogue - to really understand the meaning of these conversations so as to be able to present it convincingly on screen. The atmosphere is that of a theatre piece, but as it is cinema, we are also rewarded with the close-ups of their faces, the clever use of mirrors to glimpse others in another room, off-screen laughter and sounds, and non-diegetic inserts; all that plays to the cinematic form. 

Meet your interlocutors (L to R) Olga, Ingrida, 
Nikolai, Madeleine,' Edouard (absent Istvan)

The film starts with a snow-laden scene (above), with contrasting black trees and a person dressed in black (soon to be recognized as a young child) in the distance, walking. Perhaps the introduction of this child (whom we only get one other glimpse of throughout the entire film) is to signify innocence, but we do not know this for a fact. As we follow her back to the house (beckoned by a maidservant or her mother, again we don’t possess that knowledge) the camera pans with her to reveal a manor house, eerily painted in a kind of pale pink, the pallor perhaps of the human realm, flesh flushed with blood, before a herd of sheep enter the frame from the left and lumber across the screen, an amassing of nature filling up the blank canvas.

We are brought inside in mid-conversation. There is much colour and plushness all around, so much so that your eyes feast on the textures and fabrics of the costumes of the two figures in the foreground. We can hear others but they’re in the next room, these two draw your attention. As you are continuously in the act of deciphering and decoding the cinematic language presented in the mise-en-scène- you immediately think ‘aristocrats’. We are trained to use our eyes in cinema, before we tune in to the conversation, which by then, you realise that much has already been missed. Your ears need to be trained for this film, to be as skillful as your gaze in order to decipher and decode its language.

Here is the premise in a nutshell: Nikolai is a wealthy landowner, he has a number of guests staying at his large manor house from which these conversations are drawn. The conversations range from war and politics to Christianity, from death to good vs evil and the Antichrist - all hinging on society’s need for progress and its impact on morality - more specifically the moral decisions that individuals are forced to make on a daily basis. The problem being that we make these decisions implicitly based on our conditioning, social rank and belief systems.

Dinner table conversations (from left) Olga, maid,
Madeleine,' servant, nurse, Istvan, Edouard,
Ingrida and Nikolai

Puiu directs us through the expanse of a day, condensed here to a three hours 20 mins screen time. The scenes are little vignettes with the fade in of chapter names which are in turn based on each of the characters - Ingrida (the General’s wife), Edouard (a politician), Olga (the young Countess), István (the man-servant), Nikolai (the host and landowner), Madeleine (an aristocratic intellectual?). We are not given their ‘place’ or background so we have to work this out when we are watching. Puiu assumes we are interested and have the intellect and investedness to work it out. I must admit, I had to immediately watch the film a second time (for me, this film occupied 6 hours 40 mins) to be fully immersed in its ideas (unlike books when you are able to linger on a page and drift off into thought).

I will reveal (this is your spoiler alert) that there is one scene that I keep thinking about, it’s just after the group take tea in the drawing room. There was a lot of noise from another part of the house. Slightly concerned, and perhaps a little embarrassed, Nikolai rings for the servants to come - the counterpoint created by the tiny ringing sound of the small bell held by thumb and forefinger against the din and shouting in the background is comical. The guests move into the dining room to see maids and the cook running towards them before they are all shot and collapse to the floor. 

I don’t normally read other reviews before writing my own, but I did for this film, and found no mention of this (barring one review that raised it as an odd unresolved moment and pondered its significance). I found this intriguing as many of the critics did not recommend this film, complaining that it there was not enough action, with nothing to sustain our interest, when I thought the opposite was true. I thought about this scene and the one that followed - back in that snowscape, where the black dots of people are now paired and they walk arm in arm, in conversations still inaudible to us, away from us. I wondered whether perhaps they were black souls on a landscape, and like Sisyphus doomed to repeat his act for an eternity; for the guests, perhaps they were doomed to repeat these conversations, if so, then we need to look at Camus’ take on the Sisyphus myth - to break the cycle, we need revolution.

This single scene haunted me throughout the second part of the film. And perhaps my thoughts around that second part of the film, (where the conversations get more intense at the dinner table on the idea of impending evil) should be viewed with caution. I think if you take into context that the Antichrist announces itself as the face of the gentil, as the face of the wealthy, as the face of he who talks most convincingly; then of he who reveals himself in that way, we should be very wary. 

I found each character to be intriguing, their gestures and stance. A lot of the time they had their backs towards the camera. It’s important to note that Puiu chose to work with mostly theatrical actors for this film, and that is perhaps why you couldn’t recognise many of their faces, and yet, they’re unforgettable - they exuded a presence. 

Contemplating the world

István the man servant is played by a Romanian theatre actor István Téglás, who also participated in dance-theatre - his gestures are trained, sharp and precise; you are drawn to him even when he’s only in the background. Madeleine, the aristocratic intellectual (actually the press kit does not tell us who she is) is also brilliantly played by another theatre actor, the French actor Agathe Bosch, whom Puiu met more than ten years ago and asked her to make this film with him. Edouard (the politician) played by Ugo Broussot is a French actor who started his career in theatre. Frédéric Schulz-Richard plays Nikolai and was born in the South of France and studied philosophy before joining a Marseille theatre troupe. As he is bi-lingual, he also performed experimental work by von Stroheim in German in Berlin. Diana Sakalauskaitė is a Lithuanian actress who has lived in Paris for over 20 years and worked in theatres there. She met Puiu when she applied to attend one of his acting workshops in Paris and developed a great connection immediately; she plays Ingrida. And lastly Marina Palii as Olga, a native Romanian who speaks Polish and French is probably the one actor in this film who wasn’t strictly from a theatrical background. 

Nikolai walking away from the main group

Whilst it is not possible to repeat the conversations in Malmkrog here, I would like to end by borrowing French president Emmanuel Macron’s words (and the interpretation by an Australian economist Henri Ergas AO). This article that I’m borrowing from talks about the relevance of Macron’s speech, given on the bicentennial commemoration of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death, to what we’re experiencing today. Macron spoke at the Institut de France in Paris, the place where Napoleon was elected in 1797, addressing students of all ages. 

Macron said “To concede nothing to those who would erase the past because it does not suit their image of the present.” And I think - cancel culture erases and cleanses, the abyss of evil swallows up what is inconvenient, that which needs to be forgotten. Macron says: “You are not responsible for France’s past, or are you its guardians. It comes to you as an inheritance, without a testament attached. You may choose to love it; and so too you may choose to criticise it. But first of all, you must learnit. Facing it directly and as a whole...with a love of knowledge… resisting the temptation to judge yesterday by today.” Ergas comments, weaving in Macron’s (in single quotation marks) words this, which I quote in full: “This is the foremost duty ‘a free people’ owes its ancestors who secured the freedoms it enjoys - but it is also a free people’s greatest privilege, because it is only by ‘understanding its past’ that it can freely ‘forge its future’. And just as those who shred their map are condemned to lose their way, so those who abandon historical truth are condemned to forsake their liberty.”

The full piece can be found in The Australian newspaper 14th May 2021 in the Commentary section.

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